Idaho House OKs plan to let lawmakers call special sessions

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A constitutional amendment allowing the part-time Idaho Legislature to call itself into a special session passed the House on Thursday and is headed to the Senate.

With a 51-18 vote, the House mustered the two-thirds threshold required to approve the legislation, which supporters say is needed to provide a check on the governor’s authority.

The legislation stems from lawmaker dissatisfaction with restrictions that Republican Gov. Brad Little put in place last March to reduce coronavirus infections and deaths. The Republican-dominant Legislature had adjourned for the year by then and couldn't call itself back into session.

Idaho is one of 14 states where only the governor can call a special legislative session.

“I didn’t get elected to come down here and sit around and let the governor be king,” House Majority Leader Mike Moyle said.

The legislation also must pass the Senate with a two-thirds vote before going to voters in the November 2022 general election, where a simple majority is needed for approval.

“It's a good day,” House Speaker Scott Bedke said after the vote. “I hope voters of Idaho carefully consider this. We’re in the fastest-growing state in the union. And I think having this tool in the people’s toolbox is a proper step.”

If voters approve it in 2022, lawmakers could call themselves back into session if 60% of members in each the House and Senate agree.

Now, special sessions called by the governor are limited to specific topics. Under the bill, a special session called by lawmakers would not have those limits and would have no timeline for ending.

Those who support changing the Constitution say the current system gives the Idaho governor too much unchecked power and leaves the Legislature as a weaker branch of what is supposed to be three equal branches: legislative, executive and judicial.

House members opposed to the constitutional amendment, while supportive of the idea in general, voiced concern that a special session with no specific topic or certain end date could make the part-time Legislature full time.

“I don't think that we should be able to call ourselves back and when we get here, decide we can introduce any piece of legislation that we want,” Republican Rep. Fred Wood said. “I think that's the quickest way there is to a full-time Legislature. And I certainly want to keep a part-time citizens' Legislature.”

House Minority Leader Ilana Rubel said the amendment didn't limit what legislation could be considered.

“I could see a scenario where we may easily get 60% of people who want to come in, but they may all want to come in for something different,” she said.

The legislation is among nearly a dozen bills introduced this year stemming from Little's emergency declaration over the virus.

The governor issued a temporary stay-at-home order in March as the virus spread rapidly, overwhelming some hospitals and leaving health care workers scrambling for protective equipment.

The lockdown gave the state and hospitals time to gather supplies, but unemployment spiked. Little lifted most restrictions over the summer, and unemployment dropped.

But a virus surge in the fall led him to reinstate some restrictions, including limiting gatherings to 10 people or less.

Many lawmakers bristled at restrictions, especially the March lockdown when some workers were declared nonessential.

Idaho joins at least 25 other states in considering enacting limits on executive powers, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.