Rep. Steven Harris introduces constitutional amendment 1-12-21

Rep. Steven Harris, R-Meridian, introduces his proposed constitutional amendment on Tuesday to allow the Legislature to call itself into special session any time 60% of House and Senate members so request.

BOISE — A power struggle between lawmakers and Republican Gov. Brad Little has begun.

Republicans in the House brought forward three pieces of legislation Tuesday aimed at increasing the part-time Legislature’s authority while limiting the governor’s regarding emergency declarations. Public hearings on the legislation are expected in the coming weeks; senators plan to introduce three more bills this week.

The move comes amid lawmakers’ dissatisfaction with being left out of the decision-making process concerning coronavirus restrictions that started March 13 following Little’s emergency declaration that remains in effect. Among the current restrictions is a limit on public and private group sizes to 10 or less, excluding religious or free-speech gatherings.

Lawmakers say they should also have had a say in spending decisions concerning the $1.25 billion Idaho received in 2020 from the federal government in coronavirus rescue money. Little divvied up the money based on recommendations from his Coronavirus Financial Advisory Committee, which includes a number of lawmakers.

The three new legislative proposals are:

• A constitutional amendment from Rep. Steven Harris, R-Meridian, to allow the Legislature to call itself into special session whenever 60% of House and Senate members want to.

• A complex measure from House Assistant Majority Leader Jason Monks, R-Nampa, to “restore the separation and balance of powers between the executive and legislative branches of government” by changing an array of provisions. Those include limiting all disaster emergency declarations to 30 days unless the Legislature extends them; forbidding the governor from altering or suspending any laws in an emergency; forbidding any limitations on religious gatherings, gun rights or gun manufacturing; limiting the governor’s ability to expend funds during an emergency; terminating all current emergency disaster declarations that have been in place for more than 30 days; and more.

• A concurrent resolution from Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, to immediately end the current state of emergency regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. The measure’s Statement of Purpose acknowledges that it would cut off FEMA matching funds currently paying for three-quarters of the costs of the current Idaho National Guard mobilization to assist Idaho hospitals and health districts, which comes to tens of millions of dollars; Scott wrote, “This would have a positive impact to the federal budget.”

All three measures were approved for introduction on voice votes without objection; that clears the way for full hearings.

Monks told the House State Affairs Committee that the current system is a relic from the Cold War era that failed this year by concentrating too much power with the governor.

Rep. John Gannon, D-Boise, asked if the bill included any “safety valve,” to address situations where, for example, a public facility is flooded and workers aren’t able to carry out duties there that otherwise are required by law to be performed on certain days. Monks said no; the Legislature would have to be brought back to address that.

“If these were needs, that we need to change law, I think that we should be involved in that process,” Monks said. “Maybe we would do exactly what he did, but we need to be involved.”

“We’ve given ourselves some more work,” Monks said. “We would have to be involved in the process.”

Harris’ special session legislation estimated the cost of a special session would be $21,300 per day.

“A high cost, but if we’re in session we will make it worthwhile on whatever agitation might be causing us to act,” Harris said.

To change the Idaho Constitution, the measure would need two-thirds approval from each house of the Legislature plus majority support from voters; it couldn’t take effect until 2022.

Little in March issued the emergency declaration and later a stay-at-home order as the coronavirus threatened to overwhelm the healthcare system by sickening doctors and nurses. The order gave health care facilities and the state time to get needed supplies such as masks and other personal protective equipment.

The restrictions put in place in March were gradually lifted over the summer; all Idaho businesses are now permitted to be open, though capacity limits have been imposed on gatherings as the virus has surged this winter.

Scott said her resolution is similar to one the House passed during the August special session, but that didn’t advance in the Senate.

“I think early on there were so many questions about this disease, and so we thought there was going to be dead bodies in the streets pretty much,” she told the committee. “There was a lot of confusion about what this virus looked like and what the effects would be, but everything was over-estimated.”

To date, according to the Idaho Department of Health & Welfare, more than 150,000 Idahoans have been infected with COVID-19, and 1,544 have died.

Idaho joins at least 17 other states currently considering enacting limits on executive powers, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

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.