• Marc Johnson

The People’s House


Thousands of Idahoans toured the building this weekend as it officially re-opened on the eve of what may prove to be the most difficult, most draconian legislative session since, well, maybe since 1933. The governor and legislative leaders have promised more deep cuts in education spending and even that distasteful strategy will almost certainly require additional deep cuts or proposed elimination of many other current state services. Stay tuned. We may well see a very different kind of state government come mid-April. Don’t buy the predictions of a quick and dirty session. Dirty yes, not quick.

Governor Butch Otter, who initially opposed much of the Capitol rehabilitation project, particularly the new underground “wings” which will house individual offices for each legislator and expansive new hearing rooms, was asked about the irony of moving into the spiffy “new” Statehouse in the midst of such a troubled economy. The governor acknowledged “there is some unease there.” But, frankly not much. Republicans and Democrats alike resist any real acknowledgement of the enormous cost of the project and what it just might say about the state’s priorities.

The public ceremony and press coverage have centered on the magnificence of the restoration and new construction – and it is magnificent – as well as on what may turn out to be the great myth of the Statehouse story – that the building will continue to be “the people’s house.”

Perhaps the best thing that can be said about the Statehouse project is that it has served to undo the often shoddy, make do amendments to the building that took place in a generally haphazard manner over the years.

Gone is the opportunity like that seized by the late journalist, author and occasional politician Dwight Jensen to move his cot and hot plate into the old fourth floor press center and set up housekeeping. Gone is the dumpy snack bar on the first floor that mostly served the permanent workers in the building. It gave way to an expansive cafeteria where it remains to be seen whether lawmakers will want to break bread together.

I like the new gift shop and visitor center, something the “old” building lacked and needed and the displays recounting Idaho history on the “garden level” are very well done. Still and all, I will miss a certain intimacy and informality that existed before.

What will be vastly different, I think, in the new building is a sense of openness and accessibility. Hearing rooms will be larger, to be sure, providing a seat for observers. Often in the past crowds would gather in hearing room doorways to catch a glimpse of the action inside. Still you were close to the action, almost intimate with the players. Attending a hearing in the new digs will make one feel like a spectator sitting in a courtroom listening in while important people make decisions.

It will now be possible – and because it will be so convenient, I suspect it will happen routinely – for many legislators to move from their private offices down a non-public hallway and into a hearing room. From the new “garden level” offices lawmakers will utilize private elevators to go directly to the third floor where House and Senate chambers are located. In other words, legislators can do the vast majority of their work without ever setting foot in the public parts of the building. This is very different in both practice and symbolism from what has existed for nearly 100 years.

Years ago, as a reporter, I was sitting just behind the Republican chairman of the House State Affairs Committee during a particularly tense hearing. In the middle of the hearing, in walked Senator Art Murphy, a Democrat and one of the legendary lawmakers from northern Idaho’s Silver Valley. Not only was Murphy not a member of the committee, he was a Senate interloper from the other side of the building.

“Pops,” as Murphy was known to all, had a tightly rolled copy of the Kellogg Evening News in his hand. As he passed the head of the table where Chairman John Reardon sat, he was so close that he playfully, but firmly, thumped the rolled up newspaper on the back of Reardon’s head. Everyone who witnessed the moment gasped, then laughed out loud and the tension went out of the room. Nothing like that is likely to ever happen in the “new” building. A Pop Murphy, if there ever is another like him, couldn’t get close enough to the chairman or the action.

Also years ago, a former Associate Press Correspondent, Mark Wilson, who had worked for the wire service in Washington, D.C. and Austin, Texas, marveled at the enormous access Idahoans had to their elected officials. I remember Mark saying, in the short time since he had relocated to Idaho, that he had seen and talked to the governor, the speaker of the house, and state elected officials a hundred more times than he ever had in Austin. If not immediately, over time, such openness is likely to be a major casualty of the renovation/expansion.

Lobbyists – perhaps fittingly now relegated to an huge old walk-in vault – and reporters will figure out how to grab a quick conversation with a busy legislator, but you have to wonder what “beekeeper’s day at the legislature” will be like in the future. In the “old” Statehouse, an enterprising citizen could work the hallways for a couple of hours and button hole half the members of the legislature. Now, you’ll most likely need to make an appointment.

Frank Lloyd Wright or the brilliant men who designed and built the Idaho Capitol – Tourtellotte and Hummel – would tell us that form follows function. The vast majority of the building will sit unused for most of the year. [Look for sessions to grow even long and staff to grow even larger.] Beyond the 90 days or so that the legislature is in session, there will be little reason for the public to visit the building other than to admire the architecture. The Secretary of State’s licensing functions, for example, a reason for real people to visit the Statehouse, are no longer in the building. Outside of the legislative session, the magnificent “people’s house” will feel more and more like a quiet museum.

For nearly eight years, I had the singular honor – and pleasure – of occupying an office on the second floor in the west wing of the Idaho Statehouse. It still gives me pause to think about what it means to have the chance – and the responsibility – to work in such a place, while trying to attend to the public business. I do believe that great public buildings, in the very best way, have an ability to provide inspiration and encourage aspiration. One ought not to walk into the Idaho Capitol – or the U.S. Capitol, or the Supreme Court, or a thousand other great public buildings – without a sense that the grand brick and mortar as a foundation on which a great democracy is built. At their best, great public buildings should remind us that our mortal efforts too often fall short, while inspiring us to do better.

I suspect we will have many opportunities over the next few weeks to reflect, while public schools, higher education and other state budgets are more deeply slashed or eliminated, on whether “it was worth” it to spend scarce public dollars on such a project. I’d be the first to argue for preserving and restoring an incredible public building. But the renovation/expansion has also changed the essential nature of the building and, make no mistake, it will impact the lawmakers and the lawmaking. Time will tell whether Idahoans like what they have bought once the initial shine wears off.

Here is hoping we always benefit from an open, accessible legislature, not to mention an enlightened, forward looking public policy that comes close to matching the new surroundings.

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©2019 by Marc C Johnson