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Analysis: Back again? A special legislative session looks like a safe bet

Idaho's legislative leaders push for special session
Posted at 4:17 PM, Aug 21, 2022
and last updated 2022-08-21 18:17:28-04

Originally posted on IdahoEdNews.org on August 18, 2022

(UPDATED, 3:53 p.m., with additional comments from the Idaho Freedom Foundation.)

If Gov. Brad Little is saying there’s a chance, then there’s a pretty good chance.

The governor isn’t ruling out the idea of calling lawmakers back to town for a special session. Ostensibly, the idea would be to siphon some money from the state’s record surplus, provide some immediate tax relief for Idahoans struggling to keep up with inflation — and let the politicians run on this come November.

Only Little can call a special session — so Little could put any talk of a special session to rest all by himself. He could publicly rule it out. Or he could simply stop talking about it. But on Tuesday, Little told Keith Ridler of the Associated Press that reports of a possible special session are “relatively right.”

Now, “relatively right” is a relative statement. But it’s enough to keep the speculation going — and a reasonably strong signal of which way the governor is leaning. If and when Little summons lawmakers back to the Statehouse, no one can say they were caught off-guard.

So, be forewarned. Chances are good legislators will be back, at least for a couple days or so, sometime later this year.

The past two years, “bonus” sessions have generated more noise than actual legislation — and nothing of substance in education policy.

The August 2020 special session was a circus, and one that didn’t go well for Little. As is the governor’s prerogative, Little called the session and instructed lawmakers to confine their work to two pandemic-related topics: election security and civil liability. Marked by protests and raucous pushback over pandemic policy, the three-day session didn’t spend much time on the rails. The lasting image of the session came when state troopers tied far-right activist Ammon Bundy to a swivel chair and wheeled him out of the Statehouse.

When lawmakers returned of their own accord in November 2021, things didn’t go much better. Since lawmakers technically were picking up their regular session after a six-month recess, they were free to introduce any bill they wanted. And so they did. They introduced three dozen bills and passed only one item: a nonbinding memorial opposing federal vaccine mandates. The most substantive action came when the House voted to censure Rep. Priscilla Giddings, after the White Bird Republican shared an article identifying “Jane Doe,” the former Statehouse intern who accused former state Rep. Aaron von Ehlinger of rape. (Von Ehlinger was later convicted.)

The past two “bonus” legislative sessions haven’t been too productive. And it’s hard to predict exactly how special a 2022 special session could be.

For one thing, it could be lame-duck lawmaking on steroids. If the special session takes place before November, it would provide another bite at the apple for the 20 Republican lawmakers who lost in the May primaries, and the spate of lawmakers of both parties who decided not to seek re-election.

For another thing, a special session could provide a stage for Little’s political adversaries — such as, say, Bundy, now running an independent campaign for governor. Little appears to be a prohibitive favorite for re-election, and he’s probably risk-averse enough to see the downside of opening the Statehouse doors to pre-election performance art.

And calling a special session is also an exercise in managing political expectations. Wasting no time, Idaho Freedom Foundation president Wayne Hoffman jumped on the special session speculation last week, urging Little to bring lawmakers back to cut taxes and block schools from spending money on “wokeism.” As with many pieces of unsolicited advice, the advice on “woke” spending might well go unheeded. Even if Little shares the Freedom Foundation’s oft-stated and vehement concerns about social justice programs in schools, there’s no guarantee Little will shoehorn this topic into a special session — and especially not at the Freedom Foundation’s behest. Especially when, presumably, Little would like things to move quickly and seamlessly.

But on Thursday, the Freedom Foundation took another swing at the issue. Without citing sources, the group said Little is planning to propose a take-it-or-leave-it bill that would decrease income tax rates, provide a one-time tax rebate, and plow $410 million of sales tax revenues into K-12. The group derided the plan as a “full surrender” to Reclaim Idaho, which is pushing a voter initiative to increase income tax rates to fund K-12.

Regardless of what Little is or is not planning, there’s a sound argument for putting off any public policy debates that can possibly wait — on education or anything else.

In 144 days, the Legislature will be back for the 2023 session, with at least 42 newly elected lawmakers on the job. That might be a compelling enough case, or a plausible enough excuse, to take things slow.

Meanwhile, Little is hemming and hawing, and at some level, that’s probably not just show.

In an Aug. 2 interview with “Idaho Reports” host Melissa Davlin, Little sounded like a governor in no hurry to summon lawmakers to the Statehouse. On the topic of tax relief and inflation, he even struck a bit of a mission-accomplished tone, pointing to the tax rebates passed earlier this year. “Whatever you paid in taxes last year, you got 12% of it back. … It would have been a windfall, had it not been for inflation. But instead of a windfall, it was exactly what people needed to compensate.”

And on Wednesday, Little had a chance to foreshadow a special session when he spoke to the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce. He didn’t bring it up. Instead, he highlighted the education funding increases passed earlier this year — and promised more, if he’s re-elected.

Still, odds are better than good we will see a special session. The surplus could now exceed $2 billion, shattering the $1.3 billion projection from just last month, providing plenty of room for quick-hit tax cut. And in an election year, Little’s probably not going to pass on an easy opportunity to rail about “Bidenflation.”

So yeah, I’m saying there’s a chance. More importantly, so is Little.

Kevin Richert writes a weekly analysis on education policy and education politics. Look for his stories each Thursday.