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Gov. Little’s COVID-19 emergency powers could shrink under this new legislation

Idaho

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Idaho Speaker of the House Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, listens to the virtual State of the State address from Gov. Brad Little in the House Chambers Monday, Jan. 11, 2021, at the Statehouse in Boise. | Darin Oswald, Idaho Statesman

BOISE (Idaho Statesman) — If a new bill introduced Tuesday to curb Gov. Brad Little’s emergency powers were to pass, Idaho’s emergency declaration over the coronavirus pandemic would end — at a time when the state has reported more than 1,500 deaths due to COVID-19.

House Assistant Majority Leader Jason Monks, R-Nampa, sponsored the legislation over the emergency declaration and presented it to the House State Affairs Committee. The legislation would prevent disaster declarations from shutting down businesses and qualifies all workers as essential.

It also requires that the governor’s emergency declarations expire after 30 days, with the option for state legislators to extend the emergency. And it states that any disaster declaration must be considered essential to protecting “life or property” and protect constitutional rights.

The declaration would terminate if the threat or danger has passed, or if it exceeds the specified time period. It would automatically expire after a month. The governor would still declare the emergency under the bill.

Monks said the laws for emergency declarations were written “at a different time in this country,“ and that state legislators should’ve been involved in the process to declare emergencies statewide.

“We beta-tested some of those laws this last year,” Monks said. “We find, I think, flaws in them, and this is an attempt to address some of those flaws.”

RELATED: Montana bill seeks to limit governor’s power in disasters

Two other pieces of legislation were introduced in the committee — one to allow legislators to reconvene for a special session without the call from the governor and another to end the state emergency declaration over the coronavirus pandemic.

“It’s important to follow through and keep our eye on the goal, which is to maybe limit the powers of the executive branch,” said Rep. Rod Furniss, R-Rigby.

Reps. Steven Harris, R-Meridian, and Gayann DeMordaunt, R-Eagle, sponsored the constitutional amendment to allow lawmakers to start special sessions, something they cannot do now under Idaho law. The special session would begin within 15 days if it garnered 60% support from legislators in both the state House and Senate.

If the constitutional amendment passes by a two-thirds vote in the House and Senate, it then would be put to voters on the ballot.

Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, sponsored a separate resolution that would end the emergency declaration. Harris originally introduced the resolution during a special legislative session in August to end the governor’s emergency declaration, which began March 13.

Rep. Brent Crane, chairman of the House State Affairs Committee, said he doesn’t expect Little to sign Monks’ legislation. If legislators override a veto, the emergency declaration would also end in Monks’ bill — which specifies that any declaration that has lasted longer than 30 days would expire without another resolution from state lawmakers.

Gov. Brad Little’s spokesperson said he doesn’t comment on pending legislation.

Alex Adams, head of Little’s Division of Financial Management, said Monday that legislation on the emergency declarations could jeopardize aid the state has been receiving from FEMA. He estimated about $24 million could be lost, and that excludes funding that local governments have been getting.

The fiscal note of Scott’s resolution acknowledges it would impact FEMA aid to the state. FEMA provides three-fourths of funding on costs associated with the emergency declaration, such as deployment of the Idaho National Guard to help the state’s hospitals and health districts.

The three measures were just introduced on Tuesday. They will now be scheduled for a committee hearing, where the committee would take public testimony on the proposals.

If it passes there, it would move on to the full House floor for consideration. It would need to make its way through the legislative process in the Senate and then be sent to the governor for consideration.

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