IDAHO AMENDMENT: Idaho set to vote on special session rule
Nov. 3—Idaho voters will weigh in on a balance of power issue next week when they consider a legislative proposal to amend the Idaho Constitution.
If approved by a simple majority of voters, the amendment would give the Legislature the authority to call itself back into special session at any point after the regular session has adjourned.
Currently, only the governor has that power, and it's been exercised somewhat rarely: There have only been seven special sessions over the past 40 years.
The most recent one took place in September, when Gov. Brad Little called lawmakers back to Boise to thwart a proposed education funding ballot initiative, and to approve more than $660 million in one-time and ongoing tax relief.
If approved, the proposed amendment would require the Senate president pro tem and House speaker to call a special session "upon receipt of a joint written petition" signed by at least 60% of the members of both chambers.
Having the power to call themselves back into session, without relying on the governor, is something lawmakers have discussed for years.
In 2014 and again in 2016, for example, the Senate approved proposed amendments that would have allowed the Legislature to reconvene if necessary to override any gubernatorial veto made after the regular session adjourned. Neither resolution was considered by the House, however.
The impetus for this latest proposal came in 2020, when lawmakers were largely sidelined during the state's response to the COVID-19 pandemic. They had little input into the expenditure of millions of dollars in federal coronavirus relief funds, and no say in the governor's emergency orders.
After stewing over that for months, lawmakers came into the 2021 legislative session intent on reasserting their authority. Amending the Constitution to give themselves the power to reconvene when they think it's necessary was the first measure to pass either chamber that year.
"We made a promise to our constituents that we would rein in the executive branch, rein in public health districts and have the ability to call ourselves back into session," noted Rep. Brent Crane, R-Nampa, during the Jan. 21, 2021, floor debate. "That's what this (resolution) does. We're here to honor our word."
Rep. Charlie Shepherd, R-Pollock, said he'd long been under the "illusion" that there were three equal branches of government.
"It wasn't until this pandemic came along that I was educated about what's really going on," he said. "If we can't meet without permission from the executive branch, how does that make us equal?"
Critics note that the proposed amendment doesn't place any restrictions on the length or number of special sessions that might be called. They worry lawmakers won't be able to resist running back to the Statehouse to opine on the latest hot-button issue, thereby opening the door to a full-time Legislature.
Sen. Dan Johnson, now the mayor of Lewiston, was one of seven Republicans to vote against the proposed amendment. During the Senate floor debate, he said two-thirds of the House and Senate should sign the petition before the Legislature can call itself back into session.
"I don't have any fears about runaway legislation or about having a full-time Legislature, and I know Idaho citizens will have a chance to vote on this," he said. But the 60% figure "isn't something I support, and it's not something I'm willing to compromise on."
The proposed amendment does require that the petition specify what subjects could be considered during a special session; there would be no ability to consider or pass bills relating to any other topics, except as needed to pay the expenses of the session.
Senate President Pro Tem Chuck Winder, R-Boise, said effective governance requires an appropriate balance of power between the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government.
As the Idaho Constitution currently stands, the Legislature is at an extreme disadvantage, he said. Only the governor has the authority to call a special session, so there are times — such as during the pandemic — when lawmakers can't represent the interests of their constituents.
Right now, "the Legislature is just a small blip on the radar scope of balance of power," Winder said.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Idaho is one of only 14 states where only the governor can call a special session. The organization did not respond to questions regarding the frequency of special sessions in those states, compared to the other 36 states.
Former Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter recently issued a statement encouraging voters to reject the proposed amendment.
"I won't just be voting no on SJR (Senate Joint Resolution) 102. I'll be voting hell no," Otter said. "Controlling spending, cutting red tape and reining in government — like we've done for years in Idaho — would be impossible with an over-active legislative branch. Simply put, more legislative activity equals more government meddling and more regulations. Less legislative activity equals less government and fewer regulations."
He noted that Utah voters approved a similar constitutional amendment in 2018. Last year, the Utah House and Senate called themselves back to consider two resolutions related to critical race theory in schools and exploring whether to declare the state a Second Amendment sanctuary.
Newly elected Idaho GOP Chairperson Dorothy Moon issued her own statement in support of the amendment Wednesday, saying "no king or executive should be able to choose when the people's representatives (can) meet."
Moon criticized the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry, the largest business lobbying group in the state, for opposing the amendment.
"When they're not raising money for kids' drag queen shows or handing over Idaho's good-paying jobs to replacement labor from abroad, IACI does all it can to aggrandize the powers of the chief executive," she said. "This issue is at the very heart of meaningful separation of powers and our representative republican form of government. After being inundated with inquiries, I felt obligated to give my perspective."
In addition to the proposed constitutional amendment, the Nov. 8 ballot includes an advisory question related to the Sept. 1 special session.
It asks voters whether they approve or disapprove of the decision the Legislature made during that one-day session to cut taxes and set aside another $410 million for education.
The outcome of the vote has no effect on the status of the Legislature's action, which has already been enacted into law.
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