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Idaho Legislature Enters "Uncharted Territory" With Semi Adjournment

House Speaker Scott Bedke stands holding a paper in the state capitol
James Dawson
Boise State Public Radio
House Speaker Scott Bedke (R-Oakley), presiding over the House in this undated file photo.

State lawmakers are still sparing over the potential end to the longest legislative session in Idaho’s history.

Late Wednesday night, the House recessed, giving themselves the ability to come back into session any time before Dec. 31, 2021, bypassing the governor’s constitutional ability to call lawmakers back into session.

But the Senate earlier in the night adjourned for the year.

An analysis from Chief Deputy Attorney General Brian Kane issued Thursday called the situation unprecedented in Idaho.

“With both chambers agreeing in some fashion to not being in session, the likely default result is that both chambers would be considered in recess,” Kane wrote.

However, if the House does come back before the end of the year, Kane believes the Senate will likely have to return within three days as required under the Idaho Constitution, since House lawmakers never agreed to adjourn.

Still, he said that interpretation could be in flux. “The Legislature's decision to pursue this course of action causes risk which could result in a reviewing court concluding differently.”

Both chambers agreed to not pay lawmakers per diem during the break, something that cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars according to the Idaho Statesman when the legislature recessed in March due to an outbreak of COVID-19.

House Speaker Scott Bedke (R-Oakley) acknowledged the uniqueness of the situation Thursday morning.

“We are a little bit in uncharted territory here, but I believe this maintains the check and balance system – particularly in the area of appropriation,” Bedke said.

Many legislators disagreed with Gov. Brad Little’s decision last year to allow an advisory council made up of state officials – including lawmakers – to make budgetary decisions with the first round of federal coronavirus relief money.

Bedke said the House would only likely reconvene if the state receives more than $15 million in new federal money.

He and other members of the House GOP leadership held a press conference touting their accomplishments for the year.

Specifically, they pointed to the largest tax cut in state history, a boost to transportation funding and passing a controversial property tax bill.

But House lawmakers also clashed with the governor’s office and the Senate over priorities in the longest session in state history.

Here’s how Bedke described that push and pull.

“Let’s call it creative tension, at best. It can be outright hostility at worse and I think we were at the creative tension end of the spectrum rather than the hostility,” he said.

But Democratic leaders characterized it more as a breakdown in civility.

“We just feel we like we’ve lost all decorum,” said Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett (D-Ketchum).

When state senators sent a committee of three members to ceremoniously tell the House they were adjourning for the year, Stennett said they were told the House was busy and “to just go away.”

Democrats blasted Republicans on several other fronts Thursday.

They said GOP leadership was concerned more about increasing legislative power than helping Idahoans.

House Minority Leader Ilana Rubel (D-Boise) said the state could’ve accomplished much more with its record-breaking budget surplus numbering in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

“Despite having more time than any Idaho legislature in history and more resources to accomplish these items, our colleagues across the aisle put wild conspiracy theories above facts and they put the interests of the wealthiest above those of working families and children,” Rubel said.

She and other Democrats decried the House’s rejection of a $6 million federal grant to fund pre-K programs.

Far-right lawmakers blocked two attempts to pass it, saying the money would go toward indoctrinating kids with leftist values.

Bedke said he didn’t have the votes to approve the grant, but that other funding will benefit Idaho kids.

“We are awash in federal money for all of these types of things, including daycare, K-12, pre-K, et cetera,” he said.

Stennett also suggested House Republicans reneged on a deal to approve the grant if the Senate signed off on $2 million to renovate legislator office space on the 1st floor of the state capitol.

House GOP leaders denied there was ever such a deal in place.

“Anybody who purports to have made a deal…is either misinformed or creating a deal that did not exist,” said House Majority Caucus Chair Megan Blanksma (R-Hammett).

Gov. Little also issued a statement Thursday, saying breaking the longest legislative session in state history isn’t “something anyone should aspire to happen.”

“This is Idaho, not Washington, D.C. Our citizens expect legislators to get in, do the work of the people, and leave expeditiously,” Little said.

He also suggested the seemingly unending legislative session could cause “major dysfunction in state government, namely with the implementation of administrative rules.”

Administrative rules carry the full weight of law in Idaho and need to renewed every year by state lawmakers to remain in place – something Alex Adams, Little’s budget chief, told the Associated Press didn’t happen for the third year in a row.

“My executive administration and I will find ways to make state government function and move forward – as we have before – but it will cost time and money,” Little said.

Follow James Dawson on Twitter @RadioDawson for more local news.

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I cover politics and a bit of everything else for Boise State Public Radio. Outside of public meetings, you can find me fly fishing, making cool things out of leather or watching the Seattle Mariners' latest rebuilding season. If you have a tip, please get in touch!