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Is Idaho’s earnestly disconnected Legislature ‘As Good as It Gets’?

William L. Spence
William L. Spence

There’s a famous scene in the 1997 movie “As Good as it Gets” where Melvin Udall, a misogynistic romance novelist played by Jack Nicholson, prepares to pay a compliment to his dinner companion.

“I’m so afraid you’re about to say something awful,” said the woman, a struggling single mother played by Helen Hunt.

Udall then tells her she makes him want to be a better man – which, much to her surprise, was “maybe the best compliment of my life.”

“Well, maybe I overshot a little,” he replied. “I was aiming for just enough to keep you from walking out.”

Nicholson, who won an Academy Award for his performance (as did Hunt), has made a career out of playing crude, flawed characters. That’s why, if they ever make a movie about the Idaho Legislature, he’s a shoo-in for the lead.

Except for their foul-mouthed tendencies, Udall and other Nicholson roles are near twins of the Legislature – by turns frustrating, surprising, hopelessly old-fashioned, gracious, obliviously rude, suspicious to the point of paranoia and, in the end, just trying to be a better man.

These conflicting tendencies often lead to strange juxtapositions in the Statehouse — something that was on full display recently.

For example, on the same day lawmakers honored Idaho author Anthony Doerr for winning the Pulitzer Prize, they temporarily tabled a bill that would strengthen school literacy programs.

Similarly, at almost the exact moment a House committee was introducing Gov. Butch Otter’s Primary Care Access Plan – which has been widely panned as a limited and expensive alternative to Medicaid expansion – the governor himself was touting the advantages of expansion.

Such disconnects are common occurrences here. Lawmakers talk at length about the advantages of stable, predictable policies, yet are not themselves bound by anything resembling consistency or logic.

This is both a source of aggravation and part of the Legislature’s charm – the knowledge that, at any moment, a seemingly straight path can turn into a magical mystery ride, a fascinating and bemusing detour into the human mind.

Boise Rep. Melissa Wintrow, for example, described her gender neutrality proposal as “a small cleanup bill.”

The measure directs legislative staff to use gender neutral language when amending or drafting new statutes. The intent, she said, is simply to make sure Idaho laws don’t refer specifically to “he,” unless that’s really necessary.

“I’m trying to help girls see themselves in the law. I want to see myself in the law,” Wintrow said.

That prompted a step back in time from Rep. Pete Nielsen of Mountain Home, who described himself as “a Sir Walter Raleigh kind of guy.”

“You’re striking at my heart,” he told Wintrow. “I have five daughters and three sons. My boys were taught to open the door for ladies and hold out their chair. To me, if we go too far this direction, we’re lowering the status of women. I don’t want to see that happen. I don’t want something like this to change public attitudes regarding the status of ladies.”

The Legislature’s suspicion of all things modern – meaning anything post-1950, or possibly post-1600 – is matched by its populist leanings, which also found expression last week, in the House Commerce and Human Resource Committee’s treatment of a workers’ compensation bill.

The measure would have eliminated a financial penalty insurers face if they deny a worker’s claim and later have that decision reversed in court.

A motion to hold the bill in committee was made before public testimony even ended. An insurance industry representative then doomed its chances by saying he was shocked, dismayed even, that the industry “would be accused of looking for reasons to deny claims.”

The committee barely waited for him to stop speaking before unanimously killing the bill.

The week ended with 76-year-old Rep. Linden Bateman of Idaho Falls shuffling his way to the fourth floor.

During Friday’s floor session, Rep. Paulette Jordan of Plummer introduced her family, who had come for a visit and were seated in the fourth-floor gallery. A few minutes later, Bateman — whose enthusiasm for Idaho history knows no bounds — was on his way up to greet them. With Jordan being the only American Indian member of the Legislature, he wanted to say hello and give her kids a pair of buffalo-head nickels.

“I think Jordan’s great,” he said later. “She’s so bright. She’s a direct descendant of Chief Joseph’s father — here, in the Idaho Legislature.”

Bateman then told a story about attending a ceremony on the Fort Hall Reservation when he was a boy, describing the old Indian chief he saw and the dancers blowing on their bone whistles.

“It stirred the imagination,” he said.

Like the characters in “As Good as it Gets,” there are times here when you’re just waiting for lawmakers to say something awful or to come up with another cringe-worthy bill.

There are just as many occasions, though, when they surprise you and humble you, when they take you on a journey so marvelous and unexpected it keeps you in your seat, waiting to see what happens next.

Spence covers politics for the Lewiston Tribune: bspence@lmtribune.com, (208) 791-9168