BOISE — It was a special session all right.
The Idaho House adjourned sine die at 9:18 p.m. Aug. 26, ending a three-day session that Gov. Brad Little called to deal with coronavirus-related civil immunity legislation and a couple of issues the virus has brought forth when it comes to dealing with the November elections. The state’s first since a one-day special session in 2015, it made national headlines when maskless protesters trying to crowd the House gallery in defiance of social distancing restrictions forced their way in on Monday and Tuesday and then Wednesday when Ammon Bundy, an Emmett political activist who led the 2016 occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, was arrested at the Capitol for trespassing.
Lawmakers passed two non-binding resolutions plus three bills related to the elections and liability.
Civil immunity legislation turned out to be the session’s most controversial item, with many who testified fearing a couple of earlier versions requiring businesses to make a good-faith effort to follow laws and regulations could mean businesses, schools and other entities would enforce local mask mandates or other public health regulations to receive immunity. Lawmakers ended the session by passing a bill that removed the requirement, only revoking immunity for “willful or reckless misconduct.”
The American Association of Retired Persons opposed the bill, as did Democrats who fear it removes vital protections for people who have been wronged. The National Federation of Independent Businesses hailed its passage.
“I’m glad to see our state get on board with some of our neighboring states in giving our small-business owners some liability protection against COVID-19 lawsuits,” said state NFIB Director Suzanne Budge. “House Bill 6 wasn’t where we started, and it isn’t a perfect bill by any means, but it is a step in the right direction to give businesses the confidence to re-open, re-hire, and restore Idaho’s economy.”
The changes to absentee ballot procedures that are now law for this election are intended to lighten county clerks’ loads due to a higher-than-usual amount of absentee voting expected this year. The changes give counties until 30 days before this November’s election, not 45, to mail out absentee ballots and let them open and scan ballots starting a week before Election Day. A bill that would have let counties close existing precincts and set up consolidated vote centers died in a House committee.
Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, one of the Legislature’s few rural Democrats, said it would have been hard to implement in her district’s large, sparsely populated counties. She also worried about having more people come to fewer polling places due to coronavirus.
“It would be reckless to have everybody in one polling place or two polling places,” she said.
The rationale for this proposal was the expected shortage of poll workers — county clerks have said they have fewer volunteers willing to return than in past years due to the spread of coronavirus. The House left it in Little’s hands, passing a resolution urging him to “take all necessary steps to procure a sufficient number of poll workers for the November 2020 election,” including working with the secretary of state and counties to advertise for and train poll workers, using federal funds to pay them more and, if necessary, activating the National Guard to use them to work the polls.
Little didn’t call the special session to undo his own coronavirus emergency measures, but a casual observer could be forgiven for thinking that was the purpose.
Opponents of coronavirus restrictions, some with groups such as Health Freedom Idaho or the Bundy-affiliated People’s Rights, packed the statehouse and dominated testimony at most meetings, often condemning the measures as unconstitutional or tyrannical. Some downplayed the seriousness of COVID-19, comparing it to the flu, or objected to the idea that government should have a role in protecting public health, casting it as a matter for individual choice.
“We are allowed to get sick if we want,” said Robert Jones, of Nampa. “We are allowed to do whatever we want as long as we’re not harming anybody else, but you guys have forgotten that.”
Many Republican lawmakers and conservative groups have been expressing their opposition to Little’s actions and other coronavirus restrictions for months, so it shouldn’t have been a surprise that these voices were prominent at the special session. The House passed a concurrent resolution revoking the state of emergency. The Senate shelved it and passed a non-binding resolution asking Little to revoke it while listing numerous measures they intend to pursue in 2021 to limit the governor’s power and restrict what the government can do during a future pandemic.
Part of the Senate’s rationale was two legal opinions, including one from the state Attorney General’s Office, saying lawmakers couldn’t legally revoke the emergency declaration during this special session. Another was that even getting rid of the state of emergency won’t end the mask mandates and other measures some local governments and health districts have taken in response to the virus.
“Repealing the governor’s emergency declaration wouldn’t have all the benefits I thought it might have when I came over here,” said Sen. Steven Thayn, R-Emmett.
The resolution serves as a possible preview of the 2021 session, as many GOP lawmakers support reasserting the power of the Legislature. And some voiced support for the concerns of the protesters.
“We care about what people’s frustrations and fears are because we share a lot of the same feelings ourselves,” said Sen. Mary Souza, R-Coeur d’Alene.