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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

William L. Spence: Deal with it, cupcake: Observations on the Idaho Legislature

By William L. Spence Lewiston Tribune

BOISE – Here at the beginning, let us consider the end.

For the end is coming. The end is nigh. Perhaps not this session or even next, but it inches closer with the inevitability of time: the day when a citizen legislator decides to retire.

For Dean Mortimer, that day came in 2020. After 14 years of distinguished service – one term in the House and six in the Senate – he turned in his keys and walked away.

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

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

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

“This is a unique institution we’re in,” Mortimer said. “We go head-to-head with each other. We’re all passionate and feel strongly about what we’re doing, and that’s why the institution is good. But remember to forgive.”

As I begin my 14th year covering the Idaho Legislature, I decided to jot down a few lessons of my own – things I’ve learned from being, I hope, a fair and close observer of lawmakers and the legislative process.

They include the following:

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

Too many lawmakers blame their lack of accomplishments on “the system.” They whine about committee chairmen who refuse to hear their bills, or special interest groups who torpedo their ideas. They complain that leadership didn’t offer its blessing, or actively worked against their proposal.

There is some truth in each one of these excuses: Chairmen can unilaterally block some legislation. Lobbyists are good at undermining bills. Leadership isn’t disinterested and does stack the deck.

But so what? This is politics, baby. Fairness is optional. Winners still find a way to win.

For all the scheming and power politics, the foundation of the Legislature is still the individual relationships lawmakers develop with colleagues and stakeholders. At its heart, this place is about persuasion. It’s about convincing others that the path you’re proposing is best for the state.

If you fail at that, it’s on you, not them.

Embrace your critics – Listen, you aren’t the goose that laid the golden egg. Your bills aren’t perfect as originally conceived, so don’t be surprised when critics stand in your way.

Instead of bad-mouthing the naysayers, 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 bill.

And no, this doesn’t mean you need to compromise your ideas out of existence. It just means 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 sales tax distribution formula.

Monks started working on the issue in 2016, after learning that the old formula steered substantially more funding to some communities on a per capita basis than to others.

He proposed multiple fixes over the years. His initial efforts prompted outcries from cities across the state. Rather than ignore them and simply jam a bill through, he listened and made changes to address their concerns.

By 2020, Monks succeeded in passing the most significant update in the distribution formula in more than 20 years, with no negative testimony.

Doers are in short supply – When I started covering the Legislature in 2009, I just assumed everyone here wanted to make a difference. Why else would you run for office?

I’m embarrassed about how long it took me to realize that simply isn’t true.

I now believe only a fraction of lawmakers actually expect to get stuff 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’re sheepdogs, here to keep an eye on things and ward off danger.

But going out of their way to fix problems? Taking the time to research an issue, so they understand it well enough to craft an intelligent solution? Doing the hard work needed to shepherd that solution through the process, change state policy for the better and improve the lives of Idahoans? Leading the charge?

No, there aren’t many in that camp.

“When people come talk with me about legislation, I ask, ‘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 a lot harder. It takes cooperation. You have to work your tail off to get a bill out of committee, get the 36 votes (in the House) and then get 18 (in the Senate). And then there’s the governor, who has to think it’s a good idea, too.”

There are no shortcuts. Every new legislator learns those numbers: 36, 18 and 1. That’s what’s needed to pass legislation. That’s what’s needed to solve problems. That’s what’s needed to get stuff done.

Anything else is a sideshow.

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

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