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First week of session puts agendas on the table

Filmmaker Michael Moore drives around the nation's Capitol, reading the Patriot Act from the loud speaker of an ice cream truck in a scene from Fahrenheit 9/11. Moore thought Congress should at least hear what they passed; some delegates admitted they never read the thick pages of legislation.

What happens in Boise isn't that different from what happens in D.C.

Lawmakers often push 700-plus bills before committees in a typical legislative session. A lawmaker isn't going to read 700 bills, Rep. Steve Smylie (R-Boise 15) says.

"You have to rely on the committee process."

Lawmakers assume someone in the committee does their homework and reads the bill, Smylie says. But sometimes they don't.

"That's why we have to come back," he says.

Bills compete with phone calls, meetings, lobbyists ... Smylie answers 20, maybe 30 phone calls on a typical Friday afternoon. Some calls come from constituents, some from the press. He returns calls with speed and if he reaches voice mail, he leaves the phone number to his seat on the floor and his home. The message: "Call anytime."

Smylie and company often pull 24/7 shifts and there's still all that reading that doesn't go away. So like most professionals, they rely on the opinions of their colleagues when they can't finish their homework. For example, Rep. Margaret Henbest, (D-Boise 16), a nurse practitioner, tackles heath issues year after year and has earned a reputation as the House's fat-buster. She even urges her fellow lawmaker to drop a few pounds.

Teachers turned lawmakers know the education beat and senators in need of advice on CAFOs or a water issue often went to former Sen. Laird Noh (R-Kimberly 24).

"He was a walking encyclopedia and respected," Smylie says.

Expect your representatives to specialize as they always have. Expect some big bills most lawmakers plan to look at: the budget, water rights and sales tax legislation. Expect some bills Smylie simply calls boring. Expect what Smylie calls a distraction: abortion legislation and proposals affecting gay rights. And expect Boise lawmakers to push bills backed by passion and maybe your phone call.

PILES OF PROPOSALS

Henbest couldn't get to Smylie weight wise. He packed on a few pounds after trading his days in the classroom for long days in the Statehouse. All those meetings added the weight, he says. And the banquets didn't help.

Meetings with constituents, leadership meetings, committee meetings, issue overview meetings and piles of papers launched Rep. Julie Ellsworth's (R-Boise 18) fifth term.

"I have not found the bottom of my desk yet," she says, fumbling through piles.

Ellsworth's leadership position puts her hands in a lot of the legislative action but she says a handful of intertwined issues have her full attention this session. For Ellsworth, Idaho's health depends on a strong budget, good education and thriving business.

"We always are working on budget issues. We're trying to get a feel for where the state will be this year and next year," she says.

Ellsworth says her push for adequate funding of education can attract and retain Idaho businesses--a community Ellsworth wants to keep competitive. A number of proposals that could help the business end thrive are still in the works but lawmakers are talking about bits and pieces of possible legislation. There's discussion about restructuring unemployment insurance; tax relief and sales tax exemptions are also on Boise representatives' radar screens. Sen. Elliot Werk (D-Boise 17) plans to push legislation that would help small businesses provide affordable heath insurance coverage for their employees.

"The state lacks a focus on helping small business," Werk says. "They're our bread and butter."

PUSHING PLATFORMS

The state could also focus on helping the sick, Boise representatives say. Freshman representative Nicole LeFavour (D-Boise 19) campaigned with heath care and affordable insurance at the top of her platform and intends to deliver what she promised. She's backing a number of health-related proposals including a push to develop a plan enabling folks to obtain affordable coverage from health insurance companies.

"We have the ability to regulate them and we often don't," she says.

LeFavour also joins Henbest in a push to provide better mental health coverage for Idahoans. LeFavour says the lack of access to mental health care sometimes leaves people with few or no options.

"People with mental health issues often end up in prison and that is often not the place for them," she says.

Affordable health care could also come from a proposal that would pool public employees into one health insurance plan. Henbest says that pool could give consumers more leverage and save them health care dollars.

UNDERDOGS IN THE HOUSE

Lawmakers' fight for folks who don't have a lot of cash extends to title loan companies that offer quick loans to people in a financial pinch.

"There's a huge demand for it ... they do have a place in our economy," Rep. Max Black (R-Boise 15) says.

But the quick fix sometimes comes with more problems. Folks don't always know the terms of the loan and borrowers don't always know what kind of interest rates they'll have to pay. High interest rates sometimes force borrowers to pay far more than they anticipated and more than they can afford.

"People get into a never ending loan," Black says.

Black is backing a bill that would require loan operations to clearly notify the borrower of interest rates and the terms of the loan agreement.

Rep. Anne Pasley-Stuart (D-Boise 19) has her eyes on a less visible moneymaker: Human trafficking. "It is going on in Idaho which we're sorry to see happen." She says Idaho law largely skirts the problem.

Many more proposals still brew in the planning stages--as of press time, just a small number of bills had made it to print and representatives still plan to add a number of items to their agenda. Boise Democrats say they'll fill that agenda with ideas that came from knocking on some 20,000 doors. The people spoke. The Democrats listened and now they're ready to act, Werk says.

"We're very united."

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