Idaho Governor Brad Little, while pointing out the rapidly increasing cases of Covid-19 in Idaho, has suggested considering putting off (or reformatting to virtual) a potential multi-day - in fact, multi-month - potential superspreader event: The 2021 session of the Idaho Legislature.
The risks of spreading are real, and the governor wasn’t exaggerating when he called a crowded Statehouse a “pretty good petri dish for transmissible moments of COVID.”
The idea appears not to be gaining sufficient traction in the Idaho Legislature, however. Doing something like that would take near-universal buy-in, with rule changes and much more needed to make it happen. The Democratic caucuses suggested holding off the session until April or until vaccines are widely available. But Republicans seem unlikely to go there, and not just because of the GOP base attitude toward the pandemic. And making the change, especially so close to the planned start date, would in fact be a complex undertaking; a lot of frantic changes would have to be made.
Still. Before dismissing the idea entirely, there are thoughts worth considering.
One is that there’s nothing particularly sacred about the January 11 start date.
The legislature can change its start date if it wishes, according to Article III, Section 8 of the Idaho Constitution. You’d need to call a special session, though, to make that happen, since the start date is set in Idaho law (in a section scheduling it, ungainly, “at the hour of twelve o’clock P.M. on the Monday on or nearest the ninth day in January.” But it could be done.
Most legislative sessions around the country do begin their regular sessions in the first half of January in odd-numbered years; some hold short or no sessions in even-numbered years. But there are variations. California and Maine start their sessions in the December before - that’s as if the Idaho Legislature’s early December organizational session simply never adjourned and kept on going, with longish breaks for the holidays.
Oklahoma, Nevada, Alabama and West Virginia all regularly start their sessions in February. Florida starts in March, and Louisiana in April. But those aren’t the only variations. In Oregon, for example, the legislature is scheduled to start in 2021 the same day as in Idaho, but in most recent years it has launched its sessions in February. (It uses some of January to hold interim, planning and appointment meetings.)
But none of these dates are absolute requirements. These wintry schedules historically have related to the preferences of farmers who for generations made up disproportionate numbers of legislators in many states, including Idaho. The Gem State still has plenty of farmer lawmakers, but not as many of the total group as historically was the case. The farmer legislators who needed to get back to their fields for planting time are fewer and tend to be less constrained now than they once were.
Time was, as well, when no one wanted to be stuck at the Statehouse in the heat of summer, but these days we have an invention called air conditioning that keeps most of these places cool.
So why is the legislative session these days really held when it is?
Probably because of inertia, as much as anything else.
So there’s a case to be made:
If Covid-19 vaccines are widely distributed through the first quarter of next year, then a regular legislative session next spring might be more safely and easily held than one starting in January.
There are reasonable counterarguments, such as the disruption of planning of thousands of people.
But it merits some consideration.