Saturday, January 17, 2009

The 60th Legislative Session: Week One

I recall that when I traveled to Ecuador in 1993, as a recent college grad and a volunteer with the WorldTeach program, the first two months of my year-long sojourn were mentally and physically exhausting. The change in climate, food, water, and air was trying on the body. Meanwhile, my brain was working overtime trying to process and make sense of new customs, people, language, and circumstances. I remember returning exhausted to my host family's home, eating dinner, and hitting the hay by 8:00.

My first week in the Legislature has conjured up similar feelings. Though I no longer have the luxury of going to bed early, I feel the same sort of exhaustion--not from anything particularly demanding but just the newness of a culture I had previously visited but not really inhabited.

Some things that will take some getting used to:
1) Mail: I can walk by my mailbox every hour of the day and pick up my mail and there'll always be something new in there. Letters of introduction from agency heads and others, constituent letters, and many, many invitations
2) Invitations: Legislators are invited to breakfasts, receptions, lunches, and dinners. I attended no less than nine of these events, this week--from Midwives, Boise Metro Chamber, Idaho Education Association to IACI/Gov. Otter, BSU, Consumer Owned Utilities, and the Intermountain Forest Association. This means many more calories than I normal take in. For now, it's also an opportunity to build relationships in a context that is less formal than the Legislature. As time goes on, I'll be more selective, in terms of which ones I attend and what I eat.
3) Reading: While I generally try to read a lot from a variety of sources, this job takes my reading list to new heights (literally). Policy papers, RSs, budgets, administrative rules, constituent communications. I understand it'll get worse, not better. I want to read it all but I know I can't. Many states have legislative staffers. In Idaho, we have "legislative advisors" (aka lobbyists).

My committee assignments are Business and Environment/Energy/Technology. I wanted a seat on the Education Committee, but being the "juniorest" member of the Democratic caucus, such was not to be (though I did attend an interesting Joint Education Committee meeting earlier this week).

Here are some things I'm thinking about and looking to work on (or against):
1) Ground Water Quality Exemption for Mining: Yes, it is as bad as it sounds. Because this is an administrative rule proposed by the DEQ (see page 286), it will be difficult to stop. Both the House and Senate would need to vote to reject the rule, which is pretty uncommon. And legislators don't have the ability to revise the rule--only accept or reject it. If you're concerned about groundwater and public health, I suggest you write or call the members of the Environment, Energy, and Technology Committee and ask them to reject this rule.
2) Protecting our Children: The time has come for Idaho to pass a sensible set of rules and regulations for daycare/preschool operators, which include background checks for workers, fire safety standards, and CPR training, to name a few. Rep. George Sayler (D-Coeur d'Alene) and Sen. Tim Corder (R-Mtn. Home) are working on this bill and I will be looking to assist them, as well as lend my own insights as a preschool owner who deals with the section of Boise Code that regulates such facilities within the city limits.
3) Alternative Energy: Rep. Wendy Jaquet (D-Ketchum) and I are working on legislation that will provide incentives to those looking to generate power from alternative energy sources such as solar, biomass, cogeneration, and landfill gas (geothermal and wind are already covered by such legislation.

Of course, the focus of all legislators this session will be the budget. The situation is dire. I believe, though I don't wish this to be the case, that no budget or agency will be immune to the cuts. Revenue estimates vary widely but even the best case scenario is a sharp decline from the initial FY09 projections (which continue to be revised with each month of falling tax collections).

I'll talk more about this in a subsequent post but I believe our Democratic caucus has it right in laying out priorities: people over potholes. I said during my campaign that investments in infrastructure would be wise and I still believe that to be true; however, this is not the time to ask people to fork over their money for asphalt. Our children's education is being threatened by massive cuts to the K-12 budget. People who go hungry or who lack access to healthcare are being pinched even more in this economic climate. People with disabilities are threatened with the loss of critical services that allow them to live with dignity. People will find that the cost of higher education is out of reach and will thus lack the training and preparation needed to succeed and thrive in a rebounding economy.

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