In light of my eight years as a state representative from this county, I have been invited by the Bingham News Chronicle to write occasional guest columns, commenting on the actions of our state legislature while it is “in session.” This is the second in that series.
The legislature convened last Monday, Jan. 11, and is likely to be in session until early April. This is not an election year. Non-election years tend to go longer because the legislators are not needed back home to campaign. Often times in non-election years, more complicated or more controversial issues are addressed. The business of the first few days of each session usually involves little legislation, instead the time is spent getting the new members assimilated, the committees organized, listening to and digesting the Governor’s State of the State address and reviewing rules.
Idaho is one of only a handful of states in which the legislature reviews all rules passed by state agencies in the preceding 12 months. Rules are passed in all states as well as at the federal level by various agencies in an effort to implement the laws passed by their respective legislative bodies. These rules carry the force of law yet in most cases are designed and implemented by department administrators who have no direct accountability to the voters. By having the legislature review the rules with the ability to reject any of them, a connection is made through the elected representatives to the citizens. In my view we are fortunate to have that system in place.
This session is different in part because there is a strong immediate push by the legislature to reign in executive powers exercised by the governor in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. Several bills have already been put forth by various sponsors this session which would limit or more precisely define the Governor’s ability to take unilateral action in the event of an emergency. Some potential legislation would end the current state of emergency and restore our state to “normal” and by so doing make us ineligible to receive the $12 million in FEMA money that the state currently uses for the National Guard, hospitals, etc.
Another bill allows the legislature to call itself back into session. That would require a change to our constitution and therefore an affirmative vote by we citizens. These bills will all go through the committee process and be voted on before coming to both the full House and Senate for votes. In the event of passage they would go to the governor for his signature. If he vetoes the bills it will take an affirmative vote by two-thirds of both bodies to pass them. This is a high priority of the legislature but there will be opposition and we will see how it plays out.
In both the House and Senate there is are “caucuses” or groups of legislators with generally similar interests. One is the Republican Party caucus and the other is the Democratic Party caucus. Both have a slate of elected leaders within the group including the Speaker of the House or Pro Tem of the Senate who both come from the party with the most members, i.e. the “majority party.” Previously there has been a subset of the Republican caucus who call themselves the “Liberty” caucus. This has been a rather informal caucus of mostly House members whose political views are often described as “far right.” This year a group has formed advocating a “Conservative Agenda” which identifies specific political issues they wish to address and the outcome they desire. So far very few senators have identified with that group by signature but nearly half the House Republicans have. They do not at this point call themselves a “caucus” but they do appear to have a separate leadership team and the potential to compete on certain issues. It will be interesting to see how this evolves.
In his address the governor proposed a plan he calls “Building Idaho’s Future.” Some of the issues he identified are the state’s financial surplus which is huge at over $600 million. There will be many entities competing for this money but the governor has identified transportation in its various forms, Broadband (speeds and rural access), education at many levels, and tax relief as being some of his priorities.
It is likely there will be discussions involving property taxes and the sales tax on groceries. Medicaid expansion and its cost is a likely topic as well. Some of the extra spending and tax relief is likely to be temporary and some permanent. The only statutorily mandated duty of the legislature each session is to fund the operations of government at the level deemed appropriate by the legislature as representatives of the citizens. Those funding decisions start in the JFAC committee on which our good Sen. Steve Bair is the co-chairman. This committee was not used by the governor for the spending of the over $1 billion of stimulus money our state has received in the past few months from the federal government because of the pandemic. That is one of the sore spots with the legislature.
It’ll be an interesting year!
Neil Anderson served Bingham County in the Idaho House of Representatives for eight years.