The special legislative session called by Gov. Little ended on Aug. 26 after three days filled with protests and vigorous debate by lawmakers over the executive power of the governor. Rep. Melissa Wintrow expected a session focused on the 2020 election and civil liability issues—the official purpose of the session—but felt that most of the time was devoted to political theater rather than critical issues facing citizens.
“Taxpayer dollars were absolutely wasted so that legislators could spend time on political grandstanding and spreading conspiracy theories about coronavirus,” wrote Wintrow in an email. “Idahoans are not much better off after the special session as they were before it.”
Little called the special session for two reasons, the upcoming election and legislation about civil liability in regards to COVID-19. Lawmakers did pass two bills, limiting civil liability for businesses, schools and local government in claims regarding the virus; and ensuring access to in-person voting in the 2020 election, respectively. As they considered that legislation, lawmakers were also confronted by protesters who at one point broke a glass door and created a general air of chaos during the session. Four people, including activist and outspoken government critic Ammon Bundy, were arrested, and criticism of the atmosphere created by the public during the session drew bipartisan criticism. Idaho House Speaker Rep. Scott Bedke condemned the behavior.
“The events that have taken place over the past couple of days are unacceptable,” Bedke wrote in a press release. “It is important to protect the rights of all to participate in the process, not simply those who are the most aggressive and have the loudest voices.”
Wintrow wrote she has never felt so unsafe as a lawmaker, not only because of the violent nature of the protesters but also because of other lawmakers' general disregard for public health precautions. She added that her colleagues' inability to agree on issues of public health trickle down to the public and create more confusion and fear, making it more difficult to legislate for the people of Idaho.
“Our constituents expect us to give them the most accurate information, advise them on how to act and set an example for behavior,” wrote Wintrow. “Legislators who spread conspiracy theories and ignore the legitimate health dangers of refusing to follow the advice of health experts are doing a deep disservice to their districts.”
By the end of the session, the public furor had abated, but lawmakers deviated from the roadmap given them by legislative leadership and Little to consider resolutions criticizing Little's continuing use of executive power to control the pandemic. That discussion has been tabled until the 2021 legislative session, when lawmakers have said they want to address limitations of emergency powers, but for Wintrow, those resolutions were untimely and did not address the pressing needs of Idahoans.
“The legislature did not meet to reduce property taxes, adequately fund schools, make coronavirus testing more accessible, or accomplish any of the tasks that our districts are asking us to do,” wrote Wintrow. “Instead, we spent taxpayer dollars to have a political fight with the Governor over constitutionally guaranteed powers.”
The two bills that came out of the special session guarantee Idahoans' right to in-person voting and allow county clerks to count absentee ballots early; and protects governments and businesses against liability related to the coronavirus, respectively. The "Immunity Bill," as the civil liability law has been called, was criticized by Democrats but backed and supported by Republicans, who said the bill gives their constituents peace of mind without giving immunity to the federal government, and also makes stipulations for reckless conduct.
“This is a balanced common-sense approach to protecting the pursuit of justice, while also eliminating the specter of a potential lawsuit for individuals who are just trying to live their lives,” wrote bill sponsor Rep. Julianne Young in a press release.