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Idaho lawmakers seeking increased role, limitations on governor’s authority over coronavirus restrictions

Idaho

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Capitol building in Boise. | EastIdahoNews.com file photo

BOISE (AP) — Idaho lawmakers in the first week of the legislative session wasted no time initiating a power struggle with Republican Gov. Brad Little that could affect residents for generations.

Lawmakers, spurred by what they consider overly burdensome coronavirus restrictions put in place by Little to reduce infections and deaths, introduced eight pieces of legislation to increase the part-time Legislature’s authority while limiting the governor’s power. They say the current system is a relic of the Cold War-era that concentrates too much power with one person.

Specifically, lawmakers said that as an equal branch of government, they should not have been left out of Little’s decision to impose pandemic restrictions on businesses and residents when he declared an emergency in March due to the pandemic. Lawmakers also say they should have had a hand in determining how to spend the $1.25 billion that the state received in federal coronavirus money last year.

Lawmakers in other states have similar concerns over pandemic restrictions imposed by governors. Idaho joins at least 17 other states in considering enacting limits on executive powers, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“We’re seeing some proposals to try to ensure that if future situations come up like this, the legislatures would have some type of role,” said Jaclyn Kettler, a Boise State University political scientist. “This is an unusual situation. I don’t think most of these governors expected these emergencies to last so long.”

The Idaho legislation introduced this week includes four bills, one joint resolution, and thee concurrent resolutions. Public hearings on all eight pieces of legislation are expected in the coming weeks.

WHAT IS AN EMERGENCY DECLARATION?

Under Idaho’s state disaster preparedness act, a governor can declare a disaster emergency by issuing executive orders and proclamations that have the force and effect of law.

In March, Little used the act to issue a temporary stay-at-home order as the coronavirus spread rapidly, sickening health care workers who said they were running out of protective equipment. The lockdown, which was gradually lifted over the following months, gave the state and hospitals time to gather supplies. But unemployment shot up from about 3% to nearly 12%. Lawmakers are particularly angered that the lockdown divided workers into essential and non-essential.

Emergency declarations end automatically after 30 days unless the governor extends them. Little has extended the coronavirus emergency declaration multiple times. A governor can end a declared emergency through either an executive order or a proclamation. Under the act, the Legislature can also end a governor’s emergency declaration at any time with a concurrent resolution.

WHAT IS A CONCURRENT RESOLUTION?

A concurrent resolution is a resolution that must be approved by both the House and the Senate. Three concurrent resolutions have been introduced, two in the House and one in the Senate. They don’t need a governor’s signature.

One of the concurrent resolutions, originating in the House, simply seeks to end the emergency declaration even though it will cost Idaho millions of federal dollars the state is eligible for with the emergency declaration in place. The state, for example, is receiving more than $10 million to pay for Idaho National Guard soldiers to help hospitals and other health care facilities fight the virus. The National Guard is also expected to play a role in vaccine distribution.

A second concurrent resolution, originating in the Senate, also seeks to end the emergency declaration but retain the federal money. The legality of that is unclear.

The third concurrent resolution, introduced Thursday, seeks to eliminate a provision in Little’s coronavirus emergency declaration currently in effect limiting public and private gatherings to 10 people or less. The limit doesn’t apply to religious or political gatherings, but does apply to sporting events. Backers say they are particularly concerned about limits now in place at high school sporting events.

For the Legislature to pass a concurrent resolution, it must be in session. But the Legislature typically meets for only about three months a year. That’s why lawmakers have also put forward a joint resolution.

WHAT IS A JOINT RESOLUTION?

A joint resolution is a proposal to amend the Idaho Constitution. The joint resolution seeks to allow lawmakers to call themselves back into session. Idaho is one of only 14 states where only the governor can call a special session.

Joint resolutions require the approval of two-thirds of the members in each the House and Senate. They do not need a signature from the governor but must be approved by a majority of voters in a general election to amend the Idaho Constitution. If the joint resolution advances, the proposed constitutional amendment would be on the ballot in November 2022.

If voters approve, lawmakers would be able to call themselves back into session if 60% of the members in each the House and Senate agree.

WHAT ARE THE BILLS?

Three of the bills were introduced in the Senate and one in the House. They must be passed by both chambers in identical form before being sent to the governor for his signature to become law.

The House bill would automatically end a governor’s emergency declaration after 30 days unless it’s extended by the Legislature through a concurrent resolution. It would also prevent the closing of businesses during a declared emergency, and prohibit any limits on church gatherings.

Two of the Senate bills change the wording in current law with the idea of making sure the state can still get federal funds to help with disaster relief even when the emergency declaration has ended. It’s not clear if such laws could hold up to legal scrutiny.

The third Senate bill is similar to the House bill in that it prevents restrictions on shutting down businesses or stopping people from working during a declared emergency. The bill also seeks to allow federal money to continue to help with disaster relief when the emergency declaration ends.

The four bills were the first introduced in this year’s legislative session, in part because lawmakers are anticipating Little will veto bills limiting his and future governors’ authority.

Members in both the House and Senate have said a governor’s veto of any of the bills will likely lead to an override attempt. Veto overrides take a two-thirds majority of lawmakers in both the House and Senate.

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