BOISE — The eighth week of Idaho’s 2021 legislative session kicked off Monday with a mix of anti-dam-breaching sentiments, constitutionality concerns and legislative prerogatives.
Highlights from the day’s legislative activities include:
DON’T EVEN THINK IT — A quarter of the Legislature, including more than half the members from north central Idaho, co-sponsored a resolution opposing removal of the Snake-Columbia River dams.
The Senate Resources and Conservation Committee introduced the measure Monday, less than a month after Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson unveiled a $33 billion proposal to remove the four lower Snake River dams.
Among other statements, the three-page resolution says “no amount of money can replace the lifestyle and economies of the communities” that depend on the dams.
It describes dam-breaching as an “idealistic” and “illogical” approach to salmon recovery that “flies in the face of reality.” It also explicitly offers the Legislature’s support for the “international competitiveness, multimodal transportation and economic development benefits provided by the Port of Lewiston.”
Co-sponsors include Sens. Dan Johnson, R-Lewiston and Carl Crabtree, R-Grangeville, as well as Reps. Caroline Troy, R-Genesee, and Mike Kingsley and Aaron von Ehlinger, both R-Lewiston.
BUDGET MATTERS — The joint budget committee approved a $48.6 million budget for the Department of Health and Welfare’s psychiatric hospitalization services.
The fiscal 2022 budget includes 24.5 new positions at State Hospital North in Orofino.
The move, which would be paid for by a net zero shift in funding from State Hospital South in Blackfoot, would allow staffing levels at the 55-bed facility to be brought up to national standards. The goal is to secure national accreditation, so the facility can start receiving Medicaid reimbursements for eligible patients.
Rep. Priscilla Giddings, R-White Bird, was one of two committee members to oppose the budget. She represents the 7th Legislative District, which includes Orofino and Clearwater County.
The overall psychiatric hospitalization budget represents a $3.87 million, 8.7 percent increase over the current year. However, state general fund support would drop by $1.55 million, or 6.6 percent.
The budget committee also approved fiscal 2022 budgets for the Division of Welfare, Public Health Services, substance abuse treatment services and mental health services.
Giddings and Rep. Ron Nate, R-Rexburg, voted against all of the measures, without comment. Rep. Caroline Troy, R-Genesee, and Sen. Carl Crabtree, R-Grangeville, supported the bills. They now go to the House and Senate for further action.
PUTTING THE LEGISLATURE ON THE RADAR — A proposed constitutional amendment giving the Legislature the power to call itself back into session earned a favorable recommendation from the Senate State Affairs Committee.
Senate Joint Resolution 102 is a modified version of a proposal that passed the House earlier this session.
The proposal allows lawmakers to call themselves back into session upon receipt of a petition signed by 60 percent of the members of the House and Senate. It also limits the issues that can be considered during a special session to the topics cited in the petition; the House version of the bill doesn’t include that restriction.
Senate President Pro Tem Chuck Winder, R-Boise, said the amendment is needed to restore a proper balance of power between the three branches of government.
“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,” he said. “With this proposed constitutional amendment, we can swing the pendulum of rightful authority back towards a more equal balance of power.”
Winder noted that the executive and judicial branches have tens of thousands of full-time employees who can conduct work 365 days per year. The Legislative branch, by contrast, has a mere handful of full-time employees, and can only debate and enact laws during a regular session or when called into special session by the governor.
“In Idaho, the legislative branch is at the mercy of the other two branches,” he said. “The reality is, we aren’t even a small blip on the radar screen when it comes to the balance of power.”
Lawmakers have considered this issue several times in recent years. However, the drumbeat picked up last year, when the Legislature was essentially sidelined during the governor’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Sen. Jim Guthrie, R-McCammon, agreed with the basic intent of the resolution, but felt two-thirds of the House and Senate should have to petition for a special session.
Sen. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, also supported the two-thirds threshold. In addition, he thought the Legislature should only be able to call itself back to deal with a persistent fiscal crisis or some other emergency situation, if only to reinforce the idea that it’s a part-time body.
“The more special sessions we have, the harder it is for the truly part-time legislator who isn’t retired and who is pursuing a career to make themselves available,” he said.
No one testified for or against the resolution during a brief public hearing.
The State Affairs Committee recommended approval of the measure on a near-party-line vote. It now goes to the full Senate for further action. A two-thirds vote would be needed to send it to the House, which approved the earlier version of the bill on a 51-18 vote.
If approved by the Legislature, the measure would go to voters in the 2022 general election. A simple majority would be needed to amend the Constitution.
SUBVERTING CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS — Former Idaho Supreme Court Chief Justice Jim Jones announced the formation of a new legal group “to protect the Idaho Constitution from repeated attacks by the Idaho Legislature.”
In a news release, Jones said the Committee to Protect and Preserve the Idaho Constitution “will engage in a variety of activities to prevent the Legislature from subverting the constitutional rights of the people, as well as constitutional checks and balances.”
Other founding members of the committee include former Attorney General Tony Park, former Deputy Attorney General Clive Strong and Bruce Smith, a long-time private practice lawyer.
“Legislators have shown an alarming disrespect for our state Constitution this session, and it’s incumbent upon members of the legal profession to call them to account,” Jones said. “The mission of our group is to blow the whistle on legislation that threatens the integrity of the Idaho Constitution and to use every legal avenue to oppose it.”
The news release cited specific concerns with Senate Bill 1110, which tightens restrictions on the citizen initiative process (see related story on Page 1A), as well as House Bills 101 and 118, which undermine the attorney general’s lead role as legal representative for the Idaho Department of Lands and other executive branch agencies.
Spence covers politics for the Tribune. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or (208) 791-9168.