Gov. Brad Little’s budget chief is worried that the length of the ongoing Idaho legislative session could lead to a partial government shutdown.
The budget delay might threaten the state’s ability to have a budget in place in time to make payroll starting in June, Division of Financial Management Administrator Alex Adams told the Idaho Capital Sun in a telephone interview Wednesday.
The immediate concern is how to pay and keep Idaho State Police, corrections, courts and other first responders working, Adams said.
When asked if a shutdown could threaten Idaho Department of Health and Welfare employees working on COVID-19 testing and vaccine rollouts, Adams said all state agencies could be affected.
“Right now, we are doing an analysis of what happens to police officers who are on patrol June 12 if we are not able to pay,” Adams said.
“There are some real and substantial consequences we are looking into,” Adams added.
In addition to first responders, the budget issues could jeopardize paychecks for the slightly more than 20,000 state employees who work across the different agencies and departments.
Why does it matter if the Legislature works late?
The Idaho House of Representatives has passed House Bill 376 in an attempt to prevent such a shutdown. The bill is designed to make all legislation that passes into law effective on July 1, regardless of when the session adjourns.
But Adams said there are questions with whether the bill conflicts with the Idaho Constitution.
The concerns could come into play when the legislative session runs past Saturday, which is guaranteed to happen because the Idaho House has adjourned until Monday.
The Idaho Constitution states “No act shall take effect until 60 days from the end of the session at which the same shall have been passed, except in case of emergency…”
The problem is the new fiscal year begins July 1, which is the day budget bills historically take effect in Idaho. Saturday is May 1, which is 60 days out from the new fiscal year. In between those dates, the first payroll of the 2022 budget year begins June 12.
“We are getting pretty close to within the 60-day window,” Adams said. “We wouldn’t be able to pay state employees starting June 12 if there is not the proper spending authority.”
Normally the 60-day window isn’t a problem. Most legislative sessions run for 75-85 days and adjourn in late March or early April.
But at 109 days, the 2021 legislative session is fast approaching the record for longest session in state history at 118 days.
Idaho Department of Health and Welfare public information manager Niki Forbing-Orr said Thursday “we are aware of this issue and are watching it closely.” Forbing-Orr said she did not have anything to add beyond what Adams said.
The department oversees much of the COVID-19 response, and its employees are integral to the vaccine rollout and testing operations.
The state is essentially the broker for COVID-19 vaccine doses, helping to shepherd the vaccines to local providers and health districts. State Health and Welfare staff also monitor the vaccine rollout and monitor the spread of the coronavirus in Idaho.
The Idaho Bureau of Laboratories runs coronavirus tests and is the only in-state laboratory that can sequence COVID-19 test samples to look for variants of concern — variants that can spread rapidly and overwhelm hospitals.
When asked how a partial government shutdown would affect COVID-19 testing and vaccine rollout runs by state employees, Adams said it was unclear, but he reiterated an inability to make payroll could affect all state agencies.
“It’s going to inject quite a bit of uncertainty and confusion if this issue isn’t rectified,” Adams said.
The private clinics, hospitals, doctors’ offices and pharmacies that offer COVID-19 testing and vaccination would not be affected by state payroll issues.
Would the stopgap bill violate the Idaho Constitution?
The Associated Press reported Tuesday that a group called the Committee to Protect and Preserve the Idaho Constitution sent a letter to Little on Monday saying the House Bill 376, which is designed to fix the problem, may violate the Idaho Constitution.
Adams confirmed the letter’s existence and said the Division of Financial Management is running through options and potential solutions. One potential path forward could involve reopening each of the dozens of budget bills and attaching clauses one-by-one that would make each bill become effective July 1.
“The Constitution is pretty clear, so we are looking at what can be done administratively,” Adams said.
“I know we flagged the issue with legislative leadership, and we started conversations with the (Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee) chairs yesterday,” Adams said. “It is becoming relatively urgent the closer we get to the 60-day window.”
Paul Headlee, a manager and budget and policy analyst with the Legislative Services Office, said state officials have always known about the 60-day window in the Idaho Constitution. That’s why supplemental budget bills include an emergency clause to make sure they become effective immediately upon being enacted into law.
Similar situations came up in 2003 and 2009, when the legislative sessions ran beyond May 1. Headlee said the language from House Bill 376 this year is essentially the same language the state used in 2003 and 2009. Headlee hopes the bill solves the problem but said he has not met with Adams to discuss the constitutional concerns that are being raised this year.
The Idaho Capital Sun has requested interviews with Little and House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, to discuss budget options and steps the state is taking to avoid potential shutdown.
Instead of working on the unresolved state budget bills Thursday and Friday, while the Legislature is still outside of the 60-day window, the House voted on Thursday to adjourn until Monday.