Civility study Nicholas Lovrich

Nicholas Lovrich, emeritus professor of political science at Washington State University, presents the results of a new national study of legislative civility at Boise State University on Nov. 19.

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BOISE – Civility has declined at the Idaho Legislature, but not as much as in other states or in Washington, D.C., according to a new study released Tuesday at Boise State University.

BSU researchers joined those from 10 other universities around the nation in the study, which was led by Washington State University and funded by the National Institute for Civil Discourse and WSU. It surveyed more than 1,300 lobbyists who work in state legislatures in all 50 states, and followed up on a survey three years earlier of legislators themselves.

Boise State University political scientist emeritus Gary Moncrief, who participated in the study, said, “Everyone said, ‘Yeah, we’re better than D.C., and that’s because we have to do a budget every year, and it has to be balanced.’ … Most people don’t appreciate that.”

The survey showed Idaho isn’t immune to a national trend toward less civility, less compromise and more polarization in civic discourse, accompanied by declining trust in U.S. government institutions.

“There’s a broad feeling that something’s wrong, that something’s broken,” said Nicholas Lovich, the lead researcher and an emeritus professor at WSU, “that we used to do things in a way that wasn’t so nasty and wasn’t so horrible.”

The study explored whether the gridlock that’s emerged in Congress is beginning to infect state legislatures, and it found that, at least in the view of lobbyists, it has started to, but to a much lesser extent. The lobbyists who were surveyed represent a wide array of interests, from contract lobbyists for private business interests to those representing agencies, non-profits and public interest groups.

Asked to rate their state’s most recent legislative session on a scale of 1 to 10 for the general civility of legislators, Idaho came in at an average rating of 5.69, leaning slightly toward the “very civil” end of the spectrum, and slightly moreso than the national average of 5.44.

However, Moncrief noted that the survey preceded Idaho’s most recent legislative session — and he said if the most recent session were included, Idaho likely would have fared worse.

“It was a very tough session almost from the get-go, where the stakes are really high,” he said, “because of the initiative thing, because of the Medicaid thing.”

This year’s Legislature passed legislation to sharply restrict future ballot initiatives, on the heels of Idaho voters successfully enacting Medicaid expansion by initiative, a move the Legislature had long resisted. Gov. Brad Little vetoed the anti-initiative legislation.

Among the comments from Idaho lobbyists who were surveyed:

“Because one party dominates all elected offices, there is less of a need to work in a bipartisan fashion.”

“Hyper-partisanship and a supermajority in the state Legislature make Idaho incredibly unfriendly to anyone not lobbying for business interests.”

“Our system is being challenged by those on the fringe more interested in causing trouble than solving problems. This takes on the look of hyper-partisanship.”

“The issue is a growing number of state legislators are influenced by out-of-state/national information and dark money sources, which are influencing legislators and their voting records.”

Lovich noted that polling by the National Institute for Civil Discourse shows that 75% of Americans believe incivility has risen to crisis levels, and 59% have quit paying attention to politics because of it. He said that figure is particularly troubling, and helped prompt the research.

Betsy Z. Russell is the Boise bureau chief and state capitol reporter for the Idaho Press and Adams Publishing Group. Follow her on Twitter at @BetsyZRussell.

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