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Idaho voters to decide whether Legislature can call itself back into session

The House Public Gallery is full at the statehouse in Boise, Idaho on November 15, 2021. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun)
Otto Kitsinger
The House Public Gallery is full at the statehouse in Boise, Idaho on November 15, 2021. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun)

As of now, only the governor may call a special session of the Idaho Legislature

The Idaho Legislature would be able to call itself back into session if voters approve a proposed amendment to the Idaho Constitution that appears on the Nov. 8 general election ballot.

The amendment is known as Senate Joint Resolution 102, or SJR 102, and it will take a majority of voters to approve the amendment at the polls.

If it passes, the Idaho Legislature would be able to call itself back into session within 15 days of a written request by 60% of the members of the Idaho House of Representatives and 60% of the members of the Idaho Senate.

The amendment was proposed in the Idaho Senate. With Republican backing in 2021, the amendment received the two-thirds support necessary to bring it to voters.

As things stand now under the Idaho Constitution, only the governor has the power to call the Idaho Legislature back in session. Although special sessions are somewhat rare in Idaho, there have been two in the past three years, including theone-day special session on Sept. 1. Overall, there have been five special sessions in Idaho since 2000 — in 2000, 2006, 2015, 2020 and 2022.

The Idaho Legislature convenes for a regular session every year beginning on the second Monday in January, a process that is also spelled out in the Idaho Constitution. There is no time limit for regular legislative sessions, but they generally last between 80 and 90 days. Last year, the Idaho Legislature held thelongest legislative session in state history, which was marked by monthslong recesses, and didn’t adjourn until Nov. 17, the 311th day of the session.

A supermajority of Republican legislators pushed for the amendment to call themselves back into session during 2021’s record-breaking longest session, when conservative legislators sparred with Gov. Brad Littleand called for eliminating all COVID-19 vaccination requirements, including those of private employers and businesses.

Throughout the past two years, multiple Idaho Republican legislators have said the legislative branch of government needs to do more to assert its power and be less deferential to the governor’s executive branch of government.

When legislators passed the proposed amendment during the 2021 session, 78 of the 86 Republicans supported it.

When the amendment was debated in the Idaho Senate on March 3, 2021, Senate President Pro Tem Chuck Winder, R-Boise, said the proposal had been in the works since the fall of 2020 and was shaped by discussions among legislative leaders from both chambers.

During his debate, Winder said that neither of the three branches of government — the legislative, executive and judicial — should be able to control the other.

“The other two branches of government serve and work every day carrying out their work,” Winder said. “They can decide what they work on, when they work on it and in the case of the executive branch, it has a huge bully pulpit that it can use daily to promote its authority and to broadcast to the public what a great job it is doing for the taxpayers of Idaho. On the other hand, the Senate, for example, has one full-time employee.”

“So that reality is, the Legislature is just a small blip on the radar scope of balance of power,” Winder added.

Sen. Jim Rice, R-Caldwell, said if the amendment passes, legislators would not use the extra authority to turn the Idaho Legislature into a full-time legislature.

“We don’t want to be here for lengths of time that we don’t need to be here,” he said during his debate in favor of the amendment.

All 19 Democrats in the Idaho Legislature opposed the amendment.

Rep. Brooke Green, D-Boise, said the existing system with a part-time Legislature that meets every year works well, and she doesn’t think it’s necessary to amend the Idaho Constitution.

“Honestly, I don’t think there is a problem that needs to be fixed,” Green said in a telephone interview Wednesday, pointing out the Legislature just convened in a special session earlier this month that Little called. “One of the values we have here in Idaho is we are a part-time legislature, and the governor has the ability to call us in when he thinks it is necessary.”

Green said the benefit to the existing system is that legislators are able to live and work in their communities for the majority of the year, come to Boise for about 90 days each winter to represent their neighbors and then return home to their districts.

“I like the lighter touch of government,” Green said. “If this passes, are we going to call ourselves back into session whenever we want or at the whims of the majority party? The threshold for us to be called into session is low enough that it removes the Democrats, it removes the minority party, from having any influence or say in that decision.”

In the Idaho Senate, four Republicans voted with Democrats in opposing the amendment: Sens. Jim Guthrie, R-McCammon; Dan Johnson, R-Lewiston. Fred Martin, R-Boise; and Jim Woodward, R-Sagle. In the Idaho House of Representatives, Reps. Marc Gibbs, R-Grace; Dustin Manwaring, R-Pocatello; and Fred Wood, R-Burley, were the three Republicans who joined the Democrats in opposing the amendment. One Republican in the House was counted absent.

Guthrie and Manwaring are the only two of those Republicans who could return to the statehouse in January. The others either are not seeking re-election or were defeated in May’s GOP primary.

How would the Idaho Legislature be able to call itself back into session?

The proposed amendment would allow the Idaho Legislature to call itself back into session within 15 days of a written request of 60% of the members of the two chambers.

There are 70 members of the Idaho House and 35 members of the Idaho Senate. That means it would take 42 members of the House and 21 members of the Idaho Senate to approve a special session.

Republicans have held a supermajority in the Idaho Legislature since 1993. The current balance of power is 58 Republicans and 12 Democrats in the Idaho House, and 28 Republicans and seven Democrats in the Senate. The number of seats held by each party may change with the Nov. 8, general election, when all 105 seats in the Idaho Legislature are up for election. But no matter what happens on Election Day, Republicans are guaranteed to hold a majority again in 2023, because Democrats are not fielding candidates in more than half of the state’s legislative races.

Winder estimated it would cost taxpayers $21,300 each extra day the Legislature is in special session, if the amendment passes. Legislators have a fixed salary that doesn’t change, but those costs include per diem for legislators, payroll for staffers who work specifically during a session and mileage and expenses for legislators.

During the record 2021 session, the extra time in session — from the first recess on April 6 through the Idaho House’s next recess on May 12 — cost Idaho taxpayers an additional $511,878, according to public records previously obtained by the Idaho Capital Sun.

How do special sessions work in other states?

Idaho is one of 14 states where only the governor may call a special session, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In 36 states, either the governor or legislature may call a special session. In several of those states, the requirement is a request by two-thirds (66.6%) of the members of each chamber or three-fifths (60%) of the members. In New Jersey and New Mexico, it takes both the governor issuing a proclamation calling for a special session and a petition of a majority (in New Jersey) or three-fifths (in New Mexico) of legislators.

The Utah Legislature is able to call itself back into session after the presiding officer of both houses conducts a poll of members where two-thirds of the legislators of each chamber are in favor of a special session due to persistent fiscal crisis, war, natural disaster or state emergency.

One of the results is that the Utah Legislature has a lot more frequent special sessions.

Since 2020, the Utah Legislature has been in session 10 times. There have been three general sessions and seven special sessions in that time.

The Idaho Capital Sun is a nonprofit news organization delivering accountability reporting on state government, politics and policy in the Gem state. As longtime Idahoans ourselves, we understand the challenges and opportunities facing Idaho. We provide in-depth reporting on legislative and state policy, health care, tax policy, the environment, Idaho’s explosive population growth and more. Our mission is relentless investigative journalism that sheds light on how decisions in Boise and beyond are made and how they affect everyday Idahoans. We aim to tell untold stories and provide data, context and analysis on the issues that matter most throughout the state. The Capital Sun is part of States Newsroom, a national 501(c)(3) nonprofit supported by grants and a coalition of donors and readers. We retain full editorial independence.