Progress Seasoned With Embarassment 

The recipe for the final days of the 2006 session

As he stalked from the Senate chambers last Friday, toward yet another legislative weekend, Sen. Tom Gannon of Buhl shook his head.

"What we must look like in the eyes of the public ... it's embarrassing," he said.

Gannon, like others in the Statehouse, was reeling over the display by Rep. Bill Sali, during a debate in the House over abortion. The story is well-known by now, wherein Sali further cemented his image as a careless ideologue by haranguing House Minority Wendy Jaquet with anti-abortion rhetoric. The bill--an attempt to legislate further blocks on abortion rights--easily passed in the Republican-dominated House, but Sali's tirades so perturbed House Speaker Bruce Newcomb that he told Sali to can it. Sali acquiesced, for about 10 seconds. When he got back on his soapbox, Jaquet walked out, followed by her entire caucus.

But Gannon may well have been flabbergasted by a Legislature that has taken three months of time to chase its tail on critical state issues, meanwhile getting bogged down with fits of attempted social policymaking.

By the time you read this, lawmakers may very well have gone home. They may have come to an agreement about property taxes. Maybe they tinkered with water-rights agreements over the Eastern Snake River aquifer. But they'll have missed some opportunities on a number of issues constituents seem hungry for.

Take community colleges. Education leaders have been pushing for the establishment of more such schools for years. Governor Dirk Kempthorne even made it a part of his State of the State speech. Boise State University President Bob Kustra wisely advocated for more such facilities, perhaps in part because Idaho's low math and science requirements are forcing Boise State to teach more remedial courses to new college students.

But education leaders aren't the only ones pining for a more complete educational menu in Idaho. Business leaders, too, recognize the benefits of having a workforce-training facility in their midst.

Back in early March, when it looked like the Legislature might actually get somewhere on community colleges, I called Mark Arend, the editor of Atlanta, Ga.-based Site Selection Magazine, which focuses on the location of new and growing businesses. Arend said aside from the usual list of merits a company might seek in a city, a thriving community college system is a serious asset.

"It's there that you can get customized training," Arend said. "All of a sudden, that labor pool is much more attractive. That's an important factor."

Some growthophobes may not want more businesses to locate in Boise, but without high-wage-paying companies, the sort of opportunities that might be left to Idahoans are a series of low-wage jobs. When I bragged to Arend about Boise and Idaho's low unemployment numbers, he scoffed.

"The people working, causing that number to be low, are underemployed," said Arend. They're in call centers, or flipping burgers. Get that person into classes at a community college, Arend said, and then you're talking serious income when that worker can find a job at Idaho's next Micron.

But on community colleges, the Legislature punted. Sen. John Goedde, the chairman of the Senate Education Committee, faced lawmakers who seemed satisfied that an Oregon school might increase its offerings here.

"If another community college comes in with the idea of offering a full curriculum, they'll have a tough time financially, because the courses will already have been cherry-picked," Goedde said.

There were bright spots buried in the avalanche of property-tax demagoguery. The Senate agreed to fund the opening of a new low-cost medical clinic in Caldwell. Such low- or no-cost medical clinics are turning out to be a bulwark against skyrocketing Medicaid bills, according to the bill's sponsor, Sen. John McGee, a Caldwell Republican. The cost of the state funding one medical clinic pales to the cost of requiring emergency rooms to handle indigent care and handing the check to the State, he argued.

Fiscal conservatives fretted aloud that granting money to such facilities could start a parade of clinics coming to the Legislature.

"If that's the case, then I gotta tell you, hallelujah," said Sen. Elliot Werk, a Boise Democrat. "We shouldn't be afraid of moving in to this area."

That tiny bill took up mere minutes of Senate floor time, but it may have opened the eyes of Idaho leaders to creative options for addressing the Medicaid crisis, which is busting budgets in other Western states.

"If you really want to do something about the Medicare crisis, then you allow low-income people to have access to free medical care," McGee said later.

But while lawmakers fidgeted and fussed, the gossip on all floors was about Kempthorne, who wasn't even in the state. As he gussies up his resume in advance of his May 4 hearing before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Kempthorne will have to do some political calculus of his own. Just how to please the U.S. Senate, when Democrats smell the Bush Administration's political blood in the water, is going to be tricky going. Should he veto the Legislature's coal-fired power plant moratorium to please the Administration, his new bosses, or should he heed the overwhelming public sentiment in favor of the Legislature's ban? In a similar conundrum, should he embrace his new boss's plan to sell off public lands, something his Idaho constituents consider treason?

Any battles he faces in Washington are unlikely to prevent his ultimate confirmation by a clubby Senate dominated by his own party. But Kempthorne's performance in the coming weeks will definitely help write his political legacy into the Idaho history books.

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