William L. Spence: Deal With It, Cupcake: Observations on the Idaho Legislature

By William L. Spence

Lewiston Grandstand

BOISE – Here at the beginning, consider the end.

Because the end is near. The end is near. Maybe not this session or even the next, but it’s getting closer to the inevitability of time: the day a citizen legislator decides to retire.

For Dean Mortimer, that day has come in 2020. After 14 years of distinguished service — one term in the House and six in the Senate — he turned in his keys and left.

As is traditional in the Senate, Mortimer took a few minutes on the last day of the 2020 session to say goodbye to his colleagues and offer some words of wisdom.

“Once you decide to ‘graduate’ from this body, you think about what it all meant,” Mortimer said. “I keep a journal and started listing some of the lessons I learned.”

He offered 10 lessons, the most important of which was forgiveness.

“It’s a unique institution we’re in,” Mortimer said. “We are going head-to-head. We are all passionate and committed to what we do, and that’s why the institution is good. But don’t forget to forgive.

As I begin my 14th year covering the Idaho Legislature, I’ve decided to jot down a few personal lessons — things I’ve learned by hopefully being a fair and careful observer of lawmakers. and the legislative process.

They include the following:

Do it, cupcake – While I appreciate Mortimer’s emphasis on forgiveness, I think the most important lesson of the Idaho Legislature is that success here is largely a matter of individual effort and perseverance.

Too many legislators blame their lack of accomplishments on the “system”. They complain about committee chairs who refuse to hear their bills or about special interest groups that torpedo their ideas. They complain that the leaders did not offer their blessing or actively work against their proposal.

There is truth in each of these excuses: Presidents can unilaterally block certain laws. Lobbyists are good at undermining bills. Leadership is not selfless and stacks the deck.

But then what? It’s politics, baby. Equity is optional. Winners always find a way to win.

Despite all the intrigue and power politics, the foundation of the Legislative Assembly remains the individual relationships that legislators develop with their colleagues and stakeholders. At its heart, this place is all about persuasion. It’s about convincing others that the path you’re proposing is best for the state.

If you fail, it’s up to you, not them.

Accept your criticisms – Look, you’re not the goose that lays the golden egg. Your bills aren’t perfect as they were originally designed, so don’t be surprised when critics stand in your way.

Instead of belittling the opponents, pay attention to them. They may very well have reasonable objections to what you thought was a flawless gem. Use their feedback to craft an even better invoice.

And no, that doesn’t mean you have to jeopardize the existence of your ideas. It simply means that good legislation is most often a group effort.

Rep. Jason Monks, R-Meridian, offered a case study on this with his 2020 bill updating the state’s sales tax allocation formula.

The monks began working on the issue in 2016, after learning that the old formula allocated far more funding to some communities per capita than others.

It has offered several fixes over the years. His initial efforts caused uproar in cities across the state. Rather than ignore them and just block an invoice, he listened to them and made changes to address their concerns.

In 2020, Monks managed to pass the most significant update to the distribution formula in over 20 years, without any negative testimonials.

Makers are rare – When I started covering the Legislative Assembly in 2009, I assumed that everyone here wanted to make a difference. Otherwise, why would you run for office?

I’m embarrassed how long it took me to realize that’s just not true.

I now believe that only a fraction of legislators expect things to be done. Some are here because it’s an ego boost. For others, it’s a social outlet. Most just want a seat at the table. They are herding dogs, here to keep an eye on things and ward off danger.

But do everything possible to solve the problems? Take the time to research a problem, so they understand it well enough to come up with a smart solution? Do the hard work necessary to guide this solution through the process, change state policy for the better, and improve the lives of Idahoans? Lead the charge?

No, there aren’t many in this camp.

“When people come to talk to me about legislation, I ask them, ‘Do you want to make a statement or do you want to make a difference?’ said House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley. “Making a difference is much more difficult. It takes cooperation. You have to work hard to get a bill out of committee, get all 36 votes (in the House), and then get 18 (in the Senate). And then there’s the governor, who must also think it’s a good idea.

There is no shortcut. Every new legislator learns these numbers: 36, 18, and 1. That’s what it takes to pass a law. That’s what it takes to solve the problems. That’s what it takes to get things done.

Everything else is a sideshow.

“Members of the House know that they will only be successful as legislators if they work with the Senate (to pass bills), and vice versa,” Bedke said. “When we go back to the basics of moving legislation, this place works a lot better.”