Voters have amended the Idaho Constitution. Lawmakers shouldn’t mistake the message

Keith Ridler/AP

Voters have amended the Idaho Constitution to allow the Legislature to call itself back into session any time it likes.

It’s not what we advised voters to do. We think it’s a bad idea. We think it will be abused. But the people have spoken, and we live in a democracy.

But let’s hope the incoming crop of representatives and senators don’t misunderstand the message.

Lawmakers should not understand this as an invitation to come back to Boise over and over — there is no indication that voters want that.

For one thing, nearly 40,000 fewer votes were cast in the vote on the constitutional amendment than in the race for governor. That is, there were about twice as many ballots left blank as the margin by which the amendment passed. This is a strong indication that many Idahoans were uncertain about what the amendment would mean.

For another, the question was extremely close. If Idaho required the same level of approval for constitutional amendments as it does for many school bonds, the amendment would have failed. Only a narrow majority of those who voted support the change.

So this is certainly not a mandate for coming back into session often.

And the amendment can only be understood in its historical context: direct reaction against the inability of the Legislature to act as a check on the executive during a declared state of emergency. Restrictions on businesses were unpopular with many — though not so unpopular that Gov. Brad Little didn’t coast to an easy reelection in both the primary and general. And it’s easy to think that voters were frustrated when their representatives said their hands were tied.

But there is a world of difference between the Legislature calling itself back into session in the context of a once-in-a-century pandemic and the slow lurch toward a year-round Legislature. That’s what seems to be well underway in Utah, where a similar — but more limited — amendment was passed in 2018.

Utah voters now seem to have buyer’s remorse. After repeatedly calling itself into special session, the Utah State Legislature floated an amendment this year that would have expanded its authority to appropriate money during a special session. Nearly two-thirds of voters rejected the idea on Tuesday.

If lawmakers can show some self-restraint with regard to their newly gained power, the amendment could be for the good in the long run. In principle, it does make sense that the legislative branch would be able to act as a check on the executive branch during a time of emergency.

But Idaho hasn’t been in a state of emergency for months. There’s no indication it’s coming back anytime soon — beyond the small, local states of emergency that generally arise in cases of natural disasters, where an emergency declaration is necessary to release federal funding.

And if lawmakers take this vote as an invitation to act as if Idaho is always in session, that will be an abuse of power. They may soon discover, as Utah lawmakers have, that it’s unwelcome.

Statesman editorials are the unsigned opinion of the Idaho Statesman’s editorial board. Board members are opinion editor Scott McIntosh, opinion writer Bryan Clark, editor Chadd Cripe, newsroom editors Dana Oland and Jim Keyser and community members Johanna Jones and Maryanne Jordan.