Idaho Senate adjourns, House eyes 2021 return after state’s longest legislative session

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After starting on Jan. 11 and continuing in session for 122 days, the 2021 Idaho Legislative Session has ended.

For now.

The Idaho Senate adjourned at around 11 p.m. Wednesday, according to the Senate’s reading calendar. Sine die is the official term and the typical ending of a legislative session for the year, and only Idaho’s governor can call lawmakers into a special session following sine die.

But in the Gem State’s other legislative chamber, there was no sine die. The House passed House Resolution 4, which allows for a recess until Speaker of the House Scott Bedke calls the chamber back to Boise. He can do so no later than Dec. 31. The resolution also suspended per diem payments and expenses while the House is in recess unless approved by Bedke.

The House recess would allow lawmakers to go back into session without needing Gov. Brad Little to sign off on a special session.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Kelly Anthon told The Associated Press that Bedke could call the House back into session this year and potentially force a vote to call the Senate back into session as well.

“Under the spirit of the Idaho Constitution, it’s contemplated that we go home,” Anthon said of the part-time Legislature. “That we are not here in Boise year-round. Even if there can be a procedural loophole around that, there’s not a desire for that in the Idaho Senate Republicans.”

At a news conference Thursday morning, Bedke said, “What we’ve done is we’ve kept our foot in the door in case of the unforeseen this summer.”

State lawmakers have said they need to convene again in 2021 to deal with the impacts of redistricting. State law requires the redistricting committee to convene by June 1, though 2020 Census results have been delayed. Census officials say the data will not be complete until August. The redistricting committee will then have 90 days to declare new districts. Lawmakers said they may need to alter candidate filing deadlines and other details depending on the timeline of the redistricting.

But Bedke didn’t acknowledge redistricting during the news conference. Instead, he said he doesn’t anticipate “putting anything into effect ... unless there’s another big chunk of federal money” that lawmakers want to distribute, referring to federal coronavirus pandemic relief funds.

Bedke also said the sine die limbo between the two chambers is “adequate constitutionally,” adding that the Idaho Attorney General’s Office would issue a letter explaining the constitutionality of the move.

The 2021 session was the longest in Idaho’s history, breaking the previous session record of 118 days in 2003. The session stalled for two weeks because of a COVID-19 outbreak — most Republican legislators steadfastly refused to wear masks or adhere to other pandemic guidelines — as both chambers recessed on March 19. The session started up again on April 6.

Idaho AG’s Office says Senate sine die ‘likely limited’ by House recess

Following the Legislature’s actions, the Idaho AG provided analysis to Bedke and Senate Pro Tempore Chuck Winder. House Republicans later released the analysis to the public.

Chief Deputy Attorney General Brian Kane wrote that the Senate’s sine die is “likely limited by the House’s nonconcurrence.” The likely default position, Kane wrote, is that both chambers are considered in recess.

He added that if the House returns in 2021, the Senate will have three days to return, according to Article III, Section 9 of the Idaho Constitution, which states one chamber cannot adjourn for more than three days without the other.

“This office is unaware of the mechanism for how either chamber compels the attendance of the other,” Kane wrote.

Further, he noted that Idaho is in uncharted territory, as the current scenario is unprecedented for the Gem State, which might mean a legal challenge.

“The Legislature’s decision to pursue this course of action causes risk which could result in a reviewing court concluding differently,” Kane wrote.

Idaho lawmakers split on 2021 session

Legislators offered markedly different takes on the 2021 session during news conferences on Thursday.

Rep. Jason Monks, R-Meridian, said the working relationship in the Legislature was “fantastic” despite the drawn-out session and apparent tensions between the House and Senate, as well as between legislators and Little.

“This year, I will honestly say that (it was) the best relationship that I’ve ever seen between the House and the Senate, absolutely bar none,” Monks told reporters.

Bedke said the House Republican caucus accomplished goals it set out at the start of the session, including tax relief and addressing “balance of power issues” by curbing some of the governor’s emergency powers.

Both Monks and Bedke pointed to bills that boosted funding to transportation and increased homeowner’s exemptions on property taxes as big successes of the extra-long session.

The property tax bill was forced through by Republicans in just days at the end of the session, and Democrats bashed it in their own news conference, criticizing new restrictions on what’s known as the “circuit breaker” tax credit program and caps on budget increases tied to new construction and annexation.

In statements to reporters, Little said the 2021 session was historic in many ways — some good, some bad. Little said that having the longest legislative session in state history is not something to aspire toward, saying, “This is Idaho, not Washington, D.C.,” and citizens expect legislators to work quickly.

“The people of Idaho have a lot to celebrate for what we accomplished for them this session, but in other ways we can do much, much better,” Little said in a statement.

He added that the open-ended dates for the 2021 session’s end creates “major dysfunction in state government, namely with the implementation of administrative rules.”

Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett called the session “chaotic and unprecedented.”

“Despite this being the longest session in state history and not over yet, no meaningful legislation was passed to actually help working Idahoans,” Stennett said, “and what was done was done in the last week.”

House Assistant Minority Leader Ilana Rubel criticized Republican lawmakers’ actions — or lack of action — on education, including university budget cuts rooted in fears over critical race theory.

The House recessed without taking any action on Senate Bill 1193, which would have allocated a federal preschool development grant of $6 million. Some Republicans fought the measure under the guise of indoctrination.

“Idaho is one of only four states that offer no public pre-K. ... It is the poorest kids who would benefit the most from the programs that this $6 million grant would develop,” Rubel said in a news release. “The data is overwhelming that children with access to quality early childhood education are far more likely to hit critical literacy targets, graduate from high school, enjoy lifelong higher earnings, and show lower incarceration rates.

“This program was approved by President Trump at the request of Sens. Risch and Crapo. It is preposterous to suggest that it is a liberal indoctrination plot, and it defies belief that the House GOP was willing to sacrifice the needs of low-income children and families at the altar of groundless conspiracy theories.”

Rather than help Idahoans, Rubel said, the Legislature did damage to education and passed up larger property tax relief this session.

“Many have called this the worst legislative session ever,” Rubel said. “And it’s hard to dispute that conclusion.”

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