BOISE — Idaho lawmakers wasted no time in introducing more “balance of power” bills Wednesday, and a member of the joint budget committee raised an intriguing question.
Here are some highlights from the third day of the 2021 legislative session:
SPEAKING OF IDAHO — It turns out Gov. Brad Little didn’t deliver his State of the State Address from the Statehouse auditorium, as originally planned.
Instead, he spoke from an “undisclosed location.”
Governors historically deliver the annual address from the overcrowded House chambers. All 105 lawmakers are in the room, along with all the constitutional officers and Idaho Supreme Court justices. The second-floor House gallery also is packed with people and guests.
Given the situation with the coronavirus pandemic, Little decided to deliver this year’s State of the State from a nearly empty Statehouse auditorium. The idea was to broadcast the speech to lawmakers in their respective House and Senate chambers, as well as to the public. Equipment would also be set up to provide two-way feedback to the governor, allowing him to see the reaction of lawmakers in real time.
However, he ultimately spoke from an undisclosed location.
There’s been some speculation the switch was made because of security concerns, particularly in light of the events at the U.S. Capitol last week. The governor’s staff, though, said that wasn’t the case. It had more to do with technical issues involved in setting up the two-way feed.
House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, agreed with that assessment.
“The technology was unreliable,” he said. “We didn’t want technological glitches to be a distraction.”
That said, there’s definitely a heightened security presence at the Statehouse this year. For example, there were five Idaho State Police officers outside the Senate State Affairs Committee on Wednesday morning. They almost outnumbered the people in the audience.
That’s been the story throughout the first few days of the session: There just aren’t many people here. Because of the pandemic, many lobbyists, reporters and legislative staff are monitoring the Legislature remotely. And very few members of the general public have shown up so far, even for hot-button issues like the balance of power bills.
CHECKS AND BALANCES — The Senate State Affairs Committee introduced four more bills Wednesday dealing with the governor’s emergency powers.
Two made minor changes and clarifications to definitions. The third mirrored a companion bill introduced in the House on Tuesday. It prohibits the governor from altering or suspending state laws or constitutional rights via an emergency declaration, or from restricting someone’s right to work and provide for his or her family.
The measure also caps the length of any emergency declaration at 30 days, unless the Legislature agrees to extend it.
“What we’re trying to do is say there’s a role for the Legislature,” said Senate President Pro Tem Chuck Winder, R-Boise. “We’re saying there’s a role for the representatives of the people to be involved in the process when we have an ongoing emergency. ... As we look at the pandemic and the impact of COVID, we need to be sure people have access to their legislators and that legislators have an opportunity to participate in the process, in making decisions and spending funds.”
The fourth bill also mirrored a resolution introduced in the House Tuesday by Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, with one important change.
The measure would immediately end the coronavirus emergency declaration, and would not be subject to a gubernatorial veto. Unlike Scott’s version, though, the Senate resolution specifically includes language protecting the state’s ability to access federal emergency funds.
“It says the governor can maintain the declaration only to the extent required to continue receiving (such funds), but not to impose restrictions on the citizens of Idaho,” Winder said. “We think that’s an important difference.”
A total of seven bills have been introduced so far dealing with the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic. That includes a proposed constitutional amendment that would give the Legislature the authority to call itself back into session.
“This is an effort to restore the balance of powers in state government,” said Senate Majority Leader Kelly Anthon, R-Burley. “It’s something that’s foundational to good government.”
CONSTITUTIONAL SPENDING LIMITS — During the joint budget committee meeting Tuesday, and again Wednesday, Rep. Ron Nate, R-Rexburg, raised a question about the use of the state “rainy day” savings accounts.
During previous recessions, the accounts helped the state weather revenue declines and minimize cuts to state services, including public education.
However, Article VII, Section 11, of the Idaho Constitution says “no appropriation shall be made, nor any expenditure authorized ... whereby the expenditure of the state during any fiscal year shall exceed the total tax then provided for by law.”
“At first reading, that seems to say the appropriation in any given year can’t exceed revenues — and revenues come from taxes and grants,” Nate said. “The way it’s written, it seems to preclude the use of savings. In a down revenue year, I think that clause says state spending needs to decrease.”
After he questioned whether the use of savings complied with the constitutional language, the budget committee staff provided a ruling from a 1904 Supreme Court case. It indicated appropriations could exceed tax revenues in a given year, so long as the revenue from “other sources, such as license and per-capita taxes and fees of officers” were sufficient to cover the difference.
That was enough to satisfy budget committee co-chairman Rep. Rick Youngblood, R-Nampa.
“I don’t think it’s an issue,” he said of Nate’s concern. “We got that (Supreme Court ruling) from the Attorney General’s Office. That’s my go-to source. If Rep. Nate discovers something different, more power to him.”
Nate continued to question whether rainy day accounts should be treated like any other revenue source.
“Aren’t we double counting?” he asked Wednesday. “We count it as revenue in a prior year, and then count it as revenue again (when it’s used).”
Nate is starting his third term in the House, and his first serving on the joint budget committee. He works as an economics professor at BYU-Idaho.
In a conversation following Wednesday’s meeting, he indicated he’s not looking to turn the state budgeting process upside down.
“This isn’t a hill for me to die on,” Nate said. “I’m just looking for clarify. My real question is, do we need a constitutional amendment if we want to have rainy day funds?”
As one of the more conservative members of the House, Nate certainly supports efforts to limit the size of government. He also recognizes that recessions are one of the rare opportunities lawmakers have to reduce overall spending.
Nevertheless, he also acknowledged that the savings accounts can help ease budget constraints.
“We have a lot of state employees and 16,000 teachers who want to get paid,” Nate said. “When the economy suffers and revenues are down, the state still has obligations. I don’t want to get in the way of that.”
Spence is the Tribune's political reporter. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or (208) 791-9168.