BOISE — Idaho lawmakers convened Monday for the first day of a busy and at times chaotic special session.
The day got off to a raucous start when a glass door was broken as protesters tussled with police as they attempted to get into the House gallery despite social distancing requirements limiting the number of people allowed in. Later in the day, lawmakers took up bills dealing with the management of the upcoming November elections, limiting coronavirus-related civil liability for schools and businesses and ending the COVID-19 state of emergency Gov. Brad Little declared in March.
Special sessions are relatively rare in Idaho; the last, in 2015, was to pass a child support bill and lasted just one day. The stay-home order Little issued in March, the mask mandates some public health districts have put in place and other elements of the state’s coronavirus response have led to a backlash from the further-right wing of the state’s Republican Party, with many viewing them as government overreach. Opponents of Little’s actions packed the Capitol on Monday, almost none wearing masks and some carrying signs expressing their views.
“I believe all Idahoans just need to be left alone, trusted and free to act for themselves,” Ammon Bundy said in a committee meeting Monday. Bundy, who lives in Emmett and led the 2016 occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, has been active in organizing protests against Little’s stay-home order and other government restrictions meant to limit the spread of coronavirus.
While the terms of Little’s proclamation calling the special session will not, for the most part, let the Legislature consider the sorts of limits on his power some further-right Republicans have said they want to see, the House State Affairs Committee voted late Monday to end Little’s state of emergency. All of the committee’s Republicans supported the resolution except for Rep. Linda Wright Hartgen, R-Twin Falls, who joined the three Democrats in opposing it. The full House could take up the resolution as soon as Tuesday.
While legislative leadership had originally planned to enforce social distancing requirements in the galleries and committee rooms, after the door was broken Monday House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, decided to let the protesters into the gallery in exchange for their promise to observe decorum. Opponents continued to not observe social distancing requirements at the House Judiciary Committee meeting that followed shortly thereafter, prompting Rep. Melisssa Wintrow, D-Boise, to leave the meeting. The crowd heckled Wintrow, leading Committee Chairman Rep. Greg Chaney, R-Caldwell, to gavel them down.
“Mr. Chair, this is the problem,” Wintrow said. “We’re here to do the business of the state. I’m here to represent my constituents, but I won’t do it in an unsafe manner.”
The committee voted to introduce four bills to create civil immunity related to COVID-19. One, which is being sponsored by Rep. Julianne Young, R-Blackfoot, and which Idaho Freedom Foundation Vice President Fred Birnbaum called “the least bad alternative,” would extend immunity from civil liability to local governments, schools and businesses, with exemptions only for willful misconduct or reckless or deliberate infliction of harm. Two, sponsored by Chaney, would extend immunity to businesses and schools but would require them “make a good faith effort to comply with a statute, rule, or lawful order of a government entity in effect at the time.” This, opponents worry, would mean businesses would have to follow mask requirements and other public health mandates in order to qualify for immunity.
Most of the speakers at the committee’s afternoon meeting testified passionately against the bills, calling them unconstitutional and saying they would extend government power and limit individual freedom.
“We the people are tired, we are tired of government force and we will only take it for so long,” Bundy said. “I recommend you act wisely, because we will not live in fear.”
Several speakers downplayed the seriousness of coronavirus, comparing it to the flu.
“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.”
Jones paraphrased President John F. Kennedy, who once said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable,” an outcome Jones said he wants to avoid.
“This is America,” Jones said. “We’re not supposed to be told every little thing we can do by the government.”
The Senate passed two bills Monday. One will let counties consolidate voting centers for the November elections, a move which, it is hoped, will help deal with an expected shortage of poll workers. The other lets county clerks open and scan ballots before Election Day as they are received back and moves the deadline for county clerks to mail local ballots from 45 days before the election to 30. Both are now in the House’s hands.
Highlights on Tuesday will likely include the House Judiciary Committee’s vote on the four civil immunity bills before it, which could be followed by a full House vote. Bedke said Monday morning he thought lawmakers would be done Tuesday afternoon “if we’re lucky,” although Senate Majority Leader Chuck Winder signaled on Monday that he expects lawmakers to be at work late into Tuesday and possibly into Wednesday.
“There are still a lot of moving parts,” he said. “But I would say extend your hotel room to tomorrow, and plan on staying Tuesday night, unless you want to drive home really late.”