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Legislative leaders approve language for proposed amendment to Idaho Constitution

Idaho House In Session
Otto Kitsinger
/
The House in session at the Idaho Capitol on April 6, 2021. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun)

If approved by voters, the amendment would allow the Legislature to call itself back into session

Republican and Democratic legislative leaders argued over the language of a proposed amendment to the Idaho Constitution on Tuesday before the GOP majority approved the language that will go before voters in November.

The debate played out during Tuesday’s Legislative Council meeting at the Idaho State Capitol in Boise and decided how Senate Joint Resolution 102, or SJR 102, will be presented on the Nov. 8 general election ballot. If a simple majority of Idaho voters approve the proposed constitutional amendment, the Idaho Legislature would be able to vote to call itself back into session at any time.

Currently, the Idaho Constitution says only the governor has the authority to call the Legislature in for a special session, which is officially referred to as an extraordinary session in legislative lingo.

The Idaho Legislature currently convenes an organizational session on the first Thursday of December following a general election, and then meets in a regular session beginning each January.

Since 2000, Idaho governors have called four special legislative sessions — in 2000, 2006, 2015 and, most recently, in 2020.

During the 2021 regular legislative session, Republicans in the Idaho Legislature passed Senate Joint Resolution 102 after saying legislators need to have the power to call themselves back into session to deal with issues that may arise after they have already adjourned for the year. Adjournment typically happens in late March or early April. Democrats and a couple of moderate Republicans opposed the proposed amendment, saying the governor already has the ability to call a special session and the current system includes checks and balances.

If voters pass the amendment, the president pro tem of the Idaho Senate and the speaker of Idaho House of Representatives would call the Legislature in for a special session “no later than 15 days following the receipt of a joint written petition of at least 60% of the membership of each house specifying subjects to be covered, and to provide that the Legislature shall have no power in such a special session to consider or pass any bills or resolutions on any subjects other than those specified in the petition and those necessary to provide for the expenses of the session.”

If a majority of voters don’t vote in favor of Senate Joint Resolution 102, the Idaho Constitution will not be amended and only the governor would be allowed to call a special session — just as the case is today.

What did Idaho legislators disagree about during discussions for the proposed constitutional amendment?

Predictably, Tuesday’s debate got political. The bulk of debate dealt with the statements for and against the proposed constitutional amendment that will appear on the ballot.

Democrats on the Legislative Council favored adopting language against the proposed constitutional amendment that said passage of the amendment would “open a path for those who want a full-time, professional legislature in which legislators would live in Boise full-time, visit their districts only occasionally, receive most if not all of their pay from state government, and become cut off from the needs and wishes of those they are supposed to represent.”

“I don’t think that there is any question that this amendment does open that path,” said Sen. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise. “Just witness what happened in the 2021 session, even without this amendment, where the Legislature didn’t adjourn until Nov. 17 of the year in question.”

Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, and other Republicans objected to including language suggesting some legislators want to be there full time.

“To presume that I voted not to (adjourn) sine die because I wanted a full time, professional legislature is not accurate. I voted that way because I want to retain the people’s right to act on behalf of their elected representatives in a very uncertain and difficult and rapidly evolving situation.”

In the end, Republicans instead approved language “against” the amendment that emphasized the Idaho Legislature is a part-time citizen legislature. “The proposed amendment provides no limitations on how often special sessions may be called or how long they may last,” the approved language states. “Idaho should not move toward having a full-time legislature, and Idaho’s part-time citizen legislators with other careers should not be burdened with sudden, unpredictable special sessions.”

Meanwhile, Burgoyne opposed language “for” the proposed amendment that criticized Gov. Brad Little, saying the governor “delayed convening the Legislature” in 2020. Although, as Burgoyne pointed out, Little did call a special session to convene on Aug. 24, 2020. In the end, Republicans on Tuesday decided to keep the language criticizing Little.

Idaho’s November ballot may also include an education funding initiative question

The proposed constitutional amendment in SJR 102 isn’t the only question likely to appear on Idahoans’ Nov. 8 ballot. Leaders of the nonpartisan, nonprofit organization Reclaim Idaho announced they exceeded their signature collecting goal to get an education funding ballot initiative question on the November ballot.

If county and state election officials verify Reclaim Idaho obtained the proper number and distribution of signatures, voters would decide whether to approve a proposal to raise more than $300 million in funding for public schools by increasing the corporate income tax rate from 6% to 8% and creating a new tax bracket at 10.925% for individuals making more than $250,000 per year and families making more than $500,000 annually.

Reclaim Idaho leaders said they expect county clerks to wrap up their signature verification process around the end of June. If Reclaim Idaho’s Quality Education Act qualifies for the November ballot, it would take a simple majority of voters to approve the education funding initiative.

Here is the language for and against the proposed constitutional amendment, Senate Joint Resolution 102, that legislative leaders approved Tuesday. 

Statements for the proposed amendment:

  1. This constitutional amendment is needed to correct an imbalance of power among the three branches of government. The executive and judicial branches of government have no restrictions on their ability to conduct business when and as they deem appropriate, and the legislative branch should have the same power.
  2. Idaho is one of just 12 states whose legislature has no power to convene itself into a special session under certain circumstances. The Idaho Legislature should not be dependent on the governor to call it into special session when extraordinary events occur. For example, in 2020, the Idaho Legislature wished to convene to consider COVID-19 matters and the expenditure of federal funding related to the pandemic but the governor delayed convening the Legislature. Idaho should join the 28 states (including all of Idaho’s neighboring states) that recognize the legislative branch of government’s right to determine independently when it should convene and conduct the business of the people it represents. 
  3. Authorizing the Legislature to convene itself into special session will prevent the need for one or both houses of the Legislature to defer adjourning sine die indefinitely as happened in 2021 when the House of Representatives wanted to preserve its right to take up anticipated issues later in the year. Deferring the date of adjourning sine die results in numerous administrative problems such as delaying effective dates of legislation and administrative rules. If the Legislature is able to convene itself, there will be no need to avoid adjourning sine die. 
  4. The proposed amendment contains sufficient safeguards against any potential abuse of power by limiting the subjects of legislation to be considered during a special session to those listed in the petition, just as a special session called by the governor is limited to the subjects listed in the governor’s proclamation.

Statements against the proposed amendment:

  1. The Legislature has conducted its business for over 130 years without needing the ability to call itself into special session. This constitutional amendment is not necessary because the governor has called and can continue to call the Legislature into a special session when necessary. Passing this amendment would remove a check and balance from the Idaho Constitution. 
  2. The Idaho Legislature is a part-time citizen legislature. The proposed amendment provides no limitations on how often special sessions may be called or how long they may last. Idaho should not move toward having a full-time legislature, and Idaho’s part-time citizen legislators with other careers should not be burdened with sudden, unpredictable special sessions.
  3. Idaho businesses and citizens need the stable, predictable, and routine timeline of the regular legislative session to communicate with legislators regarding the effects that pending legislation may have on businesses and citizens. The ability of the Legislature to convene itself into various special sessions may result in the passage of legislation that has not been properly vetted and could result in unintended consequences for Idaho businesses and citizens. 
  4. The proposed amendment requires a petition signed by only 60% of the members of each house of the Legislature. This threshold is too low. Many states require a higher percentage, such as 67% or 75%. A higher percentage would deter the Legislature from convening itself for subjects that may be trivial, vague or not widely agreed upon.