Working poor not on lamakers' radar screen 

Speaker of the House unaware of efforts to help

There are poor people in Idaho, Mr. Speaker. Most of them have jobs, and they're still poor.

At an Idaho Press Club luncheon last week, Speaker of the House Bruce Newcomb (R-Burley) was asked by a reporter: "I've been going to a lot of press conferences, and what they seem to be saying is there are people who have jobs, but are still poor. Do you know of any pending legislation that would be good news for poor workers?"

"I don't know," the Speaker said, slowly.

Responding later to the Speaker's blank, Rep. Shirley Ringo (D-Moscow) said, "Well, he knows where some of it is. He pulled our minimum wage bill that would have raised it to $6.15 ... when you're at poverty level, an extra few thousand a year would look really good, I think."

Senate Pro Tem Bob Geddes (R-Soda Springs) gave one path to combat the void: Do it yourself. Commenting on press conferences and demonstrations held by citizen action groups, Geddes said, "We can't vote for 'things'--we can only vote for legislation. If they want something, they should draft legislation and bring it to us."

The same day as the Press Club event, the Idaho Foodbank held a press conference at the Statehouse to release the results of a major study of hunger in Idaho, conducted by Mathematic Policy Research, Inc. It revealed that among Idaho households which receive emergency food bank assistance, 51 percent have at least one working adult.

At $5.15 an hour, the current minimum wage in Idaho, a 39-hour worker grosses $800 a month. A couple with one child and one job (isn't that what conservatives want--stay-at-home moms?) would be lucky to find housing for $600, leaving $200 for food, clothes, transportation, telephone and utilities, school expenses, diapers, taxes, retirement and college savings, emergency savings, and everything else. Even with two jobs, the same family would still fall well below the federal poverty line.

Of the minimum wage measure, Newcomb said, "We killed that for political reasons, it was a political bill."

Ringo's response was, "The Speaker is playing politics with people's lives ... that's insulting. It really is insulting."

Reps. Jana Kemp (R-Boise) and Margaret Henbest (D-Boise) are sponsoring a resolution endorsing a Hunger Summit to be held this October in Boise, run by the Idaho Interfaith Roundtable Against Hunger. Similar meetings in Oregon and other states have resulted in some legislative success, so the group has issued an invitation, open to all, to a brown bag lunch to talk about the summit and "consider future steps for ending hunger in Idaho." It will be held Thursday, March 9, at noon at Immanuel Lutheran Church at 707 W. Fort. Organizers said Speaker Newcomb would be welcome at the meeting.

Underhanded "Progress" Marks School Facilities Effort

The Idaho Supreme Court's 2005 mandate to the Legislature to provide a "safe environment conducive to learning" for schoolchildren hasn't made much of an impression on the House Education Committee. Last week, the committee killed two bills--one from the R's and one from D's--in a meeting made remarkable by petty and personal remarks from its chairman, Rep. Jack Barraclough (R-Idaho Falls). Speaking for the Republican proposal, Barraclough explained some of its features and said that one of them was "a way to punish districts like Cottonwood."

The Cottonwood district was one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit that resulted in the Supreme Court's decision, and there is no love lost between its superintendent, Stan Kress, and Barraclough. The debate over school facilities solutions has been marked by personal animosity, and the current proposal contains language specific to the feud. Rep. Shirley Ringo said, "The Republicans have a lot of resentment toward the plaintiffs about this case. The courts have sided with the districts at every level of the courts. The idea of being told, 'There's something wrong with your system, guys' doesn't sit well with them."

It didn't sit well with Ringo when a new bill was introduced on Monday, by House Ways and Means instead of Education. The meeting wasn't announced, included in the regular Internet calendar or posted outside the House chambers or meeting room door, violating House rules. "Son of House Bill 690" is not substantially different from the Republican proposal killed in committee last week, and no Democrats were included in its development or discussion. It will be heard in House Education later this week, and no public testimony will be permitted. "They don't really like free speech when it gets in their way," said Ringo, "I expect a motion and a result, and this will be the bill that passes."

Dr. Michael Friend, executive director of the Idaho Association of School Administrators, said the bill is "kind of mean-spirited" in the way it seems to put $25 million aside to pay for school repairs, but requires a school to be actually declared unsafe before any of it can be used. Even then, he said, the school would have to jump through several more difficult hoops before being granted repair money "and mostly the $25 million will just sit there."

Friend also wasn't happy with the method used to sneak the bill through. "I guess that's why it's called the Ways and Means committee--they have the ways and means to do it however they want."

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