As they plan for a future state capitol renovation, state officials have always factored in a need to hold one or two years’ legislative sessions outside the building during construction. House Minority Leader Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, offered a different plan today: Why not skip a year? Lawmakers could set a two-year budget and just not meet for a year, she suggested. Plus, they could use the Hall of Mirrors across the street from the state capitol for any needed meetings, and move state offices now in that building to the now-vacant, state-owned old Ada County Courthouse. They could even hold a brief session at the BSU student union building, which has a large ballroom.
A task force of legislative leaders from both houses was looking at an idea from Sen. Joe Stegner, R-Lewiston, to add large “wings” to each end of the state capitol, thereby providing much-needed office and public meeting room space and emergency exits, along with a spot for the Legislature to meet while the central, historic capitol is renovated.
“It seems like a lot of money,” Jaquet said. “I’ve come to the table to say, ‘How can we preserve this building and make it safe?’” while still, she said, being “prudent” with the taxpayers’ money.
Stegner’s “wings” idea turns out not to be so new – it was proposed in 1942 by the state’s then-public works commissioner, Allen C. Merritt, prompting this headline in the Jan. 4, 1943 Idaho Statesman: “Merritt urges new wings for Statehouse.”
Senate President Pro Tem Bob Geddes noted that the Idaho Constitution, which voters changed from every-other-year sessions in the 1968 election, now requires the Legislature to hold sessions annually. However, it doesn’t require any particular type of session – and both Geddes and House Speaker Bruce Newcomb said Jaquet had a point, and during the construction period, the Legislature could hold an abbreviated, budget-only session.
“I think that’s a possibility,” Geddes said. “Obviously, we don’t want to have to set up shop and live in a temporary situation for longer than we have to. That’s expensive, and if we can mitigate some of those costs, we ought to.”
The task force is still looking at the alternatives. Lawmakers have been hoping to renovate the historic but deteriorating Statehouse for years, and even allocated the money five years ago, just before an economic downturn forced cancellation of the project. Now, however, there’s money set aside from the cigarette tax to fund the project, so it’s time for something to happen. The legislative leaders today seemed to be leaning toward just renovating the capitol according to previous plans, but modifying them slightly to allow wings to be added in the future if the state ever has the money. Could it be that Idaho could end up with something truly historic – both a renovated state capitol, and a year without lawmaking?