Researchers from Washington State University wanted to know: How can you improve the public view of state government and the Legislature, improve the legislative process, and make Olympia a more civil place?
So professors Nicholas Lovrich and Francis Benjamin conducted surveys with past and present Washington legislators, staff and lobbyists — and came away with a treasure trove of observations about how legislators are perceived, how their public image could be enhanced, how the legislative process itself could be improved, how the workload and sleep deprivation could be addressed, and how civility could be improved.
A few examples of survey findings: Legislators give Olympia high marks, but expect the public’s grade for them would be much lower; lawmakers say they’re open to new insights, but staff and lobbyists think they rely heavily on facts already known; and legislators say they enjoy both structure and spontaneity, while staff and lobbyists say legislators don’t show a lot of flexibility or spontaneity. The survey said legislators say they spend 65 hours a week during session and 31 hours a week off-session. Some report poor or inadequate sleep.
Former Secretary of State Sam Reed led a panel of current and former legislators to respond to the findings and offer possible improvements.
Former House Speaker Joe King said critics show a “nostalgia for a time that never was…. This is a rough and tumble place … I think it’s not an uncivil place.” But a fellow Democrat, former House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler, strongly disagreed, saying Olympia is becoming more uncivil and toxic, with little of the camaraderie and good-naturedness of days past. The larger culture has degraded to the point where disrespectful language is common, and accepted, she said.
Other panelists, including Sens. Mark Schoesler and Karen Fraser and Reps. Hans Zeiger and Marcus Riccelli, gave a variety of suggestions for improving the process, public perception, and civility. A sampler: Expand TVW television to allow people to testify remotely, create a midweek break for legislators to rest or catch up with their workload, decrease the number of bills under consideration, do more prep work during the off-season, and do more members-only socializing, sports and meals together.
Sponsors of the event were Secretary of State Kim Wyman, the Foley Institute at WSU, Ruckelshaus Center at UW and WSU, Council of Faculty Representatives, and Council of Presidents.