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Disability rights groups settle with Idaho Legislature over COVID-19 risks

Idaho

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Lawmakers in session at the Idaho Statehouse have settled a lawsuit with disability-rights groups, agreeing to improve virtual access to hearings.| Darin Oswald, Idaho Statesman

BOISE (Idaho Statesman) — Disability rights groups have settled a lawsuit with the Idaho Legislature, House Speaker Scott Bedke and Senate President Pro-Tem Chuck Winder over COVID-19 risks in the Statehouse.

Five advocacy groups and two Idaho residents negotiated a consent decree that allows people with disabilities to testify remotely in public hearings and participate in activities at the Idaho Capitol while limiting risks of exposure to the coronavirus.

The agreement filed Thursday lays out a set of requirements for legislative leaders, which include employing a third party to recommend improvements to digital access of meetings and documents. The Legislature will pay the third party’s fees, which must not exceed $5,500.

In exchange, plaintiffs promised not to sue the defendants for the remainder of this year’s regular legislative session.

“No one should have to choose between their health and their right to petition their government,” Amy Cunningham, executive director for DisAbility Rights Idaho, said in a news release Friday. “The Americans with Disabilities Act provides important protections, and here ensures that persons with disabilities can receive the same government services as persons without disabilities.”

Winder didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment Friday. In a news release, the House Republican Caucus applauded the consent decree and improvements to safety.

“It wasn’t just lip service when I said we were going to ensure that everyone could safely take part in the legislative process,” Bedke said. “We have risen to the challenges of these trying times, making important infrastructure improvements, and we will continue to look for ways to make this process more accessible to all Idahoans.”

There have been a handful of publicly known COVID-19 cases in the Statehouse, including a few legislative staffers. Two senators tested positive for the virus last month.

The decree requires that legislative leaders continue to provide safety protocols, such as an improved HVAC system, social distancing, HEPA air purifiers, and live streams and virtual access to meetings, according to documents filed in U.S. District Court.

Committee chairs must “make reasonable efforts to provide equal opportunities” for both in-person and remote testimony. Currently, chairs have the discretion to decide whether to allow remote testimony.

The lawsuit was filed in January by Wendy Olson, of Stoel Rives LLP, a former Idaho U.S. attorney, and Elijah Watkins, also of Stoel Rives.

Two Democratic House members voluntarily dropped a separate lawsuit against Bedke and the Legislature late last month. Their attorney, Rep. John Gannon, D-Boise, told reporters they dropped the suit because the legislators had been vaccinated.

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