Writings and observations

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The Idaho House has changed a subtle piece of its procedure, with – as usually is the case – mixed effects. The good are a little more obvious; the bad brings to mind legislators, one in particular, from years past.

The change is something many people probably wouldn’t notice. (Hat tip to writer Wayne Hoffman for pointing it out.) It has to do with the way votes are tallied when members of the Idaho House choose “yea” or “nay” on the floor.

When a bill (or something else to be voted upon) comes up, House members hit a button indicating a yes or no vote. The result of that is shown on an electronic board, visible to all, showing how each legislator voted, green for yes and red for no. The totals for each also are shown. This much hasn’t changed.

What has is this: Until recently, the greens and reds showed up immediately when the legislator punched the button. They could then look at the board, see who was voting how, and whether the vote was passing or failing, and if they chose, could change their vote before the speaker announced he was “locking” the vote in place. Partway through this session, however, those votes began not to show up on the board until after the “locking” had taken place. Any legislator wanting to change a vote might still be able to, but only as a part of the record and only with permission.

Is this an improvement?

On balance, it probably is. As a reporter watching House vote tallies, I used to enjoy figuring out who was voting in response to who – who was voting for something because someone else supported it, or opposing for that same reason. Some votes might be cast one way if it was clear the measure was going to pass, or fail, by a big margin – so that an individual vote might change nothing – but another way if the vote was really needed in a close call. Doing away with some of that real time information might be beneficial; it puts some onus on each legislator to prepare a bit more in advance and not rely on signals from other legislators.

But there’s another side to it, too, brought to mind by the death of one of the best legislators I call recall at the Idaho Statehouse.

He was Mike Mitchell, a Democrat from Lewiston, a beer distributor who may have had a higher profile from his run for lieutenant governor, or work as a governor’s chief of staff, or work with various state agencies. But I recall him as one of those lawmakers whose skill set was almost perfectly matched to work in the legislature.

He was unusually well prepared, especially on the more technical work; he served on the budget-writing Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, and despite being in the minority he had as much impact on the budget as the leading Republicans did. That extended to other areas too. He had extra help from college interns, who in contrast to many interns over the years got to work intensively on the details and politics of getting legislation passed. Not only Democrats but a lot of Republicans too paid Mitchell close attention when he had something to say. He was, as several people remarked after his death a week ago, a “legislator’s legislator.”

Some legislators are blowhards. Some throw their weight around. Some exploit personal connections. But some legislators, of both parties and various philosophical persuasions, are worth watching: Their vote for or against something may actually be a signal that there’s a layer to the issue at hand that isn’t immediately obvious, and maybe ought to be heeded.

Mike Mitchell reminded me of that when I heard of his passing. There is a personal level to what happens at a legislature, and sometimes that’s not all bad.

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Idaho Idaho column Stapilus