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What’s the right length for an Idaho legislative session?

Some wags might argue for zero days. But there’s a real question, and pertinent this year: How long should legislators spend doing their work?

Different states answer the question in different ways. Some larger states, of course, have full-time year-round legislatures, which no one (no one I’ve heard, at least) would propose as the right model for Idaho, or most smaller states. Short of that, what seems to work? Bear in mind that the work of legislating on a state level is essentially similar across most states, even if they’re somewhat larger or smaller than Idaho.

The National Conference of State Legislatures points out that, “In the early 1960s, 17 states did not place restrictions on the length of their legislative sessions. In another 10 states, the limits were indirect.” Later, more states placed limits on the length of sessions, but the deadlines once imposed often have been expanded over time.

Most states meet annually, as Idaho does (Idaho changed from every other year about a half-century ago). Montana and Nevada meet biennially. Utah has a tight limit of 45 days per annual session. Washington and Oregon use a different approach, longer sessions in the odd-numbered year (just following elections), and shorter sessions, mainly budget-oriented, in even-numbered years. Oregon’s odd-year sessions can (and often do) run for 160 days, from February well into summer, but the even-year sessions run only about a month. When Washington’s legislature doesn’t get all its work done on time, as sometimes happens, a special session may be called, and in some years a whole string of those have been called until the work is done. (Session term limits can become theoretical only.)

Idaho doesn’t have hard limits on session length, as some of its neighbors do. Legislative leaders often have marked out “target dates” for final – sine die – adjournment. They’ve been known to hit it; more often than not. This year’s target date was March 25; we see how that went. The legislature adjourned on Thursday.

The very first Idaho state legislative session, in 1890, lasted 82 days and for many decades held the record for longevity. It had a good excuse; a lot of the mechanics of state and local government had to be set up then, so they actually got it done with remarkable dispatch. After that no session lasted as long until 1967, when a newly-reapportioned legislature – this was the first session to be held following modern-style redistricting – had to struggle with rearranging itself and also with a host of vetoes (39 of them) from a new Governor Don Samuelson, apparently deep in conflict with a legislature led by his fellow Republicans. That 1967 session lasted 89 days.

The record wasn’t broken again until another contentious session in 1983, when lawmakers spent 95 days – the same as this year – in session. Then the length eased back, but the average length of “normal” sessions gradually was rising. Adjournments in March almost always were the case before 1983; after that, they more often crept into April.

In 2003 came the longest Idaho legislative session on record, 118 days – another session involving a governor-legislature battle. And then in 2009 another nearly matched it, at 117 days.

Sessions since then have been shorter than those, but most sessions in the new millennium have run more than 80 days, a standard almost unthinkable a generation ago.

This is not to say that they shouldn’t. Legislators in some other states have seen benefits from having a little longer stretch of time to consider proposals, gather information and public comment, and act in deliberation rather than an almost panicked rush to conclude. Legislatures cost money to run, but often not so much as the cost of badly-wrought state law.

So as legislative sessions drag on, don’t necessarily think of that as a bad thing. More time can mean better decisions. Personally, I’d rather have my legislators work longer for better decisions.

As long as that’s in fact the tradeoff we get.

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Randy Stapilus is a former Idaho newspaper reporter and editor and blogs at www.ridenbaugh.com. He can be reached at stapilus@ridenbaugh.com.

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