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BOISE — When the Legislature passes a bill, the governor has three options: sign it into law, veto it, or let it become law without his signature. New Gov. Brad Little, in his first legislative session this year, never exercised that third option, and it was intentional.

“There weren’t any laws that became law without my signature this session, and that’s something that we’re trying to avoid,” Little said in an interview. The reason: “Constitutionally, I’m part of the process, and I think I have to engage.”

This is a significant change, as former Gov. Butch Otter frequently allowed bills to become law without his signature. In the 2018 session alone, he did that for 13 bills, the highest number of his 12 years in office.

Otter took that route on an average of six bills a year during his three terms. Previous Gov. Dirk Kempthorne rarely allowed a bill to become law without his signature during his eight legislative sessions; there were just two instances of that during his tenure, one in 2003 and one in 1999.

By contrast, former Gov. Phil Batt allowed two bills to become law without his signature in 1998, and 10 in 1997.

Last year, Otter expressed some frustration at the end of his final legislative session when he was asked about his frequent use of the tactic.

“Some of those bills I could’ve vetoed, and they’d have overrode the veto, if you looked at the vote count,” Otter said then. The House and Senate can vote by a two-thirds supermajority to override a governor’s veto. “Beating my head against the wall is no good either. Yeah, it would’ve sent a message, and what good would it have done?”

Little said he’s decided he’ would rather sign the bill into law and send a transmittal letter to lawmakers outlining his concerns with it, to put them on notice that he’s part of the process and wants to work with them on future changes. That’s what he did this year on SB 1204, the Medicaid “sideboards” and work requirements bill — while expressing numerous reservations about the bill, including that it could be subject to a court challenge.

“The key part of my transmittal letter was the fact that I don’t like some of these things,” Little said. “But in essence, with the defaults in it, we are … going to go live Jan. 1 with Medicaid expansion. And any problems that are perceived there, we can address a little bit in the interim, but for sure when they first get back. And that’s what I was doing, was putting on notice the Legislature that 1204 has a few potential flaws in it, but I want you to know it’s important.”

He said his message to lawmakers was, “I’m part of 1204, but I want you to make this thing work when you come back.”

Little said there may be some instances in the future when he would decide to allow a bill to become law without his signature, but he’s trying to avoid it.

“I’m sure there will be legislation that that may be the case,” he said. “But I would rather kind of put the public and the Legislature on notice.”

Little had two vetoes during this year’s legislative session, both on bills to make it much tougher to qualify a voter initiative or referendum for the Idaho ballot. No veto override was attempted; neither bill had passed by a two-thirds margin.

Otter vetoed two bills last year; over his 12 years, he vetoed 64 bills, an average of more than five a year. That average was pushed up by Otter’s unusual move in 2009 to pressure lawmakers on transportation funding, in which he vetoed 36 bills, many of which were later reintroduced and passed in different form. Only one of Otter’s vetoes was overridden by the Legislature, in 2007; it involved legislation to add bowling alleys to the list of public places where smoking is prohibited.

Kempthorne vetoed 36 bills over his eight years in office, including nine in 2005, also in a dispute with lawmakers over transportation funding. He averaged 4.5 per year; just one was overridden, in 2002. That was his veto of the Legislature’s repeal of term limits, which voters had enacted by initiative in 1994 and then affirmed in three subsequent elections.

At the time, Kempthorne said, ''It's a question of process, and the will of the voters cannot be ignored and must be protected.'' But both the House and Senate mustered the two-thirds votes needed to override his veto.

Gov. Batt vetoed 10 bills in 1998 and five in 1997; none of his vetoes were overridden.

Betsy Z. Russell is the Boise bureau chief and state capitol reporter for the Idaho Press and Adams Publishing Group. Follow her on Twitter at @BetsyZRussell.

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