Idaho State Representative / House Appropriations Chair
By Mary Branham, CSG Managing Editor
As chair of the Idaho House of Representatives Appropriations Committee, Rep. Maxine Bell has learned one very important lesson: “It’s never about the numbers.”
“It’s about people and their lives,” she said.
She never forgets that—even when her state is facing budget challenges, as it has since the Great Recession began.
“You have to remember the ups and downs are going to happen and I keep thinking there’s a person behind every one of those figures,” Bell said. “If I were to decide that I needed more tax money, there’s somebody then that can’t buy his child new shoes or put a child in college. If I decide I’m going to not do something that everybody assumes they need, then there’s going to be repercussions.”
The past few years have been tough, but the people have been gracious, she said.
“I think it’s more difficult when you have a lot of money,” she said. “When I came into the legislature, they had just come off an extremely bad downturn and things were booming and getting better and better and better, so we started to play catch-up.”
The state fixed the infrastructure, started giving employees the tools they need to do their jobs and worked to keep good employees who were leaving as the economy improved.
Then came the stocks and bonds bubble and the housing bubble. Then those bubbles burst.
“We simply went down so far that time that we have not been able to get structurally balanced again yet,” Bell said. “That was hard, but prior to that, everybody wanted a piece of the income.”
Now, she said, people know the state doesn’t have a lot of money and don’t ask for a lot.
“It’s not easy to say no, but it’s easier to balance the no’s than to balance the people that want everything,” she said.
But even with that caveat, Bell still has worries.
“The thing that worries me most is the law of unintended consequences,” she said. “There is a backlog, now, of unmet needs. Sooner or later, we’ve got to start addressing those unmet needs because, after all, this is a business and so far we’ve not been able to.”
This year doesn’t look good for addressing those needs, she said. Idaho will be able to take care of the growth in schools, prisons and Medicaid, but not much more.
“It’s the perfect storm, too, because you have the Affordable Care Act facing you, and then the economy,” she said. “Our economy is still lagging behind our expectations and these unmet needs (are) sitting around.”
That means someone is going to be unhappy, Bell said.
“Right now,” she said, “the schools are so unhappy with us and we’ve had to cut our school funding the last two or three years. It’s been very difficult for them because we were making headway in providing resources the schools needed. The children keep coming; they don’t quit.”
Classrooms are a lot bigger, she said, and the teachers’ lives are hard.
“You can explain yourself until you’re blue in the face, but it impacts that teacher,” Bell said. “You just simply have to make sure you’re as even as you can be in handling everything and remember the people behind it.”
In Idaho and in many states with citizen legislatures, which Bell calls “the best system in the world,” that’s easy to do.
“You’re never there so long that you forget where you lived, and you’re home enough and people see you to keep you pondering what you did or what you might do,” she said. “They’re your neighbors and their children have gone to school with your children.
“Everything we do up there has an impact on the people we come home and then have to explain ourselves to.”
Bell made one promise to her constituents when she was first running for the legislature in 1988: “I don’t know what I can promise you, but I can promise you I will work at the issues,” she said.
She had been a precinct committee member for 10 years before her first run for elective office. In addition to operating a family farm with her husband Jack, Maxine Bell worked as a middle school librarian.
“I didn’t really know what I was getting into, but I loved the challenge,” Bell said of her run for the legislature.
She still does.
“It’s the most fascinating, the most challenging job in the world,” she said, “because we’re citizens. We come home, we go to Walmart, and we go to church. We fill our cars and then we go back and we’re up there (in Boise) for two or three months.”
Being away from home and her husband Jack is the one part Bell doesn’t like about serving. She hails from what she calls “Magic Valley,” an hour south of Sun Valley and right on the Snake River. Her community has some of the biggest fish farms in the world. The area has a lot of dairies, and Chobani just build a huge yogurt plant there.
Bell grew up in Utah, and moved to Idaho with her mother after Bell’s father died. She got an associate degree so she could work in the middle school library after her son, Randy, a teacher, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She wanted to be at the school with him so he could work as long as possible. Randy died just as Bell was moving into the legislature.
Bell offers this advice to new legislators: “Listen to each other. Don’t fall on your sword over one issue,” she said. “Look for ways to work with others and listen rather than speak. There’s so much to be learned.”