Stapilus: Diminished level of access
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Stapilus: Diminished level of access

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Put this down if you will to the grump of a watcher of long-ago Idaho legislative sessions – the arrival of a new decade tends to put exclamation points on the passage of time – but in some ways the Idaho Legislature functioned better in years, in decades, past.

And some of that has to do with the environment in which the work is done.

I’m comparing the legislature of today with that of three or four decades ago, but leaving out (for purposes here) the specific people or parties involved. Consider instead how they worked, and especially the access people had to those legislators.

There have been advances. Technology has helped. It allows for better presentations and better communications, and the ability of people around the state (and beyond) to observe, in real time, what’s going on, and even allows legislators to hear from people at remote locations (an effort that has been launched relatively recently and may be expanded). The statehouse renovation of some years ago has resulted in larger and more attractive quarters, and much of the open access to the building that was a long-time hallmark of the old way happily has been preserved.

But any visitor to the legislature who showed up in 1980 and then in 2020 might be shocked by the diminished level of access to legislators. There was a further-back time when access (especially by lobbyists, once known to stand right behind curtains that ringed the chambers) may have been too great. In 1980, most Idaho legislators did not have offices, and many of them worked at their desks on the Senate and House floor. Legislative offices were located nearby, and lawmakers who used them often were easy to find there.

Yes, those quarters were cramped and, really, even in 1980 weren’t adequate to needs. But today, the more common reality is that legislators either appear in meetings on the floor or in committees, and then appear to vanish – often into offices located floors away, and difficult to find if you’re not familiar with the building. Obviously they can talk to whoever they want to talk to, but unless you’re staff or a friend or ally you may never bump into them. Like too many of us, more than in decades past, they often live and work in a bubble.

All this is what came to my mind in watching the latest rounds of the long-running squabble between the leaders of the Idaho House and state Treasurer Julie Ellsworth over the office space on the first floor of the Statehouse, which long has been occupied by the treasurer’s office: The legislature wants the space for additional offices, and the treasurer’s office doesn’t want to move. A court hearing on the dispute is set for Tuesday.

Last week a group called Priorities Over Private Offices (the origins and membership of the group have been unclear) announced itself and blasted the legislative move and the estimated millions in spending for the renovation.

Its arguments included, “Idahoans do not want to waste $10.5 million of taxpayer dollars on offices that will be used three months a year. Idahoans do not want the historic original offices within the Idaho Capitol destroyed to make room for new offices to have private meetings with lobbyists. The public’s business should be conducted in public; not in closed door meetings with lobbyists.”

Looking ahead, as the state grows so will its legislative (and other state) operations, and so will office space. That may be close to inevitable.

But legislators should be careful, maybe more careful than they have been up to now, that they do not shut themselves off from the public – from people who want to see them, as opposed to people they want to see.

Remembering back to the years around 1980, I can recall many an occasion when the course of legislation, and the views of a legislator, changed because of unexpected or even chance encounters. Those seem to be happening less. The legislature convening this week might do well to keep some of those long-time trends, and the problems as well as the solutions of better working space, in mind.

Randy Stapilus is a former Idaho newspaper reporter and editor and blogs at www.ridenbaugh.com. He can be reached at stapilus@ridenbaugh.com.

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