Considering my eight years as a state representative from that county, I have been invited by the Bingham News Chronicle to occasionally write guest columns commenting on our state assembly’s actions during the session. This is the second in the series.
The legislature met last Monday, January 11th, and is expected to sit until the beginning of April. This is not an election year. Years of non-election tend to be longer because lawmakers are not needed to campaign at home. In non-election years, more complicated or controversial issues are often raised. The business of the first few days of each meeting is usually associated with little legislation. Instead, the time is spent assimilating the new members, organizing the committees, hearing and digesting the governor’s address, and reviewing the rules.
Idaho is one of only a handful of states where lawmakers are reviewing all rules passed by government agencies in the past 12 months. Rules are passed in all federal states as well as at the federal level by various authorities in order to implement the laws passed by their respective legislative bodies. These rules are final, but in most cases they are designed and implemented by departmental administrators who have no direct accountability to voters. By allowing the legislature to review the rules and reject them, the elected representatives create a connection with the citizens. I think we are lucky enough to have this system.
This session is different in part because lawmakers are pushing for the governor’s executive powers to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. Several bills have been tabled at this meeting by various sponsors that would limit or further define the governor’s ability to take unilateral action in an emergency. Some potential laws would end the current state of emergency and return our condition to “normal,” thereby prohibiting us from receiving the $ 12 million FEMA funds the state is currently spending on the National Guard, hospitals, and so on.
Another bill allows lawmakers to call themselves back into session. This would require an amendment to our constitution and thus a positive vote by us citizens. These bills will all go through the committee process and voted before they are put to vote in both the House and Senate. In the event of passage, they would go to the governor for signature. When he examines the bills, two-thirds of both bodies have to approve to pass them. This is a high priority for lawmakers, but there will be opposition and we’ll see how it turns out.
In both the House of Representatives and the Senate there are “assemblies” 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 list of elected leaders within the group, including the President of the House or the Pro Tem of the Senate, both of whom are from the party with the largest number of members, ie the “majority party.” Before that, there was a subset of the Republican caucus, which refer to themselves as “Liberty” caucus. This was a more informal gathering for most of the House of Representatives whose political views are often referred to as “far right”. This year a group was formed to advocate a “conservative agenda” that identifies specific policy issues that they want to address and the outcome desired. To date, very few Senators have signed up to this group, but nearly half of the House’s Republicans have. They do not currently refer to themselves as a “caucus” but appear to have a separate leadership team and the potential to compete on certain issues. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.
In his address, the governor proposed a plan he called “Building Idaho’s Future”. Some of the problems he identified are the state’s financial surplus, which is huge at over $ 600 million. There will be many companies competing for that money, but the governor has identified transportation in its various forms, broadband (speed and access to rural areas), education at many levels, and tax breaks as some of his priorities.
It is likely that there will be discussions about property taxes and sales tax on groceries. Medicaid’s expansion and its cost is also a likely issue. Some of the additional expenses and tax breaks are likely to be temporary and others permanent. The only legally mandated duty of the legislature at any session is to fund government operations at the level that the legislature, representing the citizens, deems appropriate. These funding decisions begin on the JFAC committee of which our good Senator Steve Bair is the co-chair. This committee has not been used by the governor to spend the over $ 1 billion in stimulus funds our state has received from the federal government in recent months because of the pandemic. That is one of the sore spots with the legislature.
It’s going to be an interesting year!
Neil Anderson served in Bingham County in the Idaho House of Representatives for eight years.