State legislature wraps up

A nearly empty bottle of hand sanitizer rests on a table during a break in the House Chambers at the Idaho Capitol in Boise on March 19.

Much of the Idaho Legislature will start to meet again soon to weigh some of the questions that have come up in relation to the coronavirus pandemic.

Lawmakers are being asked to weigh whether some issues, such as how to run the upcoming elections, whether to institute legal liability protections for businesses, schools, government bodies and other entities from coronavirus-related lawsuits, and changes to the law that might be needed to help schools facing budget cuts, call for a special session to address them before lawmakers would convene for the regular 2021 session in early January.

The Legislature adjourned for the year on March 20, a week after the first coronavirus case was reported in Idaho. Lawmakers did approve $2 million to fight coronavirus in the last week of the session but didn’t do much else to address the questions the pandemic has raised, which has largely left it to Gov. Brad Little to use his emergency powers to guide the state’s response. Some Republican lawmakers have been critical of aspects of Little’s actions, such as his shutdown order that directed many businesses to close and the allocation of $1.25 billion in federal funding the state got through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. Several have called for more legislative input or a special session.

In late June, House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, and Senate President Pro Tempore Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, announced the creation of a joint working group to discuss a list of possible legislative changes. In a news release at the time they characterized these measures as “new safeguards for the very foundations of our republic.”

“The set of constitutional amendments and legislation would ensure the people of Idaho are not silenced, preserve the checks and balances set by our forefathers and protect against overreach by the executive branch,” they wrote.

The four working groups will consist of the House and Senate Education, Judiciary and State Affairs committees and the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, which is in charge of the state budget. All of these committees are being asked to come back with reports the Legislature can discuss in 2021, and any motions would need to be passed by majorities of both the House and Senate committees.

The letters give the committee chairmen the option of holding meetings either in person or remotely. Hill and Bedke sent out letters Monday detailing what they expect the committees to discuss, and Hill said Tuesday he wants them to start meeting as soon as possible.

Currently, only the governor can call a special session, and one of the tasks of the State Affairs committees is to weigh the idea of amending the state Constitution to let the Legislature call itself into special session under certain circumstances. Little said last month on one of his weekly phone calls with AARP Idaho members that he would consider calling a special session for a few reasons, including how to conduct the November elections and to deal with coronavirus civil liability issues.

State Affairs is also being asked to consider changes to the state’s election laws, which Hill and Bedke’s letters say “appear to be inadequate or ambiguous” to accommodate situations such as the current one where there are safety concerns about voting in person. Little used his emergency powers to hold this year’s May primary entirely by mail and push back the deadlines to turn in ballots.

“Of immediate concern are the elections to be conducted in August of this year,” they wrote.

And State Affairs is asked to weigh limits on the governor’s emergency powers.

“Based on our experience with the current pandemic, these statutes may need to be updated or amended to provide the executive branch with more specific direction and place clearer limits on this broad authority,” they wrote.

The budget committees are being asked to study how to manage “unusually large amounts of non-cognizable funds received by the state under certain circumstances,” such as the state’s CARES Act funding. The Education committees are being asked to study “statutory changes that may be advisable to better assist public school districts in providing educational services in the event of economic holdbacks and/or budget reductions, particularly in times of emergency, such as the current pandemic we are facing,” and to weigh whether a special session is needed.

The Judiciary committees are being asked to discuss putting limits on pandemic-related legal liability for entities such as businesses, schools and government agencies and whether a special session is needed to address the issue.

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