One commenter recently decried the fact that we “politicians” deal in controversy as a way to move other people to our point of view. Maybe controversy is inherent in the legislative process, where debate is the central tool. To many who do not practice it, debate can feel very aggressive. Or maybe controversy is even more elemental than that; maybe it’s simply human nature.
Legislators do not have to create controversy.People bring it to us daily because it’s our job to sort it out.
On Wednesday, I and eight other Local Government and Taxation committee members heard two contentious bills, with testimony and debate that lasted for almost five hours.
The first involved an effort to allow greater controls over “transition homes” which house men and women recently released from incarceration and people seeking recovery from addiction. Homeowners who prompted the legislation, while acknowledging the need for transition homes, testified about their concerns for the safety of their families and their neighborhoods. They supported decreasing the allowable number of adults to five (the norm for single-family residential zoning) or zoning restrictions to move these homes into light industrial areas.
Operators of the homes pointed out that the success of their program relies on full-time supervision and programs, and that limiting the homes to five residents would make them economically unfeasible. Some current residents spoke of the benefits of being in residential neighborhoods, where they feel motivated to become regular members of society. Others credited the transition homes with keeping them from re-offending. An employee of the Department of Corrections, while neutral on the bill, did cite a concern that restrictions on the number of people could result in more homes in more neighborhoods, with less supervision.
The second bill, House Bill 470, was much more technical involving federally subsidized low-income housing projects. The question, brewing for decades, was whether county assessors should consider the federal payments on equity in the buildings as “income” when using the income appraisal method.
Assessors said this would be more fair to other tax payers by avoiding a shift of the tax burden to them. One also noted that competing rental property owners could be at a disadvantage if the subsidized apartments were appraised based only on their lower rents. Developers and building managers noted that their taxes are already nearly equal to non-subsidized apartment buildings and much higher than any of the neighboring states. An executive from the Idaho Housing and Finance Association testified that the projects, with their rents fixed far below market rates, could not bear the added tax expense and that some existing and future projects would be unfeasible.
But this issue too had its human, emotional side. In the days leading up to the hearing, hundreds of emails and faxes flowed into the Capitol annex. Many targeted the committee chairman, and these were of the sort where senior citizens pleaded to not be thrown out of their homes. There was an implication that a developer had purposely exaggerated the situation to create fear among the residents. One couple drove from Rexburg to tell the committee how important the affordable housing had been in their lives, allowing them to afford a college education and contribute to society. A retired woman told a different story, of how she had worked and paid taxes for decades and now relied on affordable housing for a place to live.
These are two examples from among the hundreds of bills we vote on every session. Many legislators strive to learn both sides of an issue before casting a vote. It takes a lot of effort to sift through the nuances; things are rarely as black-and-white as an advocate on either side would claim. But at the end of the debate - after all of the people on both sides have made their pleas – it’s our responsibility to vote. People bring their controversies to the legislature. Sometimes there are good arguments on both sides, and we know that our vote - either way - will leave some people feeling harmed or wronged.
So it makes sense that politics is controversial. And it makes sense to criticize politicians, using rational arguments, for voting the wrong way (i.e.: not your way.) That’s a wonderful part of the public discourse. But it seems hypocritical to me when people criticize politicians for dealing in controversy. We were put here, by you, precisely to do this job.
Sen. David Langhorst