Idaho legislative leaders are bracing for challenges that come with record turnover, as 39 first-time state legislators will take their seats when the 2023 session gavels in Jan. 9 at the Idaho State Capitol.
There will be 11 first-time members in the Idaho Senate and 28 rookies in the Idaho House of Representatives, Legislative Services Office Director Terri Kondeff said. That means, out of 105 total seats in the Idaho Legislature, more than one-third of Idaho’s entire legislative body will have never served there before.
There are other changes, too.
When including legislators who previously served in the Idaho Legislature but were not serving in 2022, and legislators switching from one chamber to another, turnover grows to 51 people — 20 new faces in the Idaho Senate and 31 in the Idaho House.
“I believe that is probably unprecedented turnover,” outgoing Speaker of the House Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, said during a recent meeting of legislative leaders. “I think that will present some challenges to whoever is here.”
On top of the outsized freshman class, there will be significant changes to legislative leadership ranks and committee chairmanships. House Republicans will elect a new speaker, because Bedke was elected lieutenant governor this week and is leaving the Idaho Legislature. The process of finding Bedke’s replacement is likely to set off a series of leadership changes downstream that may result in a new House majority leader or caucus chair as well.
Democrats also have minority party leadership vacancies to fill, including the departure of outgoing Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, and House Minority Caucus Chair Sally Toone, D-Gooding, both of whom did not seek re-election.
On top of that, legislators must fill several key committee spots left vacant by retirements and elections. That list includes new House and Senate Health and Welfare committee chairs, a new chair of the Senate Education Committee, a new chair of the House Judiciary, Rules and Administration Committee and at least 12 of the 20 members of the powerful Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee that sets each element of the state budget every year.
Bedke and other members of the Legislative Council — a group of Republican and Democratic legislative leaders that oversees management responsibilities for the Idaho Legislature — began preparing for the transition during a meeting earlier this month at the Idaho State Capitol in Boise.
“I think it will be incumbent upon those who have been here to mentor and to train up,” Bedke said during the meeting. “This session promises to be an interesting, interesting session for a bunch of different reasons, not least of which is the steep learning curve that these 51 individuals will be facing.”
Members of the Legislative Council announced plans for a new-legislator orientation program that will run Nov. 28 to Nov. 30 at the Idaho State Capitol. Representatives from the nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures and the Idaho Legislative Services Office will assist with the orientation. During the orientation, new legislators will learn security protocols, parliamentary procedure, the bill drafting and budget process, along with public records, ethics and respectful workplace environment training, Bedke said.
On the evening of Nov. 30, Republicans and Democrats from the Idaho House and Idaho Senate will each meet privately and separately to elect their party’s leadership officers. For the rest of that week, legislators will be sworn in, conduct an official public vote on the new slate of leadership officers and then legislative leaders will begin making committee assignments and naming the 2023 session’s committee chairs.
“Just do the math, there are going to be some new chairmen there, and they may be fairly new to the legislative process,” Bedke told the Legislative Council.
Having won re-election, Little awaits new legislative leadership
With the Nov. 8 general election in the rearview mirror, Gov. Brad Little will closely watch the legislative leadership races and the committee chairperson assignments as he prepares to unveil his policy priorities.
“What happens on Dec. 1 (during the organizational session) is going to make a big difference,” Little told the Idaho Capital Sun in a telephone interview. “We don’t know who leadership is yet. I do have a little experience with the Legislature, and I know if I assume who’ll be the speaker or pro tem and majority leader, I am on very thin ice. But on the first of December, we will know who we are working with.”
One of Little’s first challenges will be to unite an inexperienced and likely unpredictable group of legislators behind his top priorities of investing in public school education.
Little’s particular focal points remain investing in kindergarten through third grade literacy, increasing teacher pay through the career ladder salary allocation system, and providing funds to move local school district employees onto the state’s health insurance plan.
“My priorities and my overarching goal haven’t changed,” Little told the Sun. “We will continue to make investments in education, and what that looks like will depend on the makeup of both education committees and who is on JFAC, of course.”
One thing that will be different for 2023 is that Little and the Idaho Legislature have already set aside $410 million annually for public school education and in-demand careers through House Bill 1, which the Idaho Legislature passed and Little signed into law following the Sept. 1 special session. Their job now is to allocate and approve that funding in the 2023 session.
Although there will be a new-look Idaho Legislature, Little does see some new allies arriving on the scene, such as Bedke in the lieutenant governor’s role and new Superintendent of Public Instruction Debbie Critchfield.
Bedke has pledged to work closely with Little and not rock the boat or generate negative headlines. Little told the Sun he is particularly interested in working with Bedke on a statewide, holistic solution to water issues.
Little and Critchfield previously worked closely when Critchfield served as president of the Idaho State Board of Education from 2019 to early 2021. Little said the two reconnected during an Idaho Republican Party campaign roadshow in October and have been talking formally and informally since then.
“It’s no surprise what you get with Debbie,” Little told the Sun. “I think we are pretty in-tune and she’s got some ideas.”
Little will unveil his 2023 legislative priorities during the Jan. 9 State of the State address on the first day of the 2023 legislative session.