To form some basis of comparison between this year’s legislative session and those of the past, let’s start with what many Gem State politics watchers maintain was the best ever: The 38th, in 1965.
You could overrate that session because of the collection of personalities in it, people such as James McClure, Cecil Andrus, Vern Ravenscroft, Phil Batt, Perry Swisher, Charles McDevitt, Pete Cenarrusa, Darrell Manning, Bill Roden, and many others who would be important in Idaho politics and government for a generation to come. But the session gets its ace ranking because of what those legislators did.
Maybe foremost, they passed - after hot debate - a state sales tax, which some people liked and others didn’t but which has helped stabilize state finances ever since. But there was much more: setting up a statewide park system, major changes in both public schools and higher education, creation of a state personnel commission, a standard for how state state rules and regulations would be developed (there had been none until then), approval of urban renewal law, upgrading water management and - on top of all that, the first redistricting in Idaho history of legislative districts, one of the toughest tasks a legislature can handle. Were all of these achievements (and many more) clear public benefits? You might get a reasonable argument about that. Were they all aimed specifically at improving life for Idahoans, and making their government work better? Absolutely, and for the most part at least the benefits are clear. That was the focus for these legislators.
One of those legislators, Perry Swisher, who loved to play the contrarian, has argued that the 1947 legislative session (he was not a member but watched it closely) was even better. There’s no question it was both highly productive and well regarded. That session reorganized public schools in Idaho (the state endured the chaos of almost 1,300 local school districts before the legislature consolidated most of them), started state spending for public schools, rewrote worker compensation law, created colleges at Pocatello (which became Idaho State University), Lewiston and Albion, set up the state corrections board and state archives, and much more. Here again, all of this was aimed specifically at providing benefits to people in the state and improvements to how their government worked.
That’s why so many people have regarded sessions like those as examples that later lawmakers might aspire to. It also provides some basis for measurement, some metric of whether a legislature is doing its job.
This year, the widespread talk is over whether the 2021 Idaho legislative session is the worst in the state’s history. Put aside the transitory foolishness - like the normal run of eye-rolling quotes and poor response to a pandemic that is keeping legislators still in session instead of long since adjourned - and the apparent results, as they seem to be materializing now, provide a strong case for the barrel’s bottom.
What will this year’s legacy be?
A few positives seem to be happening. Hemp is being legalized, and wrongly convicted people will receive compensation. And other odds and ends.
But these modest efforts are swamped by the tide of culture-war issues without benefit to the people of the state. Attempts to kill (in effect) the ballot initiative. Attempts to keep the governor from effectively responding to statewide emergencies. Attempts to defang a (highly capable) attorney general’s office. Killing out participation in Powerball over concern about what stands the government in Australia might take. Attacks on “social justice” (of which there are only slippery definitions) in schools - apparently as an excuse to defund schools; which they seem not to like, as witness the concurrent attacks on teacher pay. Even an attempt (passed by the legislature, awaiting voter action) to amend the Idaho Constitution to take some policy-making power away from the voters and give it, in effect, exclusively to the legislature. And even an attempt to put the legislature in charge of local artwork and memorials.
Tommy Ahlquist, a Republican candidate for governor three years ago, was quoted in the Idaho Statesman as saying, “They’re not for anything. They’re really against anything that they don’t like. So we don’t like any government — unless it’s the government we want. We don’t like any control from government — unless it’s our control. They’ll talk local control and freedom for people, yet look at the legislation that they’re bringing up that is exactly the opposite.”
I’m hard pressed to imagine how a legislative session could get much further away from the high achievements like those of 1965 or 1947, than this one.
On the other hand, there’s always next year.