Sayler got real education serving in Legislature
BOISE – George Sayler taught government to high school students for 31 years, but when he arrived in the state Legislature eight years ago, he said, “I had a lot to learn.”
He understood how the system worked. “But actually seeing it in effect – seeing the role of a committee chair to deny hearing a bill, or how personalities could affect the process, was a bit of a revelation,” the four-term Democrat from Coeur d’Alene said. “It made me more aware of the strategy that has to go on.”
Sayler is retiring after this year’s session, capping a legislative career in which he championed landmark day-care licensing legislation – often against opponents who said moms should just stay home with their kids – and took on issues ranging from grandparents’ rights to water rights, and property tax relief to absentee voting.
“I tried to represent the district as a voice of reason,” he said, “to represent the broad diversity of interest in our district – not push a long agenda of my own.”
But, he said, “Unfortunately, I learned that we often legislate based on emotion – not always on sound logical reasons.”
The day-care licensing law was an example. “I think I learned how deeply entrenched ideology is, and how much that can control the debate on issues,” Sayler said. “It seemed like such a logical thing, to ensure safety.”
Sayler had to come back year after year, until finally, he was able to work with those with deep philosophical concerns about parents’ rights and family structure, to reassure them that safety standards for child-care centers in Idaho wouldn’t threaten those.
“You really have to take into account everybody’s concerns if you really want to get anything done,” Sayler said. “On that issue, we really tried. I was a little shocked it didn’t work at first. We finally made some progress, but it was a real eye-opener, that there could be such deep-seated philosophical differences over an issue that seemed such a matter of common sense.”
House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, said Sayler will be missed. “He’s brought wisdom,” Rusche said. “I think he’s done marvelously representing Coeur d’Alene and the community. … He’s a calm person, he doesn’t get mad very often, he’s thoughtful and he has great perseverance.”
Sayler, who has a master’s degree in religious studies, grew up in Missoula and has lived in Coeur d’Alene since 1972, said part of his platform when he first ran for the Legislature was to seek more political balance, a need he says has only increased.
It often doesn’t matter what Democrats argue, he said, because they control just a quarter of the Legislature’s seats. “If there’s a will in the majority party to do it, they’ll go ahead and do it – and they can,” he said. “I think for good government, we do need political balance to some degree.”
He said that while Idaho does have more Republicans than Democrats, “It’s hard to believe that two-thirds of Idaho is as conservative of that part of the Legislature that represents them.”
Sayler is proud of his legislative accomplishments, from bringing legislation to designate an Idaho birding trail – he’s an avid bird-watcher – to helping win an increase in the homeowner’s exemption from property taxes. This year, he’s working with firefighters and the Department of Homeland Security on legislation to ease response by specialized search and rescue teams around the state, and sponsoring a bill to allow donations to the state’s Opportunity Scholarship fund.
“I’m proud that I did not support the tax shift,” he said of the 2006 special-session legislation pushed by then-Gov. Jim Risch, to raise Idaho’s sales tax from 5 to 6 percent while eliminating the main property tax levy that previously funded school operations. “I thought that was a bad move at the time, and I think subsequent history has proven that to be the case.”
Sayler didn’t set out to enter politics; he attended a Democratic Party meeting to hear a candidate speak and expressed interest in the idea of serving as a temporary legislative fill-in for a few days at some point during the legislative session. Soon, the party was asking him to run.
“I decided I should do it, because I’ve always told my students our political system depends on political involvement,” he said. Plus, he noted, “I didn’t care for the voting record of my opponent at the time,” then-Rep. Kris Ellis, R-Coeur d’Alene. Sayler “worked hard and won by 69 votes,” he said. He’s had contested races every term, but has won every time.
Sayler, who will turn 66 this summer, said he’s ready for retirement, and more time for reading, outdoor activities and spending time with family including his granddaughter. But he’ll stay involved on the boards of the Community Action Partnership and the Tubbs Hill Foundation.
If he were back in the classroom today, he said, he’d still advise his students to run for office.
“It’s something I would encourage people to do, absolutely,” he said, “if they are ready to make the commitment. It takes a commitment to do it.” He added, “I think it’s a great part of our system, is that anybody can participate. I wish that more people would participate.”