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Members of the public sit in a courtroom at the Canyon County Courthouse awaiting a meeting for Idaho’s Southwest District Health board on July 23, 2020 in Caldwell. The meeting, which had been cancelled twice before due to security concerns, included heavy law enforcement presence.

Public health district boards, tasked by the governor with the bulk of Idaho’s COVID-19 response, are bracing for a potential attempt by state legislators to redraw the board’s roles by clawing back their legal powers and slashing funding.

“I think they are going to hit the ground running,” Seth Grigg, director of the Idaho Association of Counties, told a group of public health district board representatives in a meeting on Friday, about the plans of state Republican lawmakers.

The Legislature met Monday for the start of its annual session, which typically lasts three months.

Throughout the pandemic, Republicans across the ideological spectrum in the state have critiqued Gov. Brad Little over his COVID-19 response with few state-enforced mandates. Little has refused repeated calls from doctors to issue a mask mandate, but he has banned gatherings of more than 10 people

Many Republicans have characterized Little’s response as government overreach, arguing for lawmakers to have more control over the response, while the existing lax measures have drawn backlash from medical leaders and health experts who say not enough action is being done by the state.

The state’s role in public health, from the governor’s emergency powers to the regional health board’s restriction-issuing powers, is expected to dominate what many project to be a tense legislative session.

Grigg said Friday he had not seen draft legislation being proposed, but he anticipates “we’ll see action from the state early on announcing what their intent is going into the session.” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Winder told the Idaho Statesman that lawmakers will introduce a bill to pull health districts into an advisory, rather than regulatory, public health role by letting county commissioners decide when to issue public health restrictions.

Each health district board has voting-members appointed by county commissioners. Idaho law says cities may implement health orders with less severe punishments than health districts, whose restrictions must come with misdemeanors that carry six months jail time and $300 in fines for violators.

Boards for Idaho’s seven public health districts, whose voting members include mostly current and former county commissioners along with doctors, have had tense discussions over local mandates since Little in June removed most statewide restrictions and pushed for a mostly local pandemic response.

Although Little reinstated some gathering restrictions late last year, health boards set thresholds for counties to reach different coronavirus risk levels which accompanied sets of recommendations and restrictions. Those risk tiers were similar to the governor’s four-step re-opening plan. School boards have often tied their re-opening plans to their county’s respective risk level, set by the health district.

“There continues to be this sentiment that the health districts have ordered schools to close, ordered activities to cease and, as far as I’m concerned that hasn’t been the case,” Grigg said. In eastern Idaho, at least, health board chairman Bryon Reed said the health board would only advise schools on re-opening.

“Typically when you have an event like this pandemic, before you run off and start making changes to systems and processes … (you should perform) some kind of analysis at what worked,” said Bill Leake, who represented eastern Idaho’s health board. Leake added: “I just hope that the legislators are smart enough and reasonable enough to not make any hasty decisions.”

Bob Kunau, representing south-central Idaho’s health board, said: “We’d all like to hope that would happen. I don’t know if it will. We’d all like to have mutual discussion before we cut legs off.”Anticipating pushback on their powers and their funding, in the form of property tax restrictions or reductions in state funding for public health districts, the executive council of the Idaho Association of District Boards of Health voted unanimously to hire attorney Mike Kane as lobbyist for a rate of $5,000 each month throughout the legislative session. Kane serves as attorney for four public health districts and has worked as an independent attorney for two decades, after working in the Idaho Attorney General’s Office. He has also lobbied, for government associations.

Reporter Kyle Pfannenstiel can be reached at 208-542-6754. Follow him on Twitter: @pfannyyy. He is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.

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