At night, when the lights in the state Capitol go dark, the floor debate begins.
Who’s going to vacuum?
And what about the dishes?
Each year, lawmakers from North Idaho leave their jobs, families and friends to live in Boise for the three-month legislative session. Some find apartments, others move into hotels, and some team up with other legislators to rent homes.
This year, Coeur d’Alene Republicans Sen. Gordon Crow and Rep. Jeff Alltus are sharing a rented Boise home with Rep. Dan Mader, R-Lewiston. The three drew names for the largest bedroom in the $900-a-month rental, and Crow occasionally tickles the keyboard of the baby grand piano in the living room.
“Very Republican,” Crow chuckled.
“Jeff is the taskmaster of the home,” he said. “Late last week he left the vacuum cleaner in the doorway to my bedroom. I took that as a hint.”
Rep. June Judd, D-St. Maries, has had the same Boise hotel room for five years. She reserved it last April - provided she got re-elected. She brings her own microwave, toaster and coffeepot.
“It’s my room,” she said. She shares a ride to the Capitol each morning with Republican Rep. Hilde Kellogg of Post Falls, who lives nearby.
Freshmen Republican Reps. Wayne Meyer, Don Pischner and Sen. Clyde Boatright all live on the third floor of the Best Western Safari motel downtown, home to at least 10 legislators. They each pay $600 per month.
Like many North Idaho legislators, the three fly home on weekends. They return Sunday night and meet to go over the next day’s agenda.
“It’s usually in Boatright’s room,” said Meyer of Rathdrum. “He’s got the microwave so we can pop popcorn.”
Veteran Democratic Sen. Mary Lou Reed of Coeur d’Alene rents an apartment five blocks from the Capitol. She likes to walk to work.
“We don’t get enough exercise,” she said.
Rep. Don Pischner, R-Coeur d’Alene, also walks to work.
He has to. He decided to leave his car at home.
“I came down here to work,” he said.
A few legislators, like Rep. Tom Dorr, R-Post Falls, move their families to Boise. Dorr and his wife homeschool their children.
“The hardest thing is trying to find a church,” said Dorr. “About the time you get it figured out, your three months are up.”
He and his family have rented a home about nine miles from the Capitol.
“It has white carpeting, and we’re hypersensitive, because of the kids,” Dorr said. “Nobody drinks grape juice.”
Idaho lawmakers are paid $12,360 per year, and allowed $75 per day in expenses like room and board throughout the session. Each year, legislative staffers gather a list of Boise-area “snowbirds” who winter in the south and rent their homes to lawmakers for the winter session.
When he took office 23 years ago, House Minority Leader Jim Stoicheff, D-Sandpoint, moved his entire family to Boise for the session: “My wife, four kids, cat, dog and guitar.” Now his children are grown, and his wife stays in Sandpoint. Although most North Idaho legislators fly home on weekends, Stoicheff prefers to drive.
“I like to run on my own schedule,” he said.
In previous years, he made the trip - nine hours each way - in his 1985 Chevrolet Sprint. He retired it at 177,000 miles.
“I was having to stop every 200 miles, take the spark plugs out and clean the oil off,” Stoicheff said. “At 2 in the morning, it wasn’t much fun.”
This year, Stoicheff has upgraded to a Geo Metro.
Many lawmakers are retired or independently wealthy, prompting arguments that legislative pay should be raised to increase the number of average citizens in office.
“If you made it a real competitive salary, you’d pull a lot of people into it (the Legislature) that can’t do it now,” said Mader.
But he balks at the idea of supporting a pay raise in a year of government cost-cutting. On those grounds, the House voted unanimously this month to reject a $360 pay raise. Senate Republicans overrode the objection, saying the increase was small and reasonable.
Lawmakers who work struggle to balance their job with months of legislative responsibilities. Spouses often take over the business for the session. Crow’s wife, Sandy, went back to work to help maintain the family’s cash flow.
“It has a devastating effect on your business,” said Rep. Marvin Vandenberg, D-Coeur d’Alene. When he first took office in 1951, he exchanged his $20-a-day barber business for $5 a day as a legislator. After five terms - and five children - Vandenberg gave up the seat. He couldn’t afford it.
Vandenberg won a seat again in 1985, after retiring from the state Department of Lands.
“I’ll virtually have to rebuild my business,” said Boatright, a real estate agent. “You have a certain client base. After you’ve been out of touch for four or five months, you’ve got to go out and find them again.”
Farmers like Rep. Meyer and Sen. Tim Tucker, D-Porthill, fare better, since winter is traditionally a slow time to catch up on paperwork and repair equipment.
“I’ll just work harder in the spring,” said Meyer, a Rathdrum grass grower.
But the biggest impact of holding office, Crow said, isn’t on a lawmaker’s work. It’s on family life. He wants to bring his wife and toddler son down for the session next year.
“I miss them dearly,” he said. “I didn’t realize how much it hurt to be away from them for a week at a time.”
Which is one reason, he said, why he’s glad he’s got two roommates.
“I think we’re just like a family,” Crow said. “We have little tiffs, but it’s a great feeling to come home to people you know.”
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