Friday, January 13, 2012

Bad start for the Legislature

Put on your crash helmets, Idaho. The Legislature is back in session in Boise.

Out of the gate, Republicans pardoned disgraced Sen. John McGee and let him remain caucus chair—the fourth most powerful spot in that party's leadership.

Last summer, the 38-year-old four-term Caldwell senator pleaded guilty to drunk driving in a plea deal that dropped a charge of stealing an SUV and cargo trailer. The senator claimed, with the backing of a neurologist, that erratic behavior at the time of his arrest was the result of a head injury sustained when he fell as the result of being drunk.

Yet, Boise police claim that he would have been treated in jail if such an injury had existed. He has refused to release his medical records to the public.

Adding to his woes, the Associated Press reported last summer that he had collected $122 per day compensation, or about $6,000 per year, intended for legislators who have to maintain a second home in Boise. Except he didn't.

Without a second home, legislators may collect $49 a day. McGee's home is 26 miles away, and he stayed at his parents' home in Boise during the last legislative session. He says the daily compensation policy needs clarification. However, it was clear enough to other lawmakers in his region who collected the smaller amount.

Despite McGee's travails, Republicans decided to let him keep his rank and responsibilities. They're not saying why because legislative rules allowed them to consider his fate behind closed doors.

So what are the messages here?

One, it doesn't matter what a legislator does—it's whom he knows that matters. If his friends are the majority party in Idaho, so much the better.

Two, exhibiting bad judgment and violating a law—like drinking to excess and driving anyway—should not deprive a legislator of a leadership position for which good judgment is a key requirement.

Three, acting chastened and humble can cover a multitude of sins in politics.

Four, a legislator may line his pockets with public money as long as he claims that rules covering it are confusing.

Clearly, McGee's constituents are responsible for deciding whether to return him to office in the next election.

But in the meantime, Republicans in the Legislature should have stripped McGee of his position, made him pay back any money he collected as a result of so-called "confusing" compensation rules and delivered a harsh reprimand.

Instead, they inspired contempt for the drunk driving laws that are there to protect the lives of innocent people and contempt for elected leaders who made it clear that the rules for them are different than they are for ordinary people.

It was a stunningly bad start.

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