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Idaho Senate OKs plan for lawmakers to call special sessions

Lawmakers voted 24-11 on Wednesday to clear the two-thirds majority needed for a proposed constitutional amendment that now goes to the House.

BOISE, Idaho — The Idaho Senate has approved a new version of a constitutional amendment allowing the part-time state Legislature to call itself into session. 

Lawmakers voted 24-11 on Wednesday to clear the two-thirds majority needed for a proposed constitutional amendment that now goes to the House, where it will also need a two-thirds majority.

SJR 102 would go before voters in November 2022 if successful and would need a simple majority to win. 

If voters approve, the Legislature could call itself back into session if 60% of lawmakers in each the House and Chamber agree. Currently, only governors can call special sessions.

Senator Petter Riggs (R-Post Falls) voted for the legislation, saying the constitutional amendment would give legislators a new tool to help the state during "an all-hands-on-deck situation."

"People have talked about whether or not there is an attempt to serve power from the gentleman on the second floor," he said, "whether there is an effort for the legislature to do something that is outside of its peripheral but the way that I look at it is, our house caught fire last year and we wanted to help. Not to seize power, not to take advantage of the situation but we wanted to help."

Senator Grant Burgoyne (D-Boise) said the amendment isn't in the best interest of the state or the people.

"I believe we would be better off with that if we can find a way to get the right bills passed," he said.

Senate Pro Tempore Chuck Winder said the effort is really in response to what so many lawmakers heard from Idahoans through 2020, that the Governor should not be able to act unilaterally on major decisions like business restrictions for months on end.

“We just though the legislature ought to have a roll in things like should you close a business, should you take the ability and persons right to make a living away. It shouldn’t all just be on one person’s shoulder,” Winder said.

Legislators have argued that allowing the legislature to call itself into session would include more input from diverse communities on big decisions instead of just the Governor’s opinion.

“Some people will say well he is elected by everybody in Idaho but the legislature is elected by everybody in Idaho. We represent about 50,000 people and we are probably a lot closer to the people than maybe the executive branch would be because we are there at home, we are not full time, we are going to church we are going to the grocery store we are hearing a lot about it,” Winder said.

House Minority Leader Democrat Ilana Rubel says SJR 102 is an improvement from previous legislation in the sense that it doesn’t allow open ended special sessions on anything to be called.

“This at least confines the subjects of what we would be here to do and requires that there be some agreement on that subject. So, I think it’s a big improvement in that regard,” Rubel said.

Still, Rubel said there are concerns with the idea. She pointed out that if a special session is called by the legislature it’s clear the governor didn’t call it.

“So it’s almost a foregone conclusion that whatever we are here to do was very likely to be vetoed. So I think representative Gibb said at the time, it would make sense to require at least two-thirds of the legislature to sign onto that effort so that we are not wasting our time so we know that if we come in here we have a veto proof majority,” Rubel said.

Under the current legislation, that is not the case.

“Keeping the number at 60% I think still runs the risk that we are going to be calling ourselves back into session for nothing because we don’t have sufficient agreement to overcome a veto.” -Rubel

Winder disagreed and said the goal is to avoid unnecessary and runaway sessions.

“I think it is a very high bar even at 60%. In a lot of states, they allow just a simple majority or even just the speaker and the pro tempore to call a special session,” Winder said.

Idaho is currently one of 14 states where only the governor can call a special legislative session. Rubel said she isn’t against the idea of the legislature calling itself into session, but it needs to be done the right way. If not, she believes the part-time legislature may be more than just part-time.

“I’m a little concerned generally about the potential path to a fulltime legislature. Utah passed the ability to call themselves back into session and my understanding is since they did that they’ve called themselves in seven special sessions in about a year,” Rubel said.

RELATED: Idaho House OKs plan to let lawmakers call special sessions

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