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So special

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In this season of state legislative special sessions – Oregon just had a couple, Idaho is about to have one – the track record is worth recalling, because that record is spotty.

Special legislative sessions are often high-risk gambles for the governors who call them and legislators who support them. Many special sessions don’t work out well at all: Ask Washington legislators for their win-loss record in specials over the last few, well, decades. Some specials succeed: Oregon’s two special sessions, covering state budget and revenue issues and use of force by police, largely got done what the Democratic advocates wanted, though the governor still may weigh in further on the money issues, and though the subjects remain contentious.

Special sessions tend to work best when they’re quick and tightly focused, and meticulously planned. They’re not part of the normal process, and their participants can feel out of sorts; in Oregon,even the recent one-day special left legislators, according to the veteran Senate president, “grumpy and they are getting grumpier.” That doesn’t always bode well for success.

Consider also the Idaho special session of August 2006.

There was some pressure at the time. Big concerns had arisen about property taxes, and a heated general election was just around the bend. Jim Risch – now a U.S. senator but then a new governor (he had recently moved up from lieutenant governor) – decided to call a special session. I wrote at the time, “Risch’s legislative call appears ironclad: Either approve his idea [on how to deal with property taxes], or go home having done nothing. That would reflect badly on many legislators, of course, and also on Risch, who at this point has staked much of his prestige on this whole effort working. At his inaugural, he said he would not call a special session unless he believed it would get the job done.”

So there was risk, since this wasn’t a slam dunk. Risch was careful to line up plenty of legislative support in advance, but a variety of tax and related proposals were circulating, the political currents were cutting in various directions, and the possibility of things going south was real.

They didn’t go south. The session worked, and Risch got what he asked for. (The merits of that is another subject.) The long single-day session was emotional and exhausting and borderline bitter at times, but it did emerge with the legislation the governor sought. It was carefully planned. After it ended, I wrote among other things this: “Did anyone else notice that the vote in the House was 47-23 and in the Senate 24-11? So what, you say? In each chamber, the vote in favor was exactly enough for a two-thirds majority; a loss of one vote in either place would, if extended out to procedural votes, have been enough to stop HB1 cold. This thing was calculated precisely.”

Risch, who understood the Idaho Legislature extremely well, knew exactly what he intended to accomplish and how to get it done.

That’s the job now facing Idaho Governor Brad Little, who has called a special session for later this month. At this writing, the formal session call hasn’t been made yet; his office said on August 5, “Governor Little, legislative leadership, and members of the House and Senate will continue discussions about the specific topics that will be addressed during the special session, which could include the November general election and liability reform during emergencies.”

That sound is of a session whose contours and even core subject matter still are being filled in, at a time when various lawmakers seem eager to use the session to engage in cultural and political wars – not least, in some cases, with the governor.

This is a hazardous proposition under simpler circumstances, and extremely difficult under those at present. Little’s administration has developed a generally good reputation for detailed and careful work with the legislature. It will need all of whatever abilities it has to get through this upcoming session unscathed.
 

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