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Two-sided civility

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The Idaho Senate President pro tem, Brent Hill, had some words for a crowd that held a meeting in the home district of one of the state senators, C. Scott Grow, a fellow Republican from Eagle. Grow did not appear at the meeting, which drew about 80 constituents; apparently Hill had asked him to attend another event instead. In response a cardboard representation of Grow was installed at the event.

Here’s what Hill was quoted as saying:

“In the front of the room you placed a cardboard effigy of one of my colleagues. He became the target of … mockery because you disagreed with him on an issue. … It’s my fault. So next time you can place my effigy next to his and I’d be honored to be in his company. I am glad he didn’t go to the meeting now when I found out what the obvious intent of the meeting was. But folks, if you think it’s acceptable to use those kind of tactics to gin people up, to get them to contact their legislators or to distrust their government or to sign a petition, then that makes me sad that we’ve come to that. And if you think that that behavior picked up any votes from this body you’re wrong.”

The words from Hill – who by longstanding reputation is a highly civil and even-tempered man – sound familiar coming from a member of legislative leadership. And that is why some unpacking of them is worthwhile.

The issue at hand, the reason the crowd developed at that meeting in Grow’s home district, was his sponsorship of a bill which would make the process of placing an initiative on Idaho election ballots just this side of impossible. Not just difficult (which it already is), but impossible. Grow was, in other words, seeking to take away from voters the effective right to pass their own laws, an assurance offered by the Idaho Constitution. These constituents faced being stripped of one of their constitutional rights by the action of one of their local legislators.

The request to hear an explanation for that from their legislator, and to expect their legislator to hear them out about why they thought this not a good idea, does not seem unreasonable.

It was blown off. It was blown off, in fact, the same way the state Senate had blown off public involvement, to the extent it realistically could, at the Statehouse. Initial moves were made to rush Grow’s bill through the legislative process before, from all appearances, the public could react. When the public did react, the committee hearing process was structured – there’s no other realistic way to interpret this – to admit as little of that reaction as possible.

When Grow did not appear at his constituents’ meeting (the choice was his, after all), his constituents reacted in like fashion to the way they’d been treated.

Was it the most mature and dispassionate possible way to react? Probably not. But it was completely in line with the way the Idaho Legislature, and their own local senator, had treated them.

Legislators operating during a session live in a closed world of civility (and more than that, a world that defers to them). But in dealing with their fellow citizens, they should remember they are relating to equals; the public, ultimately, is supposed to be the boss under our system of government. Legislators should expect no more (nor any less) civility and deference than they give.

This thought may not have occurred to a lot of legislators in recent years. For a couple of generations now at least, Idaho legislators almost never have been punished at the polls for maltreating their constituents – their voters – which they periodically have done (not least in regard to voter-passed initiatives). The gap between what Idahoans regularly say they want and what legislators regularly deliver continues to widen.

And so we wind up with constituent meetings like last week’s at Eagle. And we may get more than that over time. Even Idaho voters may yet have their breaking point.
 

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