The Washington and Idaho legislatures are different in many ways. Democrats control both chambers in Olympia. Republicans are in charge in Boise.
But the pandemic has united legislators in the two states in one specific way. They’re each working to increase their authority during emergencies by calling themselves into special sessions.
On Wednesday, Washington senators voted 43-to-five to set the rules for calling themselves into an extra session. The bill is co-sponsored by Spokane Democrat Andy Billig.
“You know, in some ways, this is a small housekeeping bill. But, in other ways, it’s quite important," Billig said. "The Washington state constitution gives the legislature the right to call itself into special session and it says, in accordance with the rules that we set, by law or by resolution, and that’s what this bill does, is to set those procedures by law.”
This is perhaps notable because Billig was not one of the legislative leaders calling repeatedly last year for special sessions. Some wanted to go back to Olympia to adjust the state budget to reflect the loss of revenue because of the pandemic. The voices for a special session came from Republicans such as Mike Padden of Spokane Valley.
“I am hopeful that maybe this is the beginning of the legislature reasserting itself vis-a-vis the other two branches of government," he said.
Padden’s referring to the mandate by the state Supreme Court that the legislature drastically increase spending for basic education.
“Then, of course, most recently, we’ve had the control by the executive branch of so much of our lives here since the pandemic came in. We had the bill right at the beginning of session to extend that emergency power," he said.
In Boise, only the governor can call a special session. Legislative leaders asked for one last year and they got it. But the governor controlled what they considered. Legislators such as Republican Senator Chuck Winder of Boise say that’s wrong.
“It ought to be a balancing effort between the legislature, who represents the citizens more directly, than just the executive branch, who are bureaucracy, making a decision or an order to deal with very important decisions of people’s right to work, right to worship, the issues that I think are dear to us as Americans. So that’s what this is about," he said.
They've proposed an amendment to the state constitution to give the legislature the right to call itself into special session. They’ve also written a bill that creates the mechanism for doing that.
The amendment needs a two-thirds majority in both chambers. It has received that in the House. The Senate is scheduled to vote on it, perhaps as early as Friday. If it passes, the measure would go to a vote of the people next year.