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Posts published in March 2010


Money decisions are where your priorities hit the road. Talk is cheap; when you decide how money is allocated, you're putting something closer to your true self out there.

That seems to be hitting home with Idaho state Senator Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, who is a member of the legislative budget committee but not part of its operative majority. Watching the committee slice away at the state Department of Health & Welfare, she responded with a blog post unusual (among legislative blog posts) for its pungency.

Unlike with education budgets yesterday, none of the affected parties were brought in. No stakeholder meetings were held with the disability community, with people with chronic illnesses or with the hospitals, clinics, doctors and nurses to see if this would work out. No, we have handed down a fly by the seat of your pants budget full of intent language acknowledging that it may fall apart by January. And if it does it seems that's ok because January is after the elections.

Fred Wood, maker of the motion, leader of the heartless, had the lack of sensitivity to mention going home as he wove his committee debate this morning there under the grand columns and the domed, cream colored ceiling. This is about going home. Passing this fly by the seat of our pants budget is about going home, not about us as law makers governing or leading or taking seriously our duty to do more than just make the numbers pan out.

Now we will watch the waiting lists grow and we know already that slowly the process is bogging down. Already the Department of Health & Welfare (whose employees are often some of the lowest paid in the state) already they close down half a day every other Friday without pay. Now they will close a whole days, close whole field offices so people if they have a car must drive and wait and perhaps still not get served, still not make it to the front of the line for help for a child, for food or something to get them through now that unemployment has run out.

Representative Wood, the scowling man with the mustache and thick glasses glaring over his microphone said we HAD to cut this budget as we did. He knows as well as I do that a single change in the grocery tax credit would fix this... He knows well that we could vote for one year not to give $40 grocery tax credits to Idahoans earning more than $20,000 a year ($40,000 for married couples.) The whole committee knows that this one simple $35 million change could prevent us from losing $120 million in federal funds and could have completely prevented us from making all these cuts in the Health Assistance budget this year.

There are other options too, such as increasing the number of tax auditors. (The conservative hosts of the Monday Twin Falls radio program where I guest during sessions wonder why that hasn't been done, and it's a good question.) Or - God forbid - actually find a way to raise revenue.

But that's not the priority.

Chain of command


Mike Gwartney (left) and Butch Otter at a check presentation/Office of the Governor

The hottest person of controversy in Idaho right now may be not the governor, C.L. "Butch" Otter, but the director of the Department of Administration, Mike Gwartney. Though many of Gwartney's critics evidently are missing the point: If Gwartney is rightfully controversial, then that controversy has to land at Otter's doorstep.

As director of administration, even if only for a dollar a year (as the reports say), Gwartney reports directly to Otter. Otter can overrule anything he does. He serves at "the pleasure of" the governor - the governor can fire him at any time, for any reason or none. Whatever he does, good or bad, isn't his own alone; the buck stops with Otter.

Witness here part of the problem that arises with hiring friends, even friends with good reputations. When your scribe started reporting on the Idaho Legislature in the mid-70s, Gwartney was among the members of the House (Otter had just left that chamber), and he was among the more highly-regarded of legislators. He often showed up in reporter lists of the better legislators.

He's been away from all that for quite a while, though. A speculation: In his years in business at Boise Boise Cascade and the Farmers and Merchants Bank, and no doubt through lots of talks with the libertarian Otter, he may have come to think that government could work better if it were run much as those businesses were. But government doesn't run like business, and that's a good thing. They're different animals. They function in different ways.

So you get quotes like one from Senator Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, as budget committee chair no stranger to dealing with many sorts of state executives, complaining about "the imperialistic attitude Mr. Gwartney brings to a lot of the projects he does."

You get a whole string of battles on a wide range of fronts, poor legislative relations and at least one major lawsuit, all in areas where Gwartney has been directly involved. And a Gwartney now seemingly holed up in his office while a clamor for his resignation has been starting to kick in outside.

That falls to Otter, Gwartney's boss as well as his friend, as the governor launches his bid for re-election. Damage to Otter is being done; however much some Republican office holders may want to point a finger at Gwartney, it has to come back around to Otter. What we will see soon is what Otter and Gwartney decide to do about it within the confines of friendship, and of politics. And of governing a state.

The scope of ethics

There is a small agency in Washington state government called the State Executive Ethics Board, with a budget of a little under a half-million dollars a year, a drop in the ocean of the Washington state budget. In light of the state's financial stress, state Representative Jeannie Darneille, D-Tacoma, has proposed eliminating it. (She was quoted as saying, a little oddly, ""The rules are known and people are expected to follow the rules." So of course they always do?) That proposal may or may not win approval.

The critics of this particular cut are mostly - interestingly - Republicans, maybe in part because the slice would come out of the budget of the budget of Attorney General Rob McKenna, who is Republican. On Sound Politics, in rebuttal to Darneille: "There you go! Problem solved!" Another, in comments: "By this Democrat's logic, let's just get rid of all law enforcement and courts too."

So how much of a problem is it? The work volume of the agency seems not to have been enormous: In 2008 it opened 67 cases and imposed penalties on 11 employees, and delivered one advisory opinion (on "May a state employee authorize a wellness organization to sell products during meetings, even in the meetings are held in accordance with the agency's wellness policy?") Is that enough for a full-fledged agency? Or is there more work out there that it should be addressing, but isn't?

No immediate answers here, but there do seem to be a bunch of questions worth exploring. A legislative hearing or two might be a good place to do that.