Spokane Journal of Business

Guest Commentary: Legislature has constitutional right to call self to session

Gem State voters approve …

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It wasn’t overwhelming approval, but voters in Idaho have given a thumbs up to a constitutional amendment that will allow the state Legislature the authority to call itself into special or extraordinary session. Senate Joint Resolution 102 passed with more than 52% of the vote in this month’s general election.

The results mean Idaho’s constitution will allow for the Legislature to call itself into session if 60% of members agree.

Idaho Senate Pro Tempore Chuck Winder has said the issue came to a head during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We just thought the Legislature ought to have a role in things like: Should you close a business? Should you take the ability and person’s right to make a living away? It shouldn’t all just be on one person’s shoulder.”

Idaho was one of only 14 states where only the governor could call the Legislature into a special, or extraordinary, session. Most other states allow for the legislature—as a separate and co-equal branch of government—to make that determination, subject to some level of supermajority agreement, such as three-fifths or two-thirds.

Idaho currently has a part-time legislature, and most citizens want to keep it that way.

There has been concern that amending the constitution to allow for the Legislature to call itself into session would lead to a quasi-full-time legislature, and therefore a burden on taxpayers. Former Gov. Butch Otter wrote an op-ed titled “Not only no, but hell no!”

The Idaho Statesman warned, “This is … not a mandate for coming back into session often.”

That is absolutely true, and the hesitation some have is understandable. However, there are few examples of legislatures taking advantage of the power.

In Washington state, the Legislature has the power to call itself into session. It has never done so. Oregon passed a constitutional amendment in 1976 allowing the Legislature to convene if it so chooses.

The debate in Idaho seems to be more about the fear of the unknown versus the impact of the policy. 

But as government reform expert Jason Mercier writes, “To ensure that these ‘extraordinary’ sessions of the Legislature don’t lead to legislative transparency abuses nor limit public involvement, they should follow the same public notice and hearing requirements of regular sessions. One-day special sessions should be avoided to maximize the opportunity for citizens to meaningfully weigh in on the ‘extraordinary’ reason for the Legislature to be meeting.”

If the citizens believe the power is being abused, they can seek to remove those who abuse it. They may even decide to increase the threshold.

It wouldn’t make sense for the Legislature to tell the governor when he or she could operate, and the restriction doesn’t make sense for the Legislature either. Any legislative body—and co-equal branch of government—should have a constitutional right to convene when it chooses.

Chris Cargill is the founder, president, and CEO of Mountain States Policy Center, an independent free-market think tank, which is online at mountainstatespolicy.org.

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