Idaho State Legislature

Representatives Bruce Skaug and Ben Adams confer on the House floor during the 2021 regular legislative session at the Idaho State Capitol, Thursday, April 8, 2021.

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Of six Nampa legislators who signed on to a joint statement sent out by Rep. Bruce Skaug on Monday backing legislation to forbid employer COVID-19 vaccine mandates, three say they don’t support a special legislative session on that.

And Skaug, R-Nampa, says he didn’t even know about Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin’s call on Friday for a special session to forbid employer vaccine mandates; he just was thinking about the issue after three of Idaho’s largest health care systems last week announced they’d require their employees to be vaccinated by September.

“I wasn’t even aware that the lieutenant governor had done that,” Skaug told the Idaho Press. “I’m not in the loop on everything.”

“There was no intent … about a special session,” he said. “I personally would support reconvening to go over this issue, but I never represented that for all six.”

The joint statement, endorsed by all six state lawmakers from districts 12 and 13, said, “Some Idaho employers have recently threatened employees with job loss if they refuse the COVID shots. … We will support legislation to properly protect the physical freedoms of Idaho employees from mandatory COVID vaccinations.”

Of the six GOP lawmakers from Nampa who signed onto the statement, Skaug and Reps. Brent Crane and Ben Adams said they support reconvening lawmakers to address the matter. Sens. Todd Lakey and Jeff Agenbroad and Rep. Rick Youngblood said they don’t.

“Not at this point,” Lakey said. “I will listen to what folks have to say. It’s an important issue, but it’s something that we deal with in the regular session.”

Youngblood said, “I’m not supporting a special session. … My position is that they have the right to do that, but I don’t know that it should be mandatory.” He said, “I want it to be voluntary.”

When lawmakers convene for their regular session in January, he said, “If there is a bill that makes sense, then I would support it.”

Agenbroad said, “I do not support a special session either. I do stand by the statement as it’s written. I am against the health care providers mandating that their health care workers take the COVID vaccine.”

All six lawmakers said they’ve heard from constituents who work for the major health care employers — Saint Alphonsus, St. Luke’s, and Primary Health — and are concerned.

“What I’m calling for to begin with is probably a conversation with the health care providers that are making this decision,” Agenbroad said.

Crane said he’s already told House Speaker Scott Bedke he supports reconvening the Legislature to address employer vaccine requirements. “I can’t imagine walking into my business tomorrow and saying, ‘You will get vaccinated or your job is at risk,’” Crane said. “Employees do have rights, and we have to do what we have to to protect those rights.”

Adams said, “On a usual year, I wouldn’t want to reconvene, and in general that’s my feeling. However, the House did not go sine die (adjourn officially for the year) for exactly this scenario. And so I will be paying attention as well to see what the leadership in the House and Senate decide to do. If they decide to come back, then I’m all for it.”

Senate Republicans plan to hold a virtual closed-door caucus on Friday morning to discuss that matter along with other issues.

House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, has been lukewarm to the idea, telling reporters the House would be “deliberate” in how it approaches the issue, and saying, “There’s been over 300 million doses given with minimal problems, and couple that with the fact that Idaho is all about reducing regulations and staying out of the relationship between employer and employees.”

The Nampa lawmakers expressed concern that the COVID-19 vaccine has only emergency use authorization, rather than full FDA approval, which typically takes years. However, Pfizer applied for full FDA approval of its vaccine on May 7, and Moderna followed suit on June 1. It’s not yet clear when that approval might come.

On Monday, the Idaho Association of Commerce & Industry, an influential business lobbying group, sent a letter to every Idaho lawmaker “vehemently” opposing McGeachin’s call for a special session to block the health care providers’ requirement for their employees, saying the association’s members voted unanimously against the idea.

“The reality is that an employer should not be forced to keep an employee who does not adhere to the standards and requirements of the enterprise,” the business group said in the letter.

The letter touts the safety of the vaccine developed under then-President Trump’s “Project Warp Speed,” and says, “Unfortunately, erroneous information continues to be pushed by those who would seek political gain at the expense of saving lives. They would even go so far as to create new government regulation on businesses to suit their personal ambitions.”

McGeachin’s Friday letter to Bedke said that employees of the health care systems have been left “with little recourse for not wanting to take the emergency use authorized vaccine.” She announced Wednesday that she’d hold a press conference Thursday about her concerns on the matter, and again called the health care companies’ decision “medical tyranny.”

On Friday, leaders of the three health systems spoke out to the media on why they issued the requirements, which allow for medical or religious exemptions. “Safety is our No. 1 priority as an organization,” said St. Luke’s President and CEO Chris Roth. “We believe we have a sacred obligation to keep our team members safe so that we can be here to serve the community.”

Under the Idaho Constitution, only the governor can call lawmakers back for a special session. The Constitution also forbids either house from adjourning for more than three days without the concurrence of the other. The Senate adjourned sine die on May 12; the House simply recessed. An Idaho Attorney General’s opinion found the result of that is likely that neither house has officially adjourned; former Idaho Attorney General and former Idaho Supreme Court Chief Justice Jim Jones reached the opposite conclusion, that both houses are officially adjourned for the year.

The question’s never come up before, nor has it been tested in court.

The Legislature this year approved a proposed constitutional amendment to allow lawmakers to call themselves back into session whenever 60% of the member of each house want to, but it doesn’t go to voters for consideration until the November 2022 general election.

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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