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Idaho Senate Republicans plan to pursue measures in January to limit the governor’s emergency powers and let the Legislature call itself back into a special session rather than having to wait for the governor do so.

In a news release lauding the results of Tuesday’s election, in which Republicans added two House seats to their supermajority and Democrats gained no ground in the Senate, Senate Republicans said they plan to “move forward during the next legislative session to represent the common sense, conservative values and policies that have made Idaho an example of success through minimal regulation, balanced budgets, pro-business policy-making, and a commitment to God-given rights and constitutional principles.”

And, they said they are “already working on legislation to be presented in the coming months to address concerns of our members, and of many Idahoans, that have resulted from government response to the COVID-19 outbreak.”

The measures Gov. Brad Little has taken in response to COVID-19, such as a stay-home order this spring and letting public health districts require masks in public, have produced a backlash among the more conservative wing of his Republican Party. While Little has mostly left the response to the virus in the hands of local governments and health districts since June, in late October, with COVID-19 cases spiking and hospitals at capacity in some parts of the state, Little moved Idaho back to Stage 3 in his reopening plan from Stage 4. Conservative lawmakers and Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin criticized Little for this move, and some urged people to defy the new mandates.

Senate Majority Caucus Chairman Kelly Anthon, R-Burley, said Little has been “presented with a very difficult, if not impossible, set of factual circumstances regarding this pandemic,” and that while a governor needs to be able to act quickly in an emergency, lawmakers should also be able to call themselves into session if a state of emergency lasts for a certain period of time.

“I think there are clear powers delegated to the Legislature, and we’ve learned them since we were young, and the making of laws is for the Legislature,” Anthon said. “The appropriation of funds is for the Legislature.”

During a special session Little called in August that was marked by protests against COVID-19-related restrictions, the House passed a resolution ending the state of emergency Little declared in March. The Senate declined to take it up, citing concerns that it would be illegal but did pass a resolution listing limits on the governor’s emergency powers they intended to pursue through legislation during the 2021 regular session, including passing a constitutional amendment letting lawmakers call themselves into session; reviewing the powers of local governments and public health districts; ending orders prohibiting Idahoans from attending places of worship; and a declaration that all working Idahoans must be considered “essential” in a future emergency.

While Republicans who oppose Little’s coronavirus measures started calling for a special session to override some of them as early as this spring, currently only the governor can call a special session and decide which topics it will take up. This was Senate Republicans’ stated reasons for not taking up the resolution the House passed in August ending the state of emergency — it wasn’t one of the limited topics Little called them into session for.

A constitutional amendment needs two-thirds support in the Legislature, after which it goes to a popular vote and needs just a majority. Anthon said lawmakers are discussing exactly what an amendment would look like, including how a special session could be called and what limits would be placed on it.

“Our hope in the Senate is to arrive at some kind of consensus amongst our caucus members as we move forward with presenting a bill,” he said.

Anthon said there is a consensus among Senate Republicans at least that the power needs to be limited so Idaho doesn’t end up developing a full-time Legislature, joking that “Idahoans are safer when we’re not in session.” And, he said, the public should know what is going to be discussed beforehand.

“It should be something Idahoans have lots of advance notice of, if you’re going to call yourself into special session,” he said.

While the conservative backlash to Little’s anti-coronavirus measures has brought this issue to the forefront, it isn’t a new one. It came up in 2017, when after the Legislature adjourned former Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter vetoed a grocery tax repeal bill. Some House Republicans wanted to stay in session this year after the rest of the Legislature’s business was done so they could be there in case Little vetoed two controversial bills that had strong GOP support, one barring transgender people from changing their birth certificates and one barring transgender girls and women from female high school and college sports teams. Lawmakers ended up voting narrowly to adjourn, though, and Little later signed both bills.

House Minority Leader Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, expressed concern about making any changes, saying she wouldn’t want to limit a governor’s power in a real emergency. If something happens, she said, a governor needs to be able to act instead of spending weeks “arguing and agonizing.”

“I’m really concerned about all of that really,” she said. “It is important when you have a genuine emergency, I think you need somebody who has the ability to act quickly and decisively. There’s a reason in World War II we had Eisenhower running things. We didn’t have 535 members of Congress making a decision about every naval maneuver.”

Rubel also said a constitutional amendment to let the Legislature call itself back into session would need “careful sideboards” to make sure it didn’t create a year-round Legislature.

Reporter Nathan Brown can be reached at 208-542-6757. Follow him on Twitter: @NateBrownNews.

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