Writings and observations

Special session rules

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There’s a standard rule of thumb when it comes to calling a special legislative session – in any state – and it is this: You do not call it if you do not have the votes to accomplish what you think needs to be done.

The last time a special session was called in Idaho, in 2006, that was the measure of success, and then-Governor Jim Risch passed it.

The issue on deck then was property taxes, the subject of a simmering revolt at the time Risch was sworn into office in May 2006. He promised to deal with the situation, and a few weeks later, amid the prospect of a special session , I wrote this:

“Risch has said that he won’t call a session unless the votes to pass the needed legislation are lined up in advance, so the session will be a slam dunk. (Which is the completely appropriate standard; it worked well in Oregon earlier this year.) That means he presumably can’t now just call one and hope for the best. But how much progress he’s making with the legislators, getting them whipped into shape, is unclear. The special session talk has been going on for many weeks, well before Risch took over as governor. Since then, six weeks since Risch’s bold inaugural statement, we’ve heard he’s been pressing hard to get the deal done, but no visible indications of success have appeared. We’re inclined to take his recent setting of August 25 as a prospective session date, in fact, as another attempt to pressure lawmakers to the table – an indication that they weren’t rushing there on their own. And if the legislators won’t come to the table, who takes the fall?”

Risch, a deeply experienced and ace vote counter, got the property tax measure House Bill 1 passed in a one-day session. But that makes it sound easier than it was. That single day was grueling, not least because legislative Democrats bitterly opposed the bill and fought it at every turn (they couldn’t stop it, but they could make passage difficult). But there was also this: The vote in the House was 47-23 and in the Senate 24-11, just enough for a two-thirds majority in each chamber, which meant just enough to move it quickly through the system and avoid an even more drawn-out battle. As I wrote that day, “This thing was calculated precisely.”

Now Otter has called his special session (the first of his three terms as governor), for May 18. He does it at some risk. It was the kind of risk he avoided in his state of the state speech, when he called on lawmakers to do various things but avoided prescribing the exact terms. Now, he has to do exactly that; and lawmakers sometimes bridle at the imposition. And he will have to calculate precisely.

Otter made a point of saying the bill whose passage he seeks – a remake of the child support interstate agreement measure killed earlier this month in the House Judiciary Committee – will be posted online so people have time to look at it. He pointed out that the Department of Health and Welfare is able to break down the number of at-risk children by legislative district (and presumably it will). He made a point of saying he’s been working closely on this with House Speaker Scott Bedke, putting Bedke on the line here too.

His points in favor of passage are well-aimed, too: “It is very important to the state of Idaho and our continued effort on personal responsibility, and that’s really what it comes down to … to have folks that have children not be able to escape that personal responsibility by moving either to another state or another country.”

These are good moves, and suggest Otter is taking nothing for granted. Asked what might happen and what he would tell parents in need of child support if the session fails to pass the bill, Otter answered this way:

“My message to them is: Pray for success. We can use all the help that we can get.”

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