Senate panel revises constitutional amendment allowing Legislature to call itself into session

BOISE (AP) — An Idaho Senate panel of lawmakers on Monday approved a new version of a constitutional amendment allowing the part-time Idaho Legislature to call itself into session.

The Senate State Affairs Committee voted 5-3 to send the measure to the full Senate.

A similar measure passed the House in January with the two-thirds majority of votes that is required for constitutional amendments.

But several Republicans in the super-majority joined Democrats in opposing the measure amid concerns the Legislature could become a fulltime operation.

That version also cleared the Senate State Affairs Committee, on a divided vote, and went to the full Senate, where it hasn’t been voted on. It’s not clear if that version would receive the two-thirds majority required in the 35-member Senate to pass.

Under the first version, a special session called by lawmakers would not be limited to specific topics. The new version the Senate panel approved Monday would be limited to topics defined ahead of lawmakers going into special sessions. They would be prohibited from introducing other legislation during the special sessions.

“Based upon some discussions within our own (Republican) caucus and within the Senate itself, there was a need at looking at possibly revising that,” said Republican Senate President Pro-Tem Chuck Winder. “Since we can’t amend, we basically have to write a new one.”

If the full Senate approves the new version, it would go to the House, requiring a two-thirds majority to pass. It would then go to voters in the November 2022 general election, where a simple majority is needed for approval.

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

Some lawmakers have said two-thirds of the lawmakers should be required to call a special session, which would be enough to override a governor’s veto. One of the Republican senators on the panel on Monday joined two Democrats in opposing the legislation for that reason.

Idaho is one of 14 states where only the governor can call a special legislative session, and the sessions are limited to topics defined ahead of the sessions.

Idaho, for example, held a special session in August focusing on coronavirus-related issues, including the handling of absentee ballots, which surged during the pandemic.

The proposed constitutional amendment stems from lawmaker dissatisfaction with restrictions — and their inability to do anything about them — that Republican Gov. Brad Little put in place last March to reduce coronavirus infections and deaths.

The restrictions included a temporary lockdown and restrictions on who could go to work. The Republican-dominated Legislature had adjourned for the year by then and couldn’t call itself back into session.

Lawmakers also say they and not Little should have decided how to spend the $1.25 billion the state received in federal coronavirus rescue money early last year.

Winder said the Idaho Legislature, under the current system, doesn’t have equal power with the executive and judicial branch.

“We’re not even a small blip on the radar screen when it comes to the balance of power with the other two branches of government,” he said.

Lawmakers having the ability to call themselves into session would change that, Winder said.

Another measure under consideration in Senate is a bill that will put in the framework for lawmakers to call themselves back into session if voters approve the constitutional amendment.

But that bill has stalled as lawmakers work on the new version of the constitutional amendment.