Due diligence for a salamander

The 16th President of the United States Abraham Lincoln famously said “government of the people, by the people for the…” oh forget it. If you are an Idaho legislator you have stopped listening.

Last week I wrote about the folly of telling your employer you don’t want to work. I made the point that many legislators have told various news outlets they want out of the capital and onto the campaign trail as quickly as possible, even at the expense of leaving work undone.

House Minority Leader John Rusche of Lewiston complained the push to get home quickly without uncomfortable campaign questions was so strong lawmakers were not willing to talk about Medicare expansion. Kicking the can down the road on a topic that could, by Rusche’s estimation, save 120 lives and $90 million.

“The big one. The one that saves 120 lives per year and $90 million, is the one we can’t even talk about, but don’t forget: we did wolves,” Rusche told the Idaho Statesman.

Now let me show you the ridiculous side of the situation. If you haven’t heard of 13-year-old Llah Hickman of Boise you have missed out on learning about a very unique Idahoan.

Let me be very clear: Llah is not ridiculous. The way she has been treated by Idaho legislators is ridiculous.

Llah wants one thing. She wants Idaho lawmakers to designate the Idaho Giant Salamander as the state’s official amphibian. Hickman has many points as to why the Idaho Giant Salamander deserves the special designation amongst the ranks of the peregrine falcon, Hagerman horse, mountain blue bird and russet potato. She argues the salamander is almost exclusively Idahoan, found only in the consistently moist areas around Lake Coeur d’Alene and the Salmon River with a small isolated population in Mineral County, MT. She also argues fourth grade students across the state learn about state symbols each year and adding another symbol will give teachers a better chance to educate Idaho students about amphibians. Hickman says this is not just a personal crusade, but that hundreds of students around the state along with teachers and parents support the idea.

Hickman even has the support of the Idaho Senate which passed her bill 33-2 on Wednesday, Feb. 26. From there the bill was sent to the House State Affairs committee and there it sits untouched.

On Wednesday, March 12, Hickman put on her Sunday-best and waited outside the House chambers for two hours hoping to get a meeting with House State Affairs chairman Tom Loertscher, Republican from Iona, to ask why her bill has been stalled.

During her patient wait for Loertscher she had the opportunity to speak with House Speaker Scott Bedke who told her “No more cute and tenacious. That has gotten you this far, but now you have to work the State Affairs committee like the rest of us. You don’t like your mom telling you what to do and the committee members don’t like me telling them what to do either.”

Hickman eventually got her meeting with Loertscher, but instead of getting a hearing for her bill she got an impromptu quiz on state symbols. She passed.

Loertscher told Hickman there would not be time for House State Affairs to hold a hearing because the committee is working on three bills that have to be done to ensure a Friday, March 21, adjournment.

So it is ridiculous this young lady had to work so hard to get a meeting with a representative to discuss a bill already passed by the Senate. It is also ridiculous that, as a bill author, she was patronized by the Speaker of House and the State Affairs committee chairman.

However, what makes this story truly ridiculous is Hickman has been working to have the Idaho Giant Salamander designated as the official state amphibian for five years. This young lady has made this a priority for more than one third of her lifetime. She has learned about and then used the process to seek action about something she is passionate about.

The House State Affairs committee only needs five minutes to read the bill and vote to either pass the bill on to the floor or not. In five years (450 constitutionally mandated legislative days) Idaho lawmakers have not found five minutes in the House schedule and five minutes in the Senate schedule to reward her hard work? Instead she is left sitting outside the House chambers for two hours only to be patronized with a quiz about other state symbols. Hickman has played by the rules, she has done the work and remains passionate in the face of derision. Loertscher and Bedke may look at her with grandfatherly amusement but I say she deserves respect. She deserves a legitimate conversation.

Loertscher told reporters on Wednesday he found the concept of designating state symbols to be “weird” and did not understand why such things were done.

Let me fill in the blanks for Rep. Loertscher.

We designate state symbols so we can create a snapshot of the character and uniqueness of our state. A quick glance of what makes us proud to be Idahoan. We also designate symbols so we can more easily protect those points of pride from harm. It is illegal to kill a seagull in Idaho because it is the Utah state bird, which is the same reason it is illegal to kill a mountain blue bird in Utah. While the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife classifies the Idaho Giant Salamander as a “Species of Least Concern” with such a small habitat range one construction project could change that status quickly. Being the state amphibian will make it easier to protect delicate habitat if the need arises.

This group of lawmakers has decided to legislate by blind-eye turning. Hickman deserves a conversation. Add the Words protesters deserve a conversation. I am certain the potential 120 dying people Rusche cited would love to have a conversation before it is too late. Not every conversation will lead to changes in Idaho law, but these groups should get a conversation not a door slamming in their faces. The Idaho statehouse is for the people and by the people. Treat the people as such.

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