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Keep this legislative power in check

| August 7, 2020 1:00 AM

Idaho’s Legislature should not be trusted with the power to reactivate itself.

If you require proof, look no further than last week’s meeting of the Judiciary and Rules Working Group.

Many of its 27 members were downright eager to be called back into a special legislative session. They want to shield businesses, education and government entities from being sued by people who become infected with the coronavirus on their premises. Of particular concern is finding some kind of immunity for public schools as they contemplate reopening their doors to students within the next few weeks.

They just could not agree on precisely what to do once they got back to Boise.

As the Lewiston Tribune’s William L. Spence noted, a majority of House members got behind the idea of calling for a special session without first coming up with the prescribed remedy.

Senate members disagreed.

Democratic lawmakers want a less sweeping definition of immunity. But they’re the minority.

And even the proposed bill that emerged may have a soft underbelly. Some of the people endorsed it last week merely as a vehicle to advance a special session.

“I absolutely support the recommendation for a special session, and I’d support a motion that says we should consider legislation similar to this draft (proposal),” said House Assistant Majority Leader Jason Monks, R-Nampa. “But if this is the only draft that’s brought forward, I have reservations. I couldn’t support this as our only recommendation.”

Hence the reaction of House Judiciary Committee Chairman Greg Chaney, R-Caldwell.

“If we don’t come up with a piece of legislation through this (working group) process that we can understand and feel comfortable advancing, … we don’t get a special session,” said Chaney, who is also co-chairman of the working group. “If we signal to the governor, ‘Look, this is kinda, maybe what we want to do, but we have no real consensus,’ there may be hesitation (in calling a session). If we can’t work it out among ourselves without a special session, what’s to say we can work it out with one?”

Gov. Brad Little says he will call lawmakers back to Boise the week of Aug. 24. But he retains the authority to set the specific agenda. Maybe an immunity bill will be on it. Maybe it won’t. He’ll decide on Aug. 17 when he issues a formal proclamation.

Here in a nutshell is the efficacy of leaving it to Idaho’s governor to call lawmakers into a special session and limiting what they can work on.

Idaho’s system imposes discipline on the process. No group of lawmakers is going to convince a governor to convene a special session unless:

• The problem can not be put off.

• He supports the remedy. (What’s the point of passing a bill in special session if it’s going to meet with a veto?)

• The path forward is smooth. A bill has been prepared and it has the votes to pass.

Anything else should be left for the regular session that begins in January. That’s the time to entertain uncertainty. It’s when lawmakers can take 90 days or more to prepare competing bills, vet them with the lobbyists, special interests and the public, and then decide whether to pass, amend, replace or defeat them.

No one has the upper hand. The governor has a veto; the Legislature has the means to override him.

And only the Legislature can decide when its work is complete and the time has come to adjourn for the year.

In this, however, Idaho is in the minority. It is among 13 states — including California and Texas — where the governor holds the exclusive discretion to call a special session. Elsewhere, lawmakers share that power. In Nevada, Utah and Washington, it takes a two-thirds legislative majority to go back. In Montana, Oregon and Wyoming, a simple majority is sufficient.

The COVID-19 pandemic struck just as Idaho lawmakers were wrapping up their regular session. During the ensuing months, Little responded unilaterally to the challenge. Lawmakers found themselves frustrated being on the outside looking in.

So House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, and others are contemplating a change. Giving lawmakers the discretion to call a special session would require amending Idaho’s constitution. That’s far from an easy process. It requires two-thirds support in both the House and Senate, followed by voter approval in the next general election.

If they prevail, however, here’s betting last week’s discussion will be a sign of times to come. Legislators such as Monks would be far more amenable to calling special sessions with or without a bill and the means to pass it.

Then, how long will it take before Idaho embarks on a runaway special session — or a series of them?

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Lewiston Tribune editorials are written by editorial page editor Marty Trillhaase.