Idaho Legislature works a short day despite budget impasse

Legislators support constitutional amendment to be able to call themselves back into session

Rotunda at the Idaho State Capitol building on March 23, 2021. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun)

The 100th day of the 2021 Idaho legislative session came and went Tuesday without any meaningful progress toward passing a balanced budget and adjournment but lawmakers did support a measure that would allow legislators to call themselves back into a special session. 

Now in the longest session of the past 10 years, both chambers of the Idaho Legislature worked short days, calling it quits before lunch.

The Idaho House of Representatives worked for a little more than an hour on the floor but skipped over four public school budgets and the rewritten welfare budget that were all near the top of the agenda. 

The Senate worked for almost an hour and a half and then adjourned shortly before noon. 

For weeks legislators have been at odds over the budget and a tug-of-war with Gov. Brad Little over emergency powers and gubernatorial authority. 

Since April 6, the Idaho House has killed three major budgets — the public school budget for teacher salaries, the higher education budget and the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare’s Division of Welfare budget.

The Legislature is obligated to pass a balanced budget and have it in place by the first day of the state’s new fiscal year July 1. The means the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee needs to reconvene and rewrite the teacher salaries and higher education budgets.

But the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee has not met all week. And, as of mid-afternoon Tuesday, JFAC was not scheduled to meet Wednesday, either.

The longest legislative session in state history ran for 118 days in 2003. 

Legislators’ salaries are fixed at $18,691 regardless of how long the session runs. But they do get per diem and expenses. Legislators living more than 50 miles from the Capitol, for instance, get $139 for housing and expenses while the Legislature is in session. Those living closer get $71 per day. 

Idaho legislators want to call themselves back in in session

During their half-day working Tuesday at the Statehouse, the Idaho House called for an amendment to the Idaho Constitution to allow legislators to call themselves back into session. 

Because the change requires a constitutional amendment, Idaho voters will have the final say at the polls in November 2022.

Idaho’s current laws stipulate only the governor can call the Legislature into a special session.

Republicans overwhelmingly supported the constitutional amendment in a debate that touched on several of the themes of this year’s legislative session.

“Whether you want to argue that we are an equal branch or nonequal branch (of state government), we are certainly less than equal if we don’t have the ability to call ourselves back in,” Rep. Jason Monks, R-Meridian, said.

Rep. Colin Nash, D-Boise, said one of the hallmarks of state government is that Idaho has a part-time, citizen legislative branch as opposed to a full-time professional Legislature. 

“We are 100 days —  100 days — into the legislative session, and we are contemplating legislation that would bring us back,” Nash said. “I just don’t think that’s appropriate. I did not sign up for this, to be part of a full-time Legislature, and I feel like this is putting us on the road to that if we are not already well down that road.”

Nash pointed out the neighboring state of Utah limits legislative sessions to 45 days and that states such as Montana and Texas only hold regular legislative sessions every two years. However, Texas has more frequent special sessions than Idaho. For instance, the Texas Legislature convened for four different sessions in 2013, totaling 207 days. 

Monks said Nash ultimately made his point for him. Monks then wondered aloud on the House floor whether the Legislature will adjourn this year if legislators think more federal COVID-19 relief money could be coming into Idaho or more emergencies could be down the road.

“If we knew we could call ourselves back in, I think we would be more likely to adjourn faster and easier because we know it’s not off the table,” Monks said. “Right now, the system is forcing us to be here longer.”

After the short debate led by Monks and Nash, the House voted 54-15 to pass Senate Joint Resolution 102, which calls for the constitutional amendment. 

The Senate passed SJR 102 by a 24-11 vote on March 3, barely reaching the two-thirds threshold required to pass it. Senate joint resolutions are different from regular bills and do not go to the governor’s desk to be signed into law or vetoed. 

The proposed constitutional amendment sets up another reason why the 2022 election will be massively important in Idaho. Idahoans will vote for their governor and all other constitutional officers, including the superintendent of public instruction and lieutenant governor. On top of that, all 105 legislative seats expire and will be up for election. 

The proposed constitutional amendment on the Legislature being about to call itself into session needs a simple majority of votes to pass on Election Day.

If it fails to receive a simple majority of votes cast, only the governor would be able to call a special session of the Legislature, as is the case today.

Gov. Brad Little called the most recent special session of the Idaho Legislature in August. 

Until 1969, the Idaho Legislature met every two years. In 1968, Idaho voters approved a constitutional amendment that called for holding a session every year.