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Springing laws

From intrigue to boring in six years

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On the final day of the 2003 Idaho Legislative session, Gov. Dirk Kempthorne made an impromptu stop at the press pit in the basement of the old Statehouse. He presented the entire Capitol press corps with Army-green T-shirts reading, "I was embedded with the 57th Idaho Legislature."

That session, still the longest in state history, featured intense protests from the education sector, a lame debate on tort reform and ended with a penny increase in the sales tax.

Kempthorne didn't get everything he wanted, but he managed to save face and drive a hard bargain. More importantly, he was fairly clear, in his own obfuscating manner, as to what he was trying to do. Clear with the press and, by extension, the public.

We reveled in attempting to figure out his next move and their next move. It was like the proverbial and cliched game of chess—what would Kempthorne veto? Which lawmakers were headed to his office? Who was the real conservative?

That was the first legislative session I covered. This year, I have not spent every waking moment at the Capitol Annex trying to figure out the end game. In fact, I haven't been there for a week.

There are several reasons that the intrigue of 2003 is not there.

One may be geography. In 2003, a reporter could run down a flight of stairs to see who was at the Governor's Office. This year, because the Statehouse is under construction, it's a two block jaunt and then up a few flights of stairs.

If Gov. C. L. "Butch" Otter is meeting with legislators—and House and Senate leaders from both parties have indicated he is—it's not clear when or where.

These meetings should be more transparent, with both leadership and the governor explaining what they are looking for and then making statements when they emerge. Otherwise, the meetings may as well not have happened.

It's the old tree falling in the wilderness thing; even the non-leaders in the Legislature are unaware of any negotiations that may have occurred.

The second reason the intrigue is absent is that interest groups are either sitting tight or so beaten down by the economy that they have not shown up.

There was a brief flare up of interest when the process for accessing federal stimulus funds was announced. But it quickly became clear there were not enough of those to go around.

In 2003, there was decent debate over the fairness of sales tax as compared to other types of taxes and righteous indignation from teachers over perceived cuts to education matched by slightly less righteous mathematics from the governor arguing that there were no cuts to education.

The major issue for the 2009 session—road funding—has not drawn out a large constituency demanding better roads. Some CEOs of leading Idaho companies showed up early in the session to advocate for better infrastructure but that was a far cry from a popular uprising.

Thirdly—and this could just be me—Idaho politics, at the state level, have just become too predictable and, well, boring.

At the federal level, there is some intrigue. Sen. Jim Risch is in Morocco and Egypt and Iraq, running around in a pith helmet. Sen. Mike Crapo finally got his Owyhee's bill passed, with no shortage of legislative muscle. And who knows what Rep. Walt Minnick is going to do next?

Perhaps Unda' the Rotunda should set up shop in Washington, D.C., next year for a breath of fresh air.

But in Idaho, law making sounds so much like a broken record. I don't know how the veterans keep it fresh—Dan Popkey at the Idaho Statesman and Betsy Russell at the Spokesman Review have been writing these stories for so many years. And the ancient lobbyists who come year after year—at least they get paid to try to change things, to try something new. When they are not being paid to maintain the status quo, that is.

Here is the outline of a typical Idaho legislative session that I carry in my head.

December: Budget committee chairs predict it's going to be a tight year.

January: Revenue is tight. Let us pray.

February: It's a good time to really take a look at how these agencies spend money.

March: Since we're just kicking the tires anyway, let's run some moralistic bills to test our colleagues' faith and impose our will on the citizens.

April: Oh shit, it's April. We better figure out how to end this.

And yes, now we are in April and they are trying to figure out how to end it. Otter needs something to call his own, but I can't see where he'll get it. The House has denied him new money for road building several times now.

Which brings me to the final reason I'm over being overly concerned about every nuance of state politics. And it's the most Idaho of all the reasons.

Spring is in the air. My time (and theirs) is better spent tilling the earth, putting in a good crop of potatoes, pruning out the fruit trees, sharpening my broadheads and cleaning my gun, getting my bike tuned up and my legs in shape and taking my babies out to the park.

Or sitting out on one of the patios on Eighth Street, the Statehouse construction fencing just out of view, and enjoying an evening brewski as the lobbyists shuffle back to their near-Statehouse offices, sometimes stopping for a drink themselves.

Self-sufficiency, my friends, goes both ways. Whether stymied by an excess of governing—as Fox News has taken to whining about—or a lack of governing, as Unda' the Rotunda frequently asserts, the answer lies in self-sufficiency and the ability to enjoy a spring evening in Boise free of thoughts about tax policy or Latin terminology or budget priorities.

I'm not alone in feeling this way. Just ask anyone on Eighth Street tonight how much wonk is in their tumbler.

Or check the tagline on the Capitol Correspondents Association Sine Die party this week: "Pizza, revelry and commiseration."