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Video of the session is being streamed live on Idaho Public Television.

BOISE — The Idaho Legislature has never done anything like this before. On Monday, lawmakers plan to reconvene their regular session, which started back in January and as of May, already ranked as the longest in state history.

Officially, Monday will be the 309th legislative day of this year’s session. Typically, Idaho’s part-time, citizen Legislature meets for two to three months starting in January, then calls it quits for the year.

GOP leaders want to pass new legislation responding to the Biden Administration’s proposed COVID-19 vaccine requirements, over which the state already is involved in two multi-state lawsuits. A federal court already has enjoined the administration’s proposed OSHA rule requiring vaccines or weekly testing by employers with 100 or more employees, and that litigation is ongoing.

“I think it’s important to let people know that we will fight against the Biden mandates,” said Senate President Pro Tem Chuck Winder, R-Boise. “We think it ought to be an employer-employee matter.”

Said House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, “This issue will end up in the United States Supreme Court, and the quicker it gets there and the quicker it gets decided, the better.”

So why reconvene the Legislature on that? “Idaho needs to be positioned for its fair share in that effort,” Bedke said. “There’s a desire of the Legislature to be granted intervenor status. … It’s going to take some groundwork that we hope to do on Monday.”

That means the Legislature could tap taxpayer funds to hire its own outside attorneys, in addition to the Idaho Attorney General’s legal work that’s already under way in the case. That’s what lawmakers did on defending the restrictive anti-initiative law they passed last spring, SB 1110, an unsuccessful effort that ended up costing the state not only $196,117 for the Legislature’s private lawyers’ fees, but also $151,866 in legal fees and costs for the winning side, which the court ordered the state to pay.

To allow that to happen on the vaccine issue, GOP lawmakers are crafting legislation to set up a $2 million legal fund, tapping state taxpayers’ dollars. “It is just to be doing everything we can as a legislative branch,” said Sen. Jeff Agenbroad, R-Nampa, the Senate Finance Committee vice-chair who’s been working on the bill. “I believe we have the support to get it through both bodies.”

29 PROPOSED BILLS ON AGENDA

That’s not the only legislation in the works. Bedke invited House members to submit ideas for bills regarding vaccine mandates, to be introduced at a 7:30 a.m. House Ways & Means Committee meeting on Monday morning. That committee’s agenda now shows 29 proposed bills, including at least three on other topics, from school content standards to forbidding mask mandates.

Once introduced, Bedke said, “Everyone can see all of these ideas. They’ll have bill numbers.”

Ways & Means Chairman Paul Amador, R-Coeur d’Alene, said, “I think the idea was to essentially print basically everything, introduce everything, and then they’ll be sent to the germane committee chairmen for consideration. Obviously, it’s up to the committee chairmen if they want to give it a hearing or not. But I think we’re going to plan to introduce most if not all the things that hit my desk.”

Those range from one from Rep. Tammy Nichols, R-Middleton, to forbid Idaho employers, public or private, from inquiring about or having any access an employee’s vaccine status; to one from House Minority Leader Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, to forbid hiring attorneys outside the attorney general’s office for litigation over vaccine mandates.

“Mine would say: If there is such litigation, it is to be defended by the Attorney General only, and no additional taxpayer dollars are to be allocated toward any private attorney involvement,” Rubel said. “I don’t want to see the taxpayers get stuck again with being on the hook for a $500 an hour outside attorney when the taxpayers are already paying full freight for our Attorney General.”

She added, “We should call it the ‘Taxpayer Defense Bill.’”

Last month, the Legislature’s joint interim committee on federalism endorsed a bill proposed by Sen. Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens, to make it a crime for any public officials in Idaho, at any level of government, to take any action or provide any resources to assist in carrying out Biden Administration vaccine rules. However, an Oct. 15 Idaho Attorney General’s opinion pointed to major legal and constitutional problems with the proposal.

Rep. Sage Dixon, R-Ponderay, co-chair of the federalism committee, submitted two proposed bills to Ways & Means designed to implement Vick’s proposal, but Winder said senators haven’t agreed on pursuing that bill next week. “At this time, it won’t be considered, because we haven’t got to an agreement on the language of it yet,” Winder said Friday.

Dixon said Friday afternoon, “Nobody’s told me about that. … If there’s some large challenge and problem, I won’t go forward with that.”

BUSINESS CONCERNS

Rubel, an attorney, said, “There’s no question in my mind that it has very substantial legal problems. And moreover, beyond the legal problems, my concern is that it will actually make life harder on the business community.”

