The longest legislative session in state history came to a strange conclusion late Wednesday night.
The Senate adjourned for the year at 11 p.m. Wednesday, officially wrapping up work on the record-setting Day 122 of the 2021 session. Soon after, the House opted for an extended and unpaid recess, with lawmakers seeking to reconvene sometime later this year.
The moves came after a long day of sporadic work in House and Senate chambers, with floor activity punctuated by breaks and closed-door party caucuses. By Wednesday evening, the House and the Senate were clearly at odds over exit strategy — whether to recess, or adjourn for the year.
In essence, most education work was finished last week. Both houses passed key K-12 and higher education budgets, before calling a six-day recess, and Gov. Brad Little has since signed those budgets into law.
Lawmakers went on that six-day break in order to give Little time to sign or veto recently passed legislation — and give lawmakers the prerogative to override a gubernatorial veto. But Little vetoed nothing during the recess. On Wednesday, shortly before a 10:35 a.m. deadline, Little signed a divisive property tax reform bill passed last week. But not without reservations.
“I am signing House Bill 389 because it provides some relief to Idaho taxpayers,” Little wrote in a transmittal letter to House Speaker Scott Bedke. “However, I fear the long-term consequences may outweigh this temporary reprieve.”
Previously, Little signed four bills trimming his own executive power.
With no vetoes to override, lawmakers have only a few last-minute bills to address. One addresses the Legislature’s exit strategy. The House passed a resolution allowing lawmakers to go into an extended recess, without pay, and reconvene by Sept. 1. Some lawmakers want the ability to meet again later this year, perhaps to have more say over how the state spends its latest share of federal coronavirus stimulus money.
The Senate never took up the Sept. 1 recess resolution. On Wednesday evening, House Republican leadership came back with their final plan: an extended recess that could run until Dec. 31. (More details on the endgame, and the legal implications, from Clark Corbin of Idaho Capital Sun.)
Recess or no, the 2021 session is already one for the record books.
At 122 days, the session is the longest in state history — eclipsing the 2003 session, which stretched for 118 days.
Along the way, the Legislature passed the first $2 billion K-12 budget in state history; passed a higher education budget, complete with $2.5 million in cuts designed to curb campus social justice programs; and passed a law designed to stop indoctrination in K-12 schools, colleges and universities.
One high-profile education bill remained in play Wednesday — a bill authorizing the State Board of Education to spend a $6 million federal early education grant. That bill remains mired on the House calendar, where it has languished for nearly a month. And unlike other education budgets, which lawmakers must pass in order to finish their work, legislators are not obligated to take up the bill. If it doesn’t pass, the state simply would go without the grant dollars.
The House killed an earlier version of the early education grant bill, over concerns about social justice.
While the bill remained in limbo Wednesday, Little took to Twitter in an apparent last-minute bid to save it, urging Idahoans to lobby the House to approve the grant.
House Minority Leader Ilana Rubel took to the floor Wednesday evening to plead with colleagues to take up the bill, and move past the “groundless conspiracy theories” that have jeopardized the grant. She noted that the grant has the support of former President Trump and Idaho Republican Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch.
“I think the reason they rallied behind this is because it is a vital necessity for the families of Idaho,” said Rubel, D-Boise.
Rubel did not make a formal motion, and after her comments, the House moved on to other agenda items.
Lawmakers quickly approve plan for U of I Downtown space
In the span of eight hours, lawmakers passed an 11th-hour plan to allow the University of Idaho to take over some Capitol Mall space.
The plan involves acquiring — and renovating — the Carnegie Library, a 117-year-old building north of the Statehouse, which was added to the National Historic Register in 1974. The state would own the building and rent it to the U of I, which would use it as event space and study space for its nearby Boise law school.
In essence, House Bill 408 represents a down payment on the Carnegie Library plan. On Wednesday afternoon, the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee approved $2.3 million to purchase the library building from the owner, a U of I alumnus. JFAC put on hold, for the time being, earmarking money for renovations costing upwards of $5 million.
State officials say they have been looking at the property for years, but a potential purchase only materialized recently.
“Sometimes there are opportunities that present themselves,” said Rep. Paul Amador, R-Coeur d’Alene, who made an unsuccessful push for $7 million for purchasing and renovating the building.
JFAC members generally supported the idea of buying the building — and taking advantage of a rare opportunity to acquire property on the Capitol Mall. But several budget-writers said they wanted to take a slower approach.
Rep. Ron Nate, R-Rexburg, said he wasn’t convinced the state needed downtown event property, noting that the state is still moving into the Hewlett-Packard campus in West Boise.
“The state has plenty of space,” he said.
JFAC approved the $2.3 million purchase on a 17-2 vote, with Nate and Rep. Priscilla Giddings, R-White Bird, voting no.
The House passed HB 408 Wednesday evening on a 46-19 vote. The Senate followed suit soon after, passing the bill on a 26-1 vote.
It now goes to Little’s desk.