Analysis: A stalemate session, with few clear victors

“We left this option open in case of the unforeseen,” House Speaker Scott Bedke said of the House’s plans to recess the 2021 session — and possibly return later this session. The Legislature’s exit strategy, pitting the House against the Senate, was just one of the power struggles marking the longest session in Idaho history.

Wednesday, Day 122, beautifully summed up a legislative session of discord, distrust and dysfunction.

Still bitter from 2020, and smarting from Gov. Brad Little’s executive pandemic actions, House Republicans insisted on recessing until some later date — so they could unilaterally return to town without waiting on orders from the governor. While the conservative House wanted a recess, the more moderate Senate was content to adjourn for the year and return in January. The end of the longest session in state history has crossed into unmapped constitutional territory: Can one house remain in session while the other goes home?

It’s perfect, in a perverse way.

We didn’t see any new battles in 2021, really. House vs. Senate. Conservative Republicans vs. moderates. The legislative branch vs. the executive branch. Traditional rivalries, one and all. But in this long, tense stalemate session, it’s hard to declare winners and losers. And that’s certainly true in the education arena.

Sure, Little can claim several victories. It took a while — thoroughly on brand with the 2021 session — but he got his $1.1 billion teacher salary bill, which will fund two years’ worth of pay raises and reverse budget holdbacks from the pandemic. Legislators funded summer programs, Little’s proposal to begin addressing post-pandemic learning loss. The rapidly growing Advanced Opportunities program got a $9.5 million boost, which could allow more high school students to get a jumpstart on college.

“There wasn’t a lot of fervor about them, like there were some other things here, but we were pleased that those all passed,” Little said this week, in an Idaho Education News podcast airing Friday.

But Little swallowed a gutful over the course of four months. He absorbed a pair of big budget losses, at the hands of legislative Republicans — the demise of a $6 million federal early education grant, and a $2.5 million higher education budget cut. To stave off further cuts, and appease hardliners who fear classroom indoctrination from pre-K to college, he signed off on an anti-indoctrination bill while agonizing over a debate that “undermines popular support for public education in Idaho.” Topping it all off, Little will have to watch over the next few months as a hardline nemesis, Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin, convenes a task force on indoctrination in public schools.

That task force, which first meets on May 27, becomes the next place for hardliners to press their case — and potentially embarrass Little. “The problem and the fight is not over,” Rep. Priscilla Giddings, R-White Bird, McGeachin’s co-chair, said Wednesday.

The hardliners had a mixed session as well.

Sure, they took over the education narrative. In a pandemic session, when the education catchphrases could have been “learning loss” and “achievement gaps,” they drummed home soundbites about social justice and critical race theory. But the hardliners lost on a lot of other issues: guns in schools; opt-in sex education; a “shall-to-may” bill to allow school districts to decide whether to negotiate with local teachers’ unions; and a bill to strip funding away from schools that failed to offer full-time, in-person learning.

Each of those bills passed the House. They all died in the Senate. Repeatedly this session, the Senate Education Committee was either a roadblock or a backstop — depending on your mindset.

The stalemate session was also a session of missed opportunity. As House Minority Leader Ilana Rubel noted Wednesday, lawmakers arrived in town with a record $600 million surplus and a continuing flow of federal stimulus money. The session was especially unproductive, said Rubel, D-Boise, “when viewed in light of the potential good that could have been achieved.”

Among the missed opportunities:

  • Early education advocates suffered a devastating setback. It’s bad enough to lose a $6 million federal grant — endorsed not by a cabal of liberals, but by the Trump administration and GOP Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch. Early education advocates may easily have lost the momentum they built up from their first federal grant, used for a statewide early education needs assessment.
  • For a brief time in the long session, it looked like advocates had an opportunity to pass a full-day kindergarten bill. But almost as quickly, when a COVID-19 outbreak forced the Legislature into an 18-day recess, the moment fizzled. There’s still considerable support behind the concept — and shifting some of Idaho’s numerous all-day kindergarten programs off of local property taxes. But the surplus provided a real window.
  • Private school advocates had a legitimate chance to get a taxpayer-funded scholarship bill through the Legislature, after several unsuccessful attempts. Sponsors shrewdly attached this controversial idea to a popular one: Little’s Strong Families, Strong Students grant program to help offset the costs of at-home learning. The scholarship bill passed the House, and was amended in the Senate. The grant proposal remained but the Senate killed it as well — a victory for education groups, who sharply opposed expanding Little’s program and allowing parents to use grant dollars for private school tuition and fees.

But in this stalemate session, politicking often pushed policy off the stage.

So it was this week, as the House and the Senate stared each other down over exit strategies — before going their own ways.

“We simply do not believe the Constitution allows for a full-time legislature or contemplates a legislative session that never ends,” Senate Assistant Majority Leader Abby Lee, R-Fruitland, said pointedly Thursday.

During a news conference Thursday, House Speaker Scott Bedke downplayed the potential for a recess. Vowing to “keep special sessions special,” the Oakley Republican said the recess is designed to allow the House to respond to unforeseen events, in concert with the Senate.

Bedke also tried to put the best face on House-Senate relationships. The two GOP leadership teams met frequently and worked together well, he said, even if they didn’t always agree. “I think we were at the creative tension end of the spectrum, rather than hostility.”

Color Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, ahem, unconvinced.

“It has been a fight the entire time,” Stennett, D-Ketchum, said Thursday. “We feel like we’ve lost all sense of decorum.”

Things could get worse before they get better. Even if lawmakers stay out of town until January — giving Idahoans a break from the diet of discord, distrust and dysfunction — January starts an election year. For Little and legislators alike.

And if you’re looking for one other way to sum up the 2021 session, consider this: It’s only 242 days until the first day of the 2022 session.

Each week, Kevin Richert writes an analysis on education policy and education politics. Look for it every Thursday.

Kevin Richert

Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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