If the Biden Administration’s proposals are upheld in court, Idaho businesses will be required to comply under federal law, Rubel said, and the state could ease that process by making vaccine or testing resources available to businesses. “This would now make it a crime for any state employee to help our businesses,” she said. “Why in the world would we want to be tying our state employees’ hands and making them fearful for criminal liability for trying to help businesses who are required to comply?”

The Idaho Association of Commerce & Industry, an influential business lobby that represents the state’s largest employers, already has weighed in forcefully against any new restrictions on Idaho employers. In a letter to all lawmakers last week, IACI President Alex LaBeau wrote, “There are no Idaho employers asking the Legislature to impose new regulations on their ability to run their businesses and keep their employees safe.”

“Putting Gem State employers between a rock and a hard place of two conflicting mandates only further burdens businesses trying to manage their way through this pandemic while keeping Idaho’s economy moving forward,” he wrote. “Many of the actions currently being discussed by legislators would have a devastating impact on Idaho employers and will lead to business closures, job losses and a setback for our economy.”

He also urged against imposing new regulations on businesses “for the purpose of scoring political points and appealing to a tiny philosophical fringe.”

ETHICS COMPLAINT

The Idaho House also has an unrelated matter to address: Voting on a unanimous recommendation from the House Ethics Committee to censure Rep. Priscilla Giddings, R-White Bird, and remove one of her committee assignments for “conduct unbecoming” a member of the House. That’s for her actions in publicizing, both on her Facebook page and in an official constituent newsletter, the identity, photo and personal details of a teenage legislative intern who accused former Rep. Aaron von Ehlinger of rape. Von Ehlinger, a political ally of Giddings, currently is facing two felony charges and set for trial in April.

Bedke said when the House chose to recess, rather than adjourn for the year, back in May, the thinking was that another large installment of federal aid funds might arrive, and lawmakers wanted to be able to go back into session to appropriate those funds, rather than allow the executive branch to handle them.

“As it turns out, there was not any big new installment of federal money,” Bedke said. “But the House Committee on Ethics did meet,” and its report, he said, “will be properly before the House. So that’ll be taken up.”

INCUMBENT VS. INCUMBENT

Coloring the tone of next week’s legislative session will be the newly adopted legislative redistricting plan for Idaho, which, if it withstands legal challenges, will guide elections for the next 10 years, starting with next May’s primary election. As commonly happens each decade, the changes in districts due to state population shifts will force numerous sitting lawmakers to either run against other incumbents or bow out.

The Idaho Press’ comparison of official voter registration records to the new plan shows 13 potential contests among incumbents in 11 legislative districts. Three House districts, under the new legislative map, dubbed L-3, contain four current House incumbents but just two seats each. The plan also creates more than a dozen legislative seats for which there’s no current incumbent, promising big turnover in the Idaho Legislature next year, particularly in the House.

Rep. John Vander Woude, R-Nampa, who ends up in a district next year containing four current House GOP incumbents, said when lawmakers reconvene, “We’ll have a chance to talk to each other and try to figure out, OK, what are you doing, what are you doing? … There’ll be a lot of discussions.”

Said Rep. Jason Monks, R-Meridian, who will be in the same district, “At some point we’re going to have friends running against friends. It’s unfortunate that that’s how the lines ended up, but that’s how the lines ended up, and we’ll deal with it.”

A SHORT SESSION?

Legislative leaders have announced they intend the reconvened session to be short, wrapping up within three days. But with the first committee agenda showing 29 proposed bills, that appears to be a challenging goal, and there are no guarantees on how long lawmakers will continue to meet.

“I’m very aware of the taxpayer dollar here, and I do not want to waste that,” Bedke said, “and I want to conclude our business in an efficient, expeditious manner. So dragging this out for days it not in the plan.”

Winder said Senate Republicans will meet in a closed-door caucus at 7 a.m. on Monday to “finalize our plans,” but he’s looking at the Senate likely introducing a non-binding memorial to Congress and the president expressing lawmakers’ “displeasure with the Biden mandates;” a bill to set up the new legal fund; a resolution to allow the fund to be spent to “be proactive and to fight the vaccine mandates;” and possibly other proposals that “may be considered, may not be considered.”

As for the House committee’s lengthy list of 29 new bills to introduce, Winder said, “To me, that sounds like a lot of work, and it ought to wait ‘til the regular session in January. … It’s too many pieces of legislation to be considered in a short session.”

Monks said, “There will be bills out there that say you can’t mandate any kind of vaccine at work. Whether they make it through, I have no idea.”

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Todd Lakey, R-Nampa, said, “The challenge with a short session like this is you don’t have a lot of time to let folks engage and be involved and have a lot of back and forth and public input. So I think for the lion’s share of things, we’d look at January.”

The Legislature’s regular 2022 session is scheduled to open Jan. 10.

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.