Interview with Elliot Werk


Elliot Werk 

False budget surpluses, rumors of running for City Council and ‘pulverizing’ his opponents

by George Prentice

Elliot Werk is an active man during the summer. In spite of conventional wisdom that Idaho lawmakers are busiest when the Legislature is in session, Werk said he gets a lot more done for his constituents in the nine months that he’s not at the Statehouse. Werk, 54, is serving his fifth term as state senator for Idaho’s 17th District, and he has every intention of staying in public service. But, he said, the work has been challenging, particularly this year’s session.

I want to read you something that Republican Sen. Brent Hill said on April 7, the final day of the 2011 Legislature: “History will tell whether this was a session of great accomplishments or failures.”

History is already beginning to show us that the session was a spectacular failure. It started out by undercutting the revenue forecast by more than $80 million. Then the majority slashed and burned health care and education. At our lowest ebb, the Legislature should be fiscally responsible. Believe me, I don’t have any higher aims for this current Legislature but fiscal responsibility should be a keystone. And undercutting your revenue projections and hurting your citizens is not fiscal responsibility.

We’re months away from January 2012, but is there any reason to believe that next year’s session will be any different?

I’m not an expert on revenue forecasts, but I do know that if your projections are based on a false premise from the previous year, then you’ll be working from a number that is ridiculously low.

Let’s talk about Idaho’s revenue surplus that was announced on June 30, when fiscal year 2011 came to a close.

First of all, there wasn’t a surplus. When you low-ball your revenue estimates, slash and burn education, disenfranchise people from medical care, and you end up with a little more revenue in the basket, that’s not a surplus. Thank goodness federal requirements sent some of that money back to education, but the governor decided to use much of the rest for a $10 grocery tax credit that most people aren’t going to notice. Instead he could have sent money to Medicaid, where we could have leveraged three to four times more money in matching federal funds.

Most people don’t think about the Legislature until after the holidays.

Most people don’t think about the Legislature, period.

In the months leading up the new session, how do you prepare?

Being a Democrat and living in Boise, I end up on a lot of interim committees. Last year I was on seven. This year, I know that I’m on at least five. But the reality is that the nine months that I’m not in the Legislature are the best months for me. While the Legislature has gotten more difficult to deal with for anybody with progressive ideas, in the community as a state senator, I can do a lot.

Give me an example of that.

I worked with the Borah Neighborhood Association to get the Ada County Highway District to perform new traffic flow analyses. We ended up putting in 30-40 new stop signs in the neighborhoods. Speed bumps, potholes, signage, problems with bars. There’s a lot of stuff to do in these nine months.

What are your constituents’ main concerns this summer?

Generally, they’re exceedingly turned off by politics.

State and national?

A lot of people don’t discern between the two. They think the federal government is crazy and the state government is crazy, too. This summer, they’re very disengaged. Plus there are very few elections going on. Even the city elections are very quiet.

Speaking of which, where did the rumor start about the possibility of you running for the Boise City Council?

I’m fairly well known for being involved in the city. The mayor calls me Boise’s only alderman. It wasn’t illogical for somebody to think that I might run.

Did you spend some time considering it?

Yeah, I considered it. I’m very concerned about the future of the city. I’ve been around for good and bad administrations, so I’ve seen what bad administrations and bad councils can do to the city. The idea that somebody allowed skyscrapers to be built along Capitol Boulevard is tragic when you think about it. It’s a viewscape that is exceedingly valuable. When the Grove Hotel or Washington Trust buildings come down someday, and they will, maybe we’ll have enough sense to say never again.

What does the city need that it doesn’t have?

A much better set of guidelines when it comes to development. I know that the city is working toward that. We also need to be working in greater concert with other cities and the county in planning for our future.

Do you have any particular thoughts about the board of the Greater Boise Auditorium District? There has been quite a bit of contention that is aired publicly on a regular basis.

Well that’s better than the public being kept in the dark about some internal fighting. I see GBAD as being more positive now, because the new majority is looking to move forward. There is a minority that is trying to kick and scream its way backward, but you have to hope at some point that those folks will come together. I’m optimistic about the change.

What’s the chance of you still being a state senator five years from now?

What’s the chance of me being alive? There are too many variables.

Like what?

I could easily be taken out of District 17 by the Redistricting Commission. The Republicans have a plan that draws a line, effectively cutting me out of my own district. I don’t think that’s accidental. They know where I live.

But I’m guessing that you would be more than willing to wage a campaign, no matter what district you’re in.

It is never my intent to lose an election. People understand how competitive I am and how hard I work. If I decide I want to stay in the State Senate, I’m going to pulverize whoever runs against me. That’s what I do.

Do you know men and women who might want your job as state senator?

I’ve had lots of people say they want to run against me; and I say, “Good luck.”

Would you ever run for statewide office?

I would only get involved in a race where I could win. Right now, a Democrat’s chance of winning a statewide race is pretty tough.

What do you think the state Democratic Party has to do differently?

People don’t really understand what Idaho Democrats are all about. I’ve heard far too many people equate Idaho Democrats with federal Democrats, which we hardly resemble at all. We need to get people to understand who we really are, rather than the demonized version of federal democrats that people seem to buy into from the Rush Limbaughs of the world.

Have you heard or read that Tom Luna might consider running for governor or Congress someday?

I have heard that.

And what do you think of that?

My mother said if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.

Do you know him?

I’ve known Tom since 2002. He’s a nice enough man. I think his politics and policies are extreme and excessive. I have dealt with him in negotiations where I found him to be disingenuous. I think he has an ideologic grasp of issues rather than a pragmatic grasp of what is truly happening. Those are the kinds of people who I think should never be elected to higher office. For example, people who promise to sign a no-tax pledge–or any pledge for that matter–they don’t have the flexibility to adequately represent their constituency. I don’t think that kind of person should ever be elected. Being an ideologue doesn’t help anybody. It’s no way to govern. We’ve seen that kind of governing result in unnecessary wars and profligate spending that drives us into bankruptcy.

So where do you find your optimism these days?

I understand that people are really scared right now. This is basically a great depression, and people do very interesting things when they’re scared. But I have a lot of faith in the unbelievable capacity of people when they get done with their fear, take a deep breath, look around and decide whether or not they like what is really going on.

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