The day that the Idaho House of Representatives returned from its own three-day adjournment basically ended with a bad joke.
Rep. Ken Roberts, the House majority caucus chair, rose to a small lectern and said, "I know how they felt when they launched Microsoft and it failed, I guess."
No one in the room—mostly press, two-dozen pissed off lawmakers and the handful of lobbyists still interested in the legislative process—laughed. No one knew what he was talking about.
It is not clear anymore what our elected officials are talking about. Or if they are talking at all. Two days after the April 29 House adjournment, Gov. C. L. "Butch" Otter held another press conference to talk about swine flu, which he dutifully called H1N1 flu virus, to sign the public schools, transportation and stimulus spending bills, and to share a new compromise plan for additional road funding.
The details of the plan really don't matter (he called it three and three with delayed implementation) because Otter was compromising with himself. He urged House members to come back on Monday and give him something anyway.
"I understand how tough it is and that's why I continue to lower the bar," Otter said, backed by four members of the Senate.
Lower the bar indeed.
Otter restated his case, or re-re-stated it, that the Idaho Transportation Department needs stable and predictable funding (apparently they no longer need funding, just promises of funding two years out) and then he dropped some unscientific information about April tax receipts not being as bad as predicted.
The House came back on Monday, ignored the governor's proposal and held a presser of its own to demonstrate that revenue projections continue to decline, despite Otter's spin on April numbers, and that ITD is getting plenty of money.
"We have basically completed our work," Speaker of the House Lawrence Denney said.
What's left to ask the guy? The press at the press conference did not really have much to ask without sounding like a broken record. A few reporters tried to ask in a nice way if the House leaders were just being assholes.
But Roberts indicated that the people of Idaho, including a college buddy of his whom he had not heard from in 10 years, are on their side in opposing a gas tax increase.
This really is the most important question: What does the public want?
Otter continually goes back to his summer road show, where he traveled across the state selling his transportation plan. About a year ago, the Idaho Associated General Contractors ran a poll that found that a majority of Idahoans want better roads, with 58 percent of respondents favoring an increase in vehicle registration fees while only 11 percent wanted a gas tax hike.
Idaho AGC provided Unda' the Rotunda with a portion of the poll last year.
Last week, the Governor's Office told Unda' the Rotunda that no further polling had been done on the issue but that a majority of lawmakers—including House Republican leaders—acknowledge a need for more funding for roads.
Otter spokesman Jon Hanian said, again, that the people of Idaho want better roads.
"The overwhelming majority say, 'We want safe and reliable roads. Give them to us,'" Hanian said.
But if you were standing outside the Capitol Annex the day the House returned from its three-day hiatus, you would not have heard that.
About 70 people of Idaho gathered on the steps of the Annex to protest taxes. They were organized by the Boise Tea Party, the same group that held a large protest march on Tax Day.
And as Associated Press reporter John Miller pointed out in a story, many of the Tea Partyers are affiliated with the same group of conservative Republicans and Ron Paul supporters who ousted Idaho GOP Chairman Kirk Sullivan last year, against Otter's wishes.
After the House Republican press conference, Rep. Raul Labrador, a Republican from Eagle who spoke at the Tea Party rally, showed us a series of e-mails that had arrived over the weekend, mostly opposing a gas tax increase and congratulating him for standing up to the governor.
House Democrats, including Bill Killen, the minority caucus chair, said many of the e-mails came from Tea Party activists, who were encouraged to e-mail their legislators.
Labrador went on to criticize the governor recalling that Otter told him as a freshman lawmaker to follow the Constitution, his conscience and his constituents.
"He's asking us to violate all three," Labrador said. "We're proposing things that the old Butch Otter would have agreed with."
Labrador and others from his class of young, church-going, mainly western Treasure Valley House members who all sit in the upper chamber of the House and call themselves the back benchers, generally lined up against Otter and Sullivan at the 2008 GOP convention as well.
But they also aligned themselves with Bill Sali, who was ousted from his U.S. House seat by a Democrat and who is now aligning himself with the Tea Baggers, er, Partyers. One Otter supporter suggested that Sali's loss could show that the Idaho public has not in fact moved to the fringe of the Republican Party, even as the Legislature has.
But that's just politics. What matters are the policies, and in that arena, House Republicans have also ruled the day.
Notice that not only has the road funding dollar figure decreased to a pittance, but that public transit and local option taxing are not even part of the discussion. Notice too that House conservatives are still able to bargain for things like election consolidation, which standardizes election dates across the state, and their version of school reform, without any compromising on their part.
Legislative Democrats, by the way, are not sure whether to laugh or cry. They've taken to calling the Annex "Dysfunction Junction," and as Boise Sen. Elliot Werk wrote in an e-mail to his constituents: "Unfortunately the people of this great state need to sit through the melodrama and wait for their fate (and the fate of their children) to be written in the backrooms."
We are composing this final Unda' the Rotunda column of the year on Cinco de Mayo. To us, the 2009 legislative session is dead. Let the legislators go home, spend their federal stimulus dollars and see what happens between now and December.
Meanwhile, we'll be grabbing some cigars and cognac and standing over the map table in the backroom of BW HQ.