Sunday, December 10, 2023

OPINION: Legislature atmosphere

by DEAN HAAGENSON/Guest Opinion
| September 8, 2023 1:00 AM

In the 1980s, I had the honor of serving as an Idaho State Representative. It was truly an honor. I gained some lifelong friends and learned much about our diverse state and issues most important to its regions. I learned about the importance of water to the farmers in the Snake River Plain, for example. I learned that many of the residents of southern and southeastern Idaho thought McCall was in North Idaho.

It was a different time, far less contentious and more congenial than the current atmosphere. To be sure, there were issues that prompted strong and pointed debate, but that debate never, in my memory, became personal. There were many friendships across the aisle even though we may disagree on important issues. The rules of decorum were universally respected.

Why have things changed so much in 30-plus years? To be certain, our county and our state have become more polarized. While that is true, why did that move us from vigorous and tough debate to personal animosity? Surely there are many reasons, but I think a recent change in the physical arrangement in our state capitol has contributed to the change.

During my time, we had no offices and worked only from the small desks at our seats. In this atmosphere, we all worked in close proximity to one another and communicated frequently, often across the aisle. We got to know one another well which fortunately made it hard to be personal in our disagreements. A few years ago, small cubicles were created on a lower floor to provide a private office for each legislator. While this offered a more private and spacious place to work, it also diminished the opportunity to closely interact with colleagues. This may seem like a small change, but I believe it is a major factor in the loss of communication and perhaps diminished respect making differences more combative and personal. Another impact of this change was that it provided an escape route from the chamber to the cubicle thus avoiding any interaction with citizens who might be waiting outside the chamber doors.

While I found my service to be educational and enjoyable, I am told by former colleagues, “You would not want to be here in the current environment.” If so, it is extremely unfortunate that over time, the atmosphere has become less collegial and more confrontational. Perhaps it would be useful to do away with the little offices and put the legislators back on the floor where they get to know one another outside from debate. Maybe.

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Dean Haagenson is a founding member of the North Idaho Republicans.

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