Writings and observations

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In theory, there isn’t much difference in Idaho between the first session of a legislative term, and the second one – like the one just started.

The differences are not exactly subtle but, if informal, they are real, and they can affect the laws the state lives with for years to come.

Many states differentiate clearly between the “odd-year” session, the one (like 2015) right after election year, and the “even-year” session held early within an election year. Washington, for example, has a 105-day limit (a limit often violated anyway) on its odd-year sessions, but just 60 days on its even-year. Until recently Oregon had regular legislative sessions only in odd years; now it allows 160 days in the odd year and 35 in the even. (Idaho has no formal limit on its session length.) There are also some differences in what is routinely considered in those sessions, and what isn’t.

The length difference you notice between those sessions reflects the idea that most of the subject areas that need to be addressed need not be addressed twice in a two-year period. The bar is set relatively low in Washington and Oregon for introducing legislation in the odd year, but only financial matters and higher priorities typically make the cut in the even.

For people in Idaho who wonder if efficiencies can be found in the time legislators spend in session, those examples might suggest one. Idaho could run a longer session in the odds, and a shorter money-oriented session in the even.

It’s not hard to figure out why this approach has happened, and it has to do with elections. In the odd years, legislators are new in their terms, hot off the campaign trail, and want to pursue some of the ideas they talked or heard about. In even years, a primary election is just around the corner, and most legislators would rather get back home early if they can.

Idaho, which went to biennial session in the ate 60s, does not formally differentiate between the two regular sessions – legislation can be considered in one as well as the other. Sometimes advocates of failed legislation in an odd year come back in the even to give it another try, before the same group of legislators. Occasionally it works; more often it doesn’t.

There’s an attempt being made this year, for one example, with the “add the words” legislation, on civil rights. A bill was proposed last year, given several days of committee hearings, then rejected at the committee level on a party-line vote. Democratic Senators Grant Burgoyne and Cherie Buckner-Webb have brought it back, with some amendment reflecting concerns expressed in testimony from a year ago. Its future is unclear. Will Republican legislators be willing to give it another hearing after last year’s marathon, much less send it to a chamber floor? Maybe, but Burgoyne and Buckner-Webb will have a tough job convincing them.

If they do, the reason would be that a number of members, reflecting on last year’s session and the arguments they’ve heard then and sense, may simply have reconsidered their views.

If you think, as many people do (and as Washington and Oregon do) that a second session should be limited and fiscal-oriented so time isn’t spent on retread issues, you may have a point. It works pretty well in a number of states.

But a full-on session in the even years does have its benefits: The chance to reconsider decisions made the year before, sometimes in haste or under pressure. We’ll see soon enough how this session does with this year’s version of decision-making.

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Idaho Idaho column Stapilus