House OKs bill to trim Idaho governor’s emergency powers

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Lawmakers in the Idaho House passed legislation Tuesday to trim a governor’s powers and increase their own during declared emergencies such as the pandemic.

The House voted 49-20 to send to the Senate the legislation spurred by anger with Republican Gov. Brad Little’s response to the pandemic and lawmakers’ frustration with their inability to do anything about restrictions he imposed. The vote total is notable because it’s enough to overcome a potential veto by Little.

“This provides clarity, and it provides protections, and it allows the state to respond to emergencies,” said the bill’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Jason Monks, assistant majority leader.

Little issued a temporary stay-at-home order in late March as COVID-19 patients overwhelmed some hospitals and health care workers became sick. Health care facilities feared running out of protective equipment. The lockdown allowed the situation to stabilize and the state to bring in masks and other equipment.

But the restrictions angered lawmakers, as did the classification of some workers as “non-essential” and the banning of gatherings, particularly at churches, that had the possibility of turning into super-spreader events. All restrictions are currently lifted, though the governor recommends limiting gatherings to 50 or less.

Lawmakers also say they should have had a role in allocating the $1.25 billion in federal coronavirus rescue money the state received early last year and that Little spent with the advice of a committee he formed for that purpose.

The legislation that passed the House followed three other iterations of the bill that failed as lawmakers discovered various flaws. Some of the legislation put forward could have cost the state more than $20 million in federal aid to fight the coronavirus.

The version that finally cleared the House focused less on the pandemic and more on potential future disaster scenarios with the idea there would be different lawmakers and a different governor.

The bill would allow a governor to declare an emergency and extend it past 60 days, but only to ensure federal funding continues. The bill would require any restrictions accompanying a governor’s order to expire after 60 days unless renewed by the Legislature. Currently, emergency declarations last 30 days and a governor can simply renew them.

The bill allows the part-time Legislature to extend an emergency for 365 days.

The legislation aims to not interfere when a governor is dealing with more typical disasters in the state that tend to be localized and the result of extreme weather, wildfires or floods, and can lead to federal funds coming to the state.

Republican Rep. Terry Gestrin, a former Valley County commissioner who had to deal with disaster declarations, backed the bill. He noted that most disaster declarations start at the local level and proceed to the governor and then president of the United States in a process that can send federal money to local areas of Idaho to help them recover.

“This legislation does not affect the ability of local government at all to declare that disaster, and that’s where it begins most of the time,” Gestrin said.

But some lawmakers had reservations, including Republican Rep. Scott Syme’s concerns it could lead to a full-time Legislature. Democratic Rep. Chris Mathias said the House and Senate with a combined 105 lawmakers were not ideal in dealing with fast-moving emergencies.

“We are talking about turning this Legislature into emergency managers, which is something that thrills me but it’s not what we were built to do,” said Mathias, a former U.S. Coast Guard member. “I understand many of our constituents believe the gentleman on the second floor (Gov. Little) has acted like a tyrant, has too much power, but limiting his ability to deal with floods and fires seems impulsive to me.”

The Senate is also working on legislation to trim a governor’s emergency declaration powers.

The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare reports that COVID-19 has sickened nearly 170,000 people and killed just over 1,800.