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The debate over calling legislatures into special sessions

Updated: Jul 21, 2023

This fall, voters in Idaho will be considering Senate Joint Resolution 102. The measure would amend Idaho’s constitution to allow for the legislature to call itself into session if 60% of members agree.

Currently, Idaho is one of only 14 states where only the governor can call the legislature into special, or “extraordinary” session. Most other states allow for the legislature – as a separate and co-equal branch of government – to make that determination, subject to some level of supermajority agreement (three-fifths or two-thirds). The National Conference of State Legislatures has a good resource here to review how other states handle the process.

Senate Pro Tempore Chuck Winder has said the issue came to a head during the COVID pandemic.

We just though the legislature ought to have a roll in things like should you close a business, should you take the ability and persons right to make a living away. It shouldn’t all just be on one person’s shoulder,” Winder told KTVB.

Idaho currently has a part-time legislature, and most citizens want to keep it that way. There has been concern that amending the constitution to allow for the legislature to call itself into session would lead a quasi-full time legislature, and therefore a burden on taxpayers.

However, there are few examples of that happening. In Washington state, the legislature has the power to call itself into session and has never done so.

Oregon passed a constitutional amendment in 1976 allowing the legislature to convene if it so chooses.

The debate in Idaho seems to be more about the fear of the unknown versus the impact of the policy.

Jason Mercier of the Washington Policy Center is one of the leading legislative experts in the nation. He says:

“The authority of the co-equal legislative branch to call itself into a special session is standard practice for the majority of states across the country. To ensure that these “extraordinary” sessions of the legislature don’t lead to legislative transparency abuses nor limit public involvement, they should follow the same public notice and hearing requirements of regular sessions. One-day special sessions should be avoided to maximize the opportunity for citizens to meaningfully weigh in on the “extraordinary” reason for the legislature to be meeting.”

Any legislative body – and co-equal branch of government – should have a constitutional right to convene when it so chooses. If the citizens believe the power is being abused, they can seek to remove those who abuse it.

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