Lights! Camera! Legislature!

By: - June 13, 2007 12:00 am

Photo by Dennis Fetzler, Idaho Public Television

“State Legislature” was filmed at the Idaho State Capitol during the 2004 session.

The Idaho Legislature stars in a documentary set to air on PBS Wednesday, with a supporting cast of lobbyists, pages, reporters, tourists and activists who ventured to the Boise capitol in 2004.

The 3.5-hour “State Legislature” pulls together footage of both public debate and private conversations that took place during the 69-day session. Tearful crime victims testify, impassioned activists buttonhole lawmakers, lobbyists haggle with each other and reporters try to coax good quotes out of their sources.
The documentary, which debuted at the Berlin International Film Festival, will be shown on the East Coast at 9 p.m. EDT, but viewing times vary across the country.
Director Frederick Wiseman, who has produced documentaries for more than 30 years, culled more than 130 hours of raw footage to create a film he has described as showing how state legislators make decisions and exercise power in a way that goes beyond a textbook description of how a bill becomes law.
Wiseman, who gained fame with previous award-winning documentaries on high school, horse racing and prison hospitals, chose Idaho’s Legislature because it is made up of part-time lawmakers and because the layout of the capitol made it easy to film, according to his publicist.
The result is a piece with moments that could have been filmed in any of the country’s 50 state capitols, plus scenes that are obviously unique to Idaho.
Debates over smoking bans, utility deregulation and school funding explore topics familiar around the country. Local flavor is injected as members take up issues such as Canadian cattle, water rights and dairy sites.
Photo courtesy Idaho Film, Inc.

Idaho State Rep. Joseph S. Cannon (R) in debate on the floor of the Idaho State House during the documentary “State Legislature.”

There are numerous jibes at out-of-state environmentalists and government generally, federal, state and local.

In one scene, a lobbyist begins a meeting with the top officers of the House and Senate by reading a long joke that compares the makeup of government to a particle made up of morons and peons. He finishes, then reveals he wants help in securing more federal money for his client, a transportation agency that is another government entity.
Partisan politics rarely take the stage. Republicans dominate the Legislature, to the point that one senator reads directly from the state GOP platform during a floor debate.

The documentary opens with a group of visiting school kids in the rotunda. Then-House Speaker Bruce Newcomb (R), a rancher, explains their state’s 105 House and Senate members are so representative of the state it’s the equivalent of a herd picked by taking the first 105 cows that walk through a gate.
“This is a citizen Legislature, so you’re no better than the people you represent, and they’re no better than you are, but you’re all equal,” he says.
Photo courtesy of Idaho Film, Inc.

Idaho State Senator R. Skipper “Skip” Brandt (R) debates on the Senate floor during the 2004 legislative session.

Without a narrator, the film shows how part-time lawmakers wrestle with impassioned pleas from colleagues and ordinary citizens to ban smoking in restaurants, allow illegal immigrants to get driver’s licenses and erect an “American heritage” monument that includes the Ten Commandments.

Sparks fly when a well-prepared lobbyist asks a Senate panel to move legislation requiring building contractors to be licensed by the state. No one initially rises against the idea. Eventually, a libertarian activist in the audience objects, only to be lambasted by a Republican lawmaker on the panel. The licensing bill passes the committee unanimously on a voice vote.
A strategy session among legislators and lobbyists to ban “video voyeurism,” the surreptitious recording of people with cell phones or hidden cameras, gets dragged down because the participants can’t figure out how to throw the book at bad guys without jeopardizing prankster frat boys or workers’ compensation investigators.
The documentary also captures snippets of other goings-on in the Capitol.
Young pages hand-collate legislation on a long table. A pianist plays in the rotunda, while lawmakers grab food from a buffet line. A group of school children dances in traditional Mexican garb.
And a Johnson & Johnson lobbyist uses a virtual-reality device to show legislators what a visit to the doctor’s office would be like for a schizophrenic patient without medication.

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