BOISE – As Idaho lawmakers trudge through what’s now the second-longest legislative session in state history, the costly delays are leaving many tired, angry and frustrated.
“I think it’s way too long,” said Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint. “I think when we get to this point, we’re doing a disservice to the taxpayers.”
Costs are mounting – the official estimate puts the cost of Idaho’s legislative sessions at $30,000 a day, and Monday will be the 99th day, meaning the price tag is up to nearly $3 million. The only session in state history to run longer was 2003’s 118-day session.
Rep. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, said Friday: “It’s April 17 – we should be done.”
Many lawmakers say they feel unproductive as they wait for their leadership and the governor to work out end-of-session deals on big issues like transportation spending.
“When you’re one of the people that just sits and waits, that process seems extremely slow,” said Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls. “I’m embarrassed because we’re costing the taxpayers money, and we’re not all that productive.”
He added, “It’s disappointing, and it’s frustrating, and it’s costly for me. I’ve got a business to run.”
But this year’s session has gone on so long partly because the federal economic stimulus legislation essentially forced a do-over of the state budget six weeks in.
“Suddenly we had the stimulus,” said Rep. Frank Henderson, R-Post Falls. That forced weeks more of waiting, while analysts determined just how much money was headed to Idaho, what strings were attached and how it could be used.
The result, however, along with the delays, was that sharp state budget cuts were softened, and won’t go nearly as deep as lawmakers thought they might at the start of the session. In the higher education budget for next year, for example, $15.3 million in stimulus money was plugged in. Though state general funds in that budget were cut 14.7 percent, the colleges will see just a 5.8 percent drop in total funds.
Thanks to weeks of hearings, Idahoans and state lawmakers now know far more about the federal stimulus and what it means to the state. Gov. Butch Otter, who initially suggested he might not accept some of the stimulus money, eventually agreed to take it all, as long as it was judiciously and carefully inserted into the budget in ways that didn’t commit the state to more spending in the future.
Henderson said this year’s long session “may have been unavoidable, because of the financial difficulties, trying to stretch what little money we had. It’s unfortunate.”
House Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, said: “This was an extraordinary session – we had to start over in the middle here.”
Idaho’s legislative sessions typically run from early January to the end of March. That schedule worked well long ago when many lawmakers were farmers; they could legislate during the winter months and be home in time for spring planting.
But Idaho’s part-time, citizen Legislature isn’t all farmers anymore. Many are retired or self-employed, but others juggle their regular employment against their legislative duties.
“Some of us aren’t wealthy and we have jobs,” Keough said. “The notion as I understand history of a citizens legislature is to allow and encourage average citizens to be involved in setting policy. The longer we go, and it seems to be a trend, the more potential there is for the Legislature to move away from being a cross-section of the populace.”
Idaho’s sessions have been getting longer in recent years. The average length, since statehood, for a regular Idaho legislative session is just under 71 days. But seven of the past 10 annual sessions have stretched longer than that mark; last year’s session ran 87 days.
Said Hammond, “Everybody’s ready for us to go.”
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