Where’s a good virus analogy when you need one?
Certainly after 119 days of sometimes feverish activity, Idaho’s 2021 legislative session feels like a lingering illness, a bad rash that just won’t go away.
As of today, the session becomes the longest in state history, surpassing the marathon 2003 session, which lasted 118 days. The 2009 session, when the executive and legislative branches butted heads over transportation funding, wimped out after 117 days.
Even excluding a 17-day coronavirus-related break in March and April, this year’s session is still the third-longest in Idaho history — and it isn’t over yet. Lawmakers will be back on Wednesday to address a small handful of remaining bills and potentially to override any gubernatorial vetoes.
That may not be the end of it, either. Instead of adjourning until next January, as they’ve always done in the past, lawmakers say they’ll recess until later this year, adding more weeks and months to the tally even though they won’t be working or collecting per diem pay.
Which means the ’21 session may well go into the record books as the all-time champ, never to be surpassed.
That is perhaps the greatest irony of this most-unusual of sessions: In a year when the absolute top priority for Republicans was to send voters a constitutional amendment allowing the Legislature to call itself back into session, they stuck around so long people are literally begging them to go home.
“I fear we’re never going to leave, and that we’re becoming a full-time Legislature,” said Sen. Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise, on Wednesday.
No one predicted this scenario back in January.
After spending much of last year on the sidelines, watching the governor dictate the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, lawmakers came into the ’21 session intent on resetting the balance of power.
They introduced dozens of bills, seeking to terminate Gov. Brad Little’s coronavirus emergency declaration, limit his emergency powers, prohibit state or local mask mandates and curtail the authority of public health boards.
“This is a reaction to the citizens’ outrage at having their rights limited — their right to congregate, their right to travel, to make a living,” said Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens, during a Feb. 16 debate on one of the measures. “This isn’t putting limits on the governor’s emergency powers. It simply assures that the Legislature and the people within the state have a say in how that emergency is managed. … All we’re asking is that the people have a place in the process.”
Only a handful of the bills even advanced to floor votes, though, and an inordinate amount of time was spent tweaking and fine-tuning the remainder. The first major balance of power bill didn’t pass both chambers until April 9. A second passed on April 15.
“It’s a good thing we hit the ground running,” joked House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, in mid-February.
On a more serious note, Bedke said the pandemic had the positive effect of unifying House and Senate Republicans in their desire to update Idaho’s emergency statutes.
“I think the House and Senate are working together in a way we haven’t done before,” he said. “A new leaf has been turned.”
The leaf withered a bit when Gov. Little vetoed both balance of power bills, saying they placed dangerous limitations on the executive’s ability to respond to emergencies. Much to the chagrin of House Republicans, the Senate balked at overriding either veto.
The two chambers kept at it, however. They introduced and approved modified versions of the bills last week. As of Friday, the governor hadn’t taken action on any of them.
Lawmakers also adopted the proposed constitutional amendment allowing them to call themselves back into special session, without the governor’s approval. That measure passed the House and Senate on two near-party-line votes and will go to voters in the 2022 general election for consideration.
“While none of us wants to be a year-round Legislature, the balance of power is severely tilted in favor of the executive branch, and even the judicial branch,” said Senate President Pro Tem Chuck Winder. “With this proposed constitutional amendment, we can swing the pendulum of rightful authority back towards a more equal balance of power.”
Idaho Democrats, by contrast, saw much of the 2021 session as a legislative power grab.
“From my perspective, just about everything they’ve done has been singularly unhelpful,” said House Minority Leader Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, in mid-February. “All the oxygen in the room has been taken up by these efforts to snatch power away from the governor, from cities and counties and from the people.”
Nevertheless, lawmakers managed to adopt a number of consensus policy bills over the course of the session, including legalizing industrial hemp.
They also, with a fair amount of quibbling, fulfilled their basic responsibility to set a state budget, passed major tax relief and transportation funding packages and backed Gov. Little’s “Building Idaho’s Future” infrastructure investment plan (see sidebar).
And lest anyone forget, way back on Day 15 of the session, Rep. Heather Scott assured everyone the pandemic was over.
“If you look at the facts and numbers, by all means the sick emergency is over,” said Scott, R-Blanchard, during a Jan. 25 floor debate. “There may be a debate about whether we want to keep getting (federal relief) money; that’s a different story. But the pandemic is over.”
Turns out she was only off by about 104 days, and counting.
Spence may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or (208)-791-9168.