The Capitol lobbyists see it. So do the special interest groups, and the reporters. And the lawmakers themselves? Most assuredly.
Choose your descriptor: this legislative session in Idaho is “slow,” “listless,” “adrift,” “weird” or a combination of the terms. Yes, the routine work is getting done — adopting rules changes, reviewing budget and spending requests, rewriting codes. But as for major lifts?
“We passed all the laws that there are out there. There aren’t any more to pass,” Rep. Tom Loertscher joked on Wednesday, after the House concluded another perfunctory session with a light calendar.
There’s a sense of urgency to get our business done and get out of here more than I’ve sensed in other years.
Rep. Tom Loertscher
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Loertscher is a good historical reference: The Iona Republican is serving his 15th legislative term. Sitting at his desk on the House floor, he said this year has seen fewer bills introduced to date than prior years.
That is one measure. The 200 bills filed as of Friday compares to 261 filed by this time a year ago.
“Every session gets its own feel — they’re all a little bit different,” Loertscher said. “I think there’s a sense of urgency to get our business done and get out of here more than I’ve sensed in other years.”
200 Number of bills introduced as of Friday
One seat over from him, Rep. Janet Trujillo, R-Idaho Falls, said a dearth of bills isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Idaho lawmakers, she added, are “waiting to see what Washington is going to do because that impacts what we want to do in the state.”
“There’s a little bit of hurry-up-and-wait at this point,” said Trujillo, in her third term. “To put the horse before the cart doesn’t serve our state or our citizens.”
Sitting between them, Rep. Vito Barbieri, a Republican from Dalton Gardens in his fourth term, said the new administration in Washington means “we just need to keep our power dry and watch.”
That, and the leadership’s goals for a short, focused session, make it feel “like somehow we’re not accomplishing that which we need to do. But the business that needs to be done is being done. We’re just not seeing that frenetic (pace). We may see it at the end.”
There’s a little bit of hurry-up-and-wait at this point. To put the horse before the cart doesn’t serve our state or our citizens.
Rep. Janet Trujillo
That last piece could prove true. Simple timing is partly why this session seems so wonky. Here are five reasons:
1. TRUMP’S NEW TEAM IN WASHINGTON
If the election of Donald Trump surprised a lot of people, it completely upended expectations for this year’s legislative agenda.
The three big topics in the Legislature in recent years have been education, transportation and health care. This year, the first is on a relatively predictable long-term glide path; Trump’s win, and Republican control of Congress, tossed the future of the other two into the wind.
“Prior to Nov. 9, we were all geared towards some Medicaid work — Hillary Clinton was talking about repairing the (Affordable Care Act),” said Pat Sullivan, a longtime Capitol lobbyist whose firm, Sullivan & Reberger, dates to 1991.
“And on Nov. 9, all that went out the window,” he said. “You could just see the Legislature all peel back and say, ‘We’re going to wait and see.’”
Talk about money for roads, highways and bridges went the same route.
“All of a sudden the president goes, ‘Well, I’m going to have an infrastructure bill.’ And all that transportation stuff comes off the table,” he said.
Standing with Sullivan Wednesday outside the Capitol’s lobbyist office, Zach Hauge, vice president of the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry, said his group “spent a whole bunch of time during the interim figuring out what we were going to do on Medicaid, on health care in general.” After the election, “all that study and all those meetings we had — that all goes away.”
“All of a sudden everyone takes a step back and says we might as well wait and let some of this stuff play out,” said Hauge, who is also president of the group that represents Capitol lobbyists. “We’re letting some environmental issues play out that we thought we were going to be dealing with more urgently.”
Education’s multi-year funding plan for increasing teacher salaries seems to be “on auto-pilot right now,” he said.
Sullivan concurred, adding: “I think it’s going to be one of the lightest sessions we’ve seen in a dozen years.”
2. WONKY RIGHT OUT OF THE GATE
As the two lobbyists and others noted, both houses got off to disruptive starts. In the House, Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, was removed from her committees on Jan. 12, the fourth day of the session, for disparaging other female lawmakers by suggesting publicly that they traded sexual favors to advance in leadership. She made rounds of apologies and was reinstated on Feb. 1.
In the Senate, for only the third time in history, lawmakers had to adjudicate a legal challenge to the election of a colleague. After a recount and hearings, senators upheld the election of Sen. Mark Nye, D-Pocatello, and told his losing opponent to pay nearly $20,000 in fees and costs.
“We’ve never been in a situation like that,” Sullivan said. “And it was personality driven, not legislative or policy driven. So everybody pulls back from that, and it just takes everybody some time to kind of recalibrate.”
“I do think the (Nye) election contest took some significant time for some senators, and that could have had a partial impact on the unique cadence that we’ve had so far,” said Sen. Bart Davis, the Republican majority leader from Idaho Falls.
On the House side, Loertscher for one downplayed the impact of Scott’s removal and reinstatement. But the episode, which prompted Scott’s allies to try to renounce their committees as well, still registers among rank-and-file Republicans as a tear in the fabric of their House supermajority.
3. LOTS OF NEW PEOPLE IN AN OFF-YEAR
There are 14 new representatives in the House this year, one fifth of the body, although one served before. Four new senators are serving, with one having moved over from the House. That’s a fair number of rookies learning the ropes.
Also, the amount of legislation fluctuates year to year, with fewer bills emerging in odd-numbered, off-election years.
4. A NARROW AGENDA FROM THE START
For Sen. Jim Rice, R-Caldwell, the session was modest from the outset, starting with Gov. Butch Otter’s budget and state of the state address.
“The early focus was narrow from the governor, and because of how narrow it was, there’s a bunch of things that he didn’t address in his budget and his state of the state, like transportation,” Rice said.
Otter has been loath to jump in with transportation recommendations to the Legislature since he lost a battle with lawmakers over a gas-tax increase in 2009. Three transportation-funding bills were introduced in a House committee Friday, but the high-octane proposal to raise $49 million with a five-cent gas tax increase was rejected.
“There’s a lot of little things going on and the question is are we going to have a big thing that get’s done?” Rice said.
“When you don’t have a lot of big things that you’re fairly confident from the beginning of the session you’re going to address, you get a bunch of little things. You get kind of a weird session.”
5. SESSION PACING
“Every legislative session in the years that I have been here has a different cadence to it, and this is no exception,” said Davis. With understatement that is typical for him, he adds: “It is true that this one I think has a more unique cadence to it than some of our other years.”
On Wednesday, the Legislature’s 31st day, Davis noted he had been preparing to address a lawyers’ conference and had reviewed data on pending bills for significant measures to discuss.
“It seemed to me that I had less bills of significant gravitas on the 31st legislative day than I normally have,” he said. “Now, does that mean that we’re not going to have those? Of course we will. … But I do think we are behind in getting what I think are weighty (bills), the kinds of things that we normally would have introduced by now, some of those have not been introduced.”
Monday, the 36th legislative day, is the deadline to submit bills in all but a few privileged committees, so there’s the typical last-minute rush expected. Even so, the numbers are low. The most significant measure to date, a House-approved income tax cut, awaits a Senate committee hearing.
As Trujillo and others noted, a Legislature that does less isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Davis remarked that the common thread from session to session is that lawmakers make some groups happy, others not.
“And I promise that we will make both groups consistent again this year,” he said.