Senate State Affairs 1-13-21

The Idaho Senate State Affairs Committee meets on Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2021, to introduce bills aimed at trimming the governor’s emergency powers.

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The Senate State Affairs Committee this morning introduced four new bills aimed at trimming the governor’s emergency powers, including a companion bill to a House bill introduced yesterday forbidding any emergency restrictions on work, participation in the economy or restrictions on rights; ending all emergency declarations after 30 days unless the Legislature extends them; and forbidding the suspending of any laws during emergencies.

The measures also included an alternative version of the House resolution introduced yesterday by Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, that sought to end the current state of emergency over COVID-19, including cutting off federal emergency aid to the state. The Senate version seeks to end the current emergency, except with regard to receiving federal aid, which Senate President Pro-Tem Chuck Winder, R-Boise, said includes millions now funding the Idaho National Guard, hospitals and nursing homes, and even Meals on Wheels programs in Idaho.

Winder said the idea is to allow the governor to make declarations only to the extent necessary to receive federal emergency funds and aid, including CARES Act funds, but not “to impose restrictions on the citizens of the state of Idaho.” The other two bills both were aimed at that end as well.

“We’re even told that it affects Meals on Wheels for our seniors if you just kill it the way the House has written,” Winder said. “So we’re trying to be responsible, we’re trying to meet the needs of our people, at the same time getting rid of the restrictions that have been placed on those same citizens.”

Three of the Senate bills include language allowing the state to receive federal aid for expenses “arising out of” a declared state of disaster emergency, rather than “during,” which Winder said should allow the aid to continue to flow to the state after the declaration ends. No Idaho Attorney General’s opinion has been sought on that, he said, but attorneys have been consulted.

One of the measures, co-sponsored by Winder and House Speaker Scott Bedke, makes changes identical to a measure introduced yesterday by House Assistant Majority Leader Jason Monks, R-Nampa, just in a different section of Idaho’s emergency laws.

After all four measures were introduced, Winder said, “I think they’ll accomplish what the citizens of Idaho have asked us to accomplish, and that is to remove the restrictions on their ability to work, to go places … without fear of government reprisal against them.”

“We’re trying to balance constitutional rights to freedom, to happiness,” he said. “Happiness when you’re locked down at home isn’t very happy.”

Currently, all Idaho businesses are permitted to be open; GOP Gov. Brad Little issued a statewide stay-home order in March when the virus first began spreading in the state, but most restrictions were lifted over the summer. This winter, as the virus has surged, additional limits on public and private gatherings have been imposed in an effort to try to slow the spread of COVID-19.

“The pandemic is still going to be out there, even when we declare the emergency is over,” Winder said, and he said Idaho will continue to have to deal with it. He said he’s had close friends die from COVID-19, which has claimed the lives of more than 1,500 Idahoans since March. But he also bemoaned restrictions on things like the number of people who can attend a local school basketball game. “I think we’re just looking at maybe a little more common sense can be put into it, if the representatives of the people are here and can act,” Winder said.

“There is risk in our lives,” he said.

The House measures introduced yesterday include one to allow the Legislature to call itself back into special session any time 60% of each house wants to, but that requires a constitutional amendment that couldn’t go before voters until the November 2022 general election.

“That’s why we need to change some of these code provisions,” Winder said. Winder and Sen. Kelly Anthon, R-Burley, said there still could be changes to some of the bills as they go through the legislative process.

Winder also acknowledged that GOP Gov. Brad Little could veto some of them. “He isn’t going to agree with all this, and probably shouldn’t from his perspective,” Winder said. “But from the perspective of the Legislature and the citizens, we think there are some changes that need to be made. Balance out the authority. Long-term, ongoing declarations like this, the Legislature ought to have a say in, because we represent the people.“

Winder said of Little, “This has been a real burden on him. He’s trying to do what he thinks is right and best for the people, but there’s a balancing act that hasn’t occurred. The Legislature feels like we haven’t had the proper role that the Constitution provides for us.”

The four measures were introduced without objection, clearing the way for full hearings.

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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