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Maybe Next Year

How about alternating years for the Legislature?

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We now face the closure of a legislative session in which little was done, other than the determination of a state budget. Now, lawmakers are already talking about making next year's session, to be held in the Ada County Courthouse during the Statehouse's renovation, shorter still.

It begs the question: why come to town every year? Why not meet every other year, as was done in Idaho until 1969 and is still done in six states, including three of our neighbors?

"There's a lot of good arguments for every other year," Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter said recently in an interview.

A less busy legislature makes fewer new laws, keeps government small and spends less money. On the other hand, it would also provide less opportunity for new abortion or immigration laws to be proposed.

Biennial sessions might have something for everyone in Idaho.

But, not surprisingly, most lawmakers like meeting annually.

"I like the advantage of annually setting a budget," House Speaker Lawerence Denney said in an interview.

Dean Cameron, a Rupert Republican who co-chairs the budget committee, said biennial sessions are intriguing but present a few problems. For example, if a constituent comes to him with an issue that needs fixing, he might have to tell him to wait a while.

House Minority Leader Wendy Jaquet of Ketchum said that meeting every year reminds the public that the legislature is its state lawmaking body. She said people sometimes approach her in the grocery store and ask if she just got back from Washington, D.C.

"The annual session really does kind of bring to the fore the fact that the legislature is in session and policy decisions are being made," Jaquet said.

Idaho has one of the shorter legislative sessions in the nation by about a month, according to Brenda Erickson, a researcher with the National Conference of State Legislatures. Erickson said that since the 1960s, there has been a movement to "modernize" state legislatures and put them on equal footing with the judicial and executive branches of state government.

"The issues that are having to be dealt with by modern-day legislatures are much more complex and therefore they need to be able to deal with them in a timely matter," she said.

Otter served in the Idaho Legislature in the 1970s, soon after the state went to annual sessions. He said that they used to discuss going back to every other year all the time.

Jaquet said there was an informal discussion about just having the budget committee meet next year in the Ada County Courthouse, as the Statehouse is renovated. But that discussion apparently went nowhere; the full Legislature will meet next year.

"I went and checked out the Ada County Courthouse yesterday, and I really like my office," Jaquet said.

The comfort issue is at the core of who runs the state. Otter was afraid that the expanded state capitol, with its garden-level terrace and natural light, would encourage lawmakers to hang around even longer, said Jasper LiCalzi, Albertson College political economy professor.

"They just start meeting longer and longer and then they're there all the time," LiCalzi said. "A lot of governors are like [former Idaho Gov. Robert] Smylie; the less the legislature meets the better."

The 2007 session is marked more by proposals that were stopped, than by new policy initiatives.

Among the ideas killed this year:

• Local-option taxing to aid Treasure Valley transit needs.

• Licensing for day care centers.

• Licensing for game farms.

• Early childhood education standards.

• Vote by mail.

• Help for community college formation.

One of the arguments for annual legislative sessions is that states have to keep up with a bevy of new federal laws. But Idaho took care of that this year, killing a progressive minimum wage bill in lieu of one that says that the state will simply conform to federal minimum-wage guidelines.

Another argument in favor of annual meetings is that biennial sessions result in more special sessions, which are limited in scope and costly. But more significant and lasting changes to state tax policy were written into law in a one-day special session last August, than passed through the tax committees during the past three months.

The Oregon Legislature, which still meets every two years, is moving toward annual sessions. It will meet in an extended special session next year to test out the efficacy of annual meetings. A committee that has studied the Oregon Legislature, and an apparent lack of public confidence in Oregon lawmakers, found that the prominence of that state's initiative process is eroding Legislative power. The conclusion was that Oregon lawmakers should be paid more, meet every year and undergo a professionalization or modernization of their work.

Idaho is halfway professional. There's a decent Legislative Web site, high-tech streaming of House and Senate debate on the Internet, and a sophisticated Legislative Services division.

But we still have citizen legislators, who debate the needs of the state on a part-time basis. The debate can be petty and devoid of facts. As the 2007 Legislative session grinds to a halt, the two outstanding issues--how to use federal highways funds, and who should get back a couple of bucks of grocery sales tax--should have been dealt with last year.

When legislators return to service next January, Speaker Denney hopes they will not have to cram into the old courthouse for very long.

"If we had the will," Denney said, "the session could be shorter."