William L. Spence: Commentary: At the Idaho Statehouse, the witching hour arrives

William L. Spence, Lewiston Tribune, Idaho
·4 min read

Mar. 11—BOISE — Beware the Ides of March.

So warned the soothsayer in Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar," shortly before the title character was assassinated by a cadre of lawmakers intent on saving the Roman Republic.

That's probably not the most politically correct play to reference these days — especially in Idaho, where Republicans are up in arms over coronavirus restrictions and gubernatorial prerogatives.

Nevertheless, as a mere warning, as a recommendation for heightened vigilance, "beware the Ides of March" is appropriate advice in these waning weeks of the 2021 legislative session.

This is the time when mischief reigns. Last-minute bills are introduced and amended on the fly, proper vetting goes by the wayside. Committee hearings are curtailed and public testimony derailed.

"Thank you, sir, your two minutes are up. And thank you to the other 70 people who signed up to testify. We have no time for you. The committee will now proceed to vote."

That's not an exaggeration. More than 70 people were unable to testify on Senate Bill 1110, the initiative restriction measure, because of time limitations earlier this week.

Yes, the witching hour is upon us.

That's another phrase Shakespeare saved from obscurity, this time in "The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark."

The play depicts the turmoil Hamlet feels upon learning that his uncle, King Claudius, stole the throne by killing Hamlet's father and marrying his mother.

In Act III, Scene 1, the prince delivers perhaps the most famous soliloquy in English literature, asking "To be, or not to be? That is the question."

Less well-known is the short aside at the end of Act III, Scene 2, when Hamlet prepares to confront his mother about the murder:

" 'Tis now the very witching time of night,

"when churchyards yawn and Hell itself breaks out

"contagion to this world. Now could I drink hot blood,

"and do such bitter business as the day

"would quake to look on."

The "witching hour" initially referred to the darkest time of night, when black magic and satanic forces are most active in the world. It applies equally well, though, to the final days of a legislative session, when lawmakers rush to complete their "bitter business."

That's the situation every year, but the bottleneck is likely to be particularly severe this time around. We're nine weeks into the session, and legislative leaders hope to wrap up their regular work in another two weeks — yet they've accomplished almost nothing on their pre-session to-do list.

As of last Friday, only 23 bills had passed both chambers — half the five-year average. That number went up substantially this week, but property tax relief efforts are still in disarray. No major sales or income tax cut proposal has even come out of committee. And the "balance of power" bills — allegedly the top priority for the Republican majority this session — have gone nowhere.

More than 25 bills have been introduced to rein in the governor's emergency powers and restore the Legislature as an equal branch of government. To date, not a single one has been approved. That may be a testament to the Legislature's deliberative nature, but it's hardly a recommendation for its ability to respond in an emergency.

As the clock ticks down toward the target March 26 completion date — when lawmakers could recess for a time to await further information regarding this latest round of federal stimulus funds — the stage is set for an epic comedy/tragedy the likes of which even Shakespeare couldn't imagine:

Either the 2021 session will set a record for legislative ineptitude, or over the next few weeks, we're going to see the mother of all free-for-alls, with major policy bills being introduced, whisked through committees and up to the floor and then run over to the other chamber for more of the same.

Hold on to your hats. It's going to be a wild ride.

"Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage, blow! You cataracts and hurricanoes ..." — King Lear, Act III, Scene 2

"No citizen can sleep safe while the Legislature is still in session." — House Minority Leader Ilana Rubel, D-Boise

Spence covers politics for the Tribune. He may be contacted at bspence@lmtribune.com or (208) 791-9168.