Idaho legislators get to pick their substitutes

In a practice unique to the Gem State, seven lawmakers have named fill-ins for themselves this session.

THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEWMarch 20, 2014 

When Idaho's legislative session opened this year, two participating members -one senator and one representative - hadn't been elected. They hadn't been appointed to office, either. They'd just been picked as temporary substitutes for two North Idaho lawmakers out due to health issues.

Since this year's session began, seven Idaho lawmakers have named temporary substitutes for anywhere from three days to three weeks. In the past five years, there have been 36 substitute lawmakers casting votes and debating bills. Idaho is the only state that allows this practice.

"I think this is about keeping your constituents represented," said House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, who named his wife, Sarah, to fill in for him for a week after he was seriously injured in a ranching accident in March 2011. "In a part-time, citizen legislature, life happens while we're here."

Said Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg: "The whole point is if you're not here, your district is going unrepresented. … I think it's a great tradition."

"We're the only state that does a lot of good things," he said.

AN OLD TRADITION

Brenda Erickson, an analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures, said some states, including Washington, allow for temporary subs when a legislator is called up for military duty.

"More often, they're granted an excused absence, and that's how it's handled," she said. "There's no replacement."

Idaho's substitute-lawmaker law dates to 1891, though the original statute allowed the governor to appoint temporary replacements for four top statewide elected officials - the secretary of state, auditor, attorney general and schools superintendent - when they had a "temporary absence or disability."

In 1945, it was amended to include "any elected official." World War II was raging, and many states were looking to ease replacements for lawmakers who went off to war. But Idaho's law didn't limit the subs to those situations.

The bill drew just five "no" votes in the House, but passed on a more divided 24-18 vote in the Senate. It's been the law ever since.

Temporary subs are nominated by the lawmakers in question and officially named by the governor. They get no salary - the incumbent keeps the salary - but are entitled to the lawmaker's per diem allowance of $122 a day for those from outside the Boise area, or $49 for locals.

CURRENT PRACTICES

This year, one senator and one House member who are running for statewide office took most of a week off when GOP Lincoln Day events were occurring around the state, where candidates pitch their campaigns to people in each county.

"There's a lot on the line in this gubernatorial race, and I needed the time to talk to the people of Idaho, so I took it," said Sen. Russ Fulcher, R-Meridian. He named Dan Johnson, a real estate agent from Kuna and the legislative district chairman for the state Republican Party, as his fill-in.

That made Senate roll-call votes a little more complicated that week, as the Senate already has a Dan Johnson: the Republican senator from Lewiston.

Johnson the substitute said he was there because Fulcher "needed some personal time." Fulcher's stops while he was gone included a campaign rally in Post Falls.

WORKING WITH THE REPLACEMENTS

Rep. Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, who is running for secretary of state, took time off the same week and named Howard Rynearson, of Payette, who is running for Denney's House seat, as his substitute.

Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, named Paulette Jordan to fill in for her for three days in early February while Ringo attended to family business at home. Jordan narrowly lost a run for the other House seat in Ringo's district two years ago.

Ringo is running for Congress but said she didn't use the time to campaign. She said she consulted with Jordan by phone daily as she sat in for Ringo on the joint budget committee, among other duties.

Last week, Jordan announced she'll run again.

Sen. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d'Alene, named his wife, Cathyanne, to fill in for him for the first two weeks of this year's session, as he recovered from a serious infection. Rep. Frank Henderson, R-Post Falls, named Post Falls businessman John Chambers to fill in for him for three weeks as the 91-year-old lawmaker recovered from a broken hip.

But after Chambers had served - and then announced he'd run for Henderson's seat next year - he discovered that he lives 180 feet outside Henderson's district. That district line had been moved in the most recent redistricting following the 2010 census.

DRAWING CRITICISM

Nonini was critical of Henderson and responded by pushing legislation to change the substitute rule. "No one checked on it," he told a Senate committee. "No one really knew the situation because no one really verified it."

Nonini's bill sought to remove the governor's legal power to appoint substitutes and to hold lawmakers responsible for verifying that their subs are qualified, which includes living in the right district. But the bill was amended three times in the Senate.

At one point, senators who were about to vote on it noticed that after two amendments the bill actually required lawmakers to name subs whenever they're gone; it's optional now.

After the third amendment, the bill, SB 1370, passed the Senate unanimously, but it now makes virtually no changes in the rule, simply calling on the lawmaker to verify qualification.

Bedke said he doesn't think Idaho's substitute-legislator law needs changing.

"I think that's about politics in North Idaho," he said.

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