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Should Idaho lawmakers have a say over special sessions?

Frankie Barnhill
Boise State Public Radio

Next month, Idaho voters will decide whether their legislators should be able to meet in a special session whenever they choose by amending the state’s constitution.

Democrats and Republicans are split on the issue, with one side saying it’s a waste of money, while the other contends it’s a check on the governor’s office.

Idaho is one of just 14 states where only the governor can convene a special legislative session and that’s been a thorn in the side of many senators and representatives here.

Typically, the legislature only meets for about three months starting each January.

Vitriol from far-right lawmakers rose to a fever pitch during the pandemic, who wanted to return to Boise to ban mask mandates, gathering restrictions and social distancing guidelines.

“They’re already calling him ‘Little Hitler,” said Rep. Heather Scott (R-Blanchard), speaking on a podcast interview in spring 2020.

Most GOP lawmakers didn’t go that far, but pressure at the time was mounting.

James Dawson
Boise State Public Radio
Senate Pro Tem Chuck Winder. (R-Boise) seen here in this 2020 file photo.

“We just felt like the people out there were telling us, ‘Hey, you’ve got to do something. You’ve got to come back into session,’” said Senate Pro Tem Chuck Winder (R-Boise).

“The governor has all the control of when we come back into session and he really wasn’t willing to have us come back into session,” Winder said.

Tempers continued to flare throughout the summer when Little eventually ordered a special session in August 2020 to take up who would be civilly liable if someone got sick from the coronavirus.

The day began with far-right activists shoving their way past uniformed police officers to violate COVID capacity restrictions in the House Gallery – shattering a glass door in the process.

Ammon Bundy standing on stairs outside the Idaho Statesman with two man standing on either side of him, one holding a sign that says "no immunity!"
Keith Ridler
FILE - In this Aug. 24, 2020, file photo, Ammon Bundy, center, who led the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupation, stands on the Idaho Statehouse steps in Boise, Idaho. Mainstream and far-right Republicans are battling for control of the party and the state in deeply conservative Idaho. (AP Photo/Keith Ridler, File)

Lawmakers eventually passed three bills in as many days.

Last year, the House refused to adjourn in the spring as a de facto way of staying in session, eventually returning in November to consider outlawing vaccine mandates imposed by private businesses.

Legislators failed to pass a single bill, costing taxpayers more than $46,000 for those three days according to the Idaho Capital Sun.

“If that was the audition for this idea of a legislature that can call itself back whenever it feels like, I would say the legislature failed its audition,” said House Minority Leader Ilana Rubel (D-Boise), calling it a waste of time and money.

That’s one of the reasons why she voted against authorizing this November’s proposed constitutional amendment.

Having lawmakers in session more often, Rubel said, makes it harder to be an engaged citizen.

“I had constituents who felt they had to be on guard and ready to sprint down to the Capitol at any hour that we were in session and to be writing and emailing to make sure that we weren’t jailing librarians, that we weren’t imprisoning the parents of transgender kids,” she said.

James Dawson
Boise State Public Radio
House Minority Leader Ilana Rubel (D-Boise) debating on the House floor in this undated file photo.

Under the plan, 60% of lawmakers in each chamber would have to agree on the need for a special session and the topics it would cover. Republicans currently hold 80% of seats in the House and Senate.

Rubel said the proposed threshold isn’t enough to override a governor’s veto, meaning these sessions could all be for naught.

Winder doesn’t see that as an issue. He said voters should think about whether a governor should be the only one to have this power.

“If they want the constitution to function properly, each of those three branches of government should be equal.”

Despite GOP infighting that’s only become more apparent over the years, Winder said he thinks special sessions will focus more on bread and butter issues, like natural disasters and allocating federal money.

“I don’t think – knock on wood – it’s going to be abused. You know, it’s interesting, being a part-time legislature people don’t really want to be in Boise any longer than they have to,” he said.

It’s that Republican infighting, though, that’s driving this conversation for more legislative power, according to Cornell Clayton, director of the Thomas Foley Institute of Public Policy and Public Service at Washington State University.

“The only time this comes up is when you have ideological conflict and that’s what we have now is an ideological conflict within the Republican Party,” Clayton said.

He said Idahoans should keep this in mind as they consider how to vote. But he says it’s not necessarily a bad idea.

“The more flexibility a constitution can provide state government the better, in general.”

The measure just needs approval from a simple majority of voters on Nov. 8 to be adopted.

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

Copyright 2022 Boise State Public Radio

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!