It’s not every day that Idaho’s Republican-led Legislature can demonstrate the wisdom of Ronald Reagan.
Wasn’t it the late president who observed: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are, ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help’ ”?
You have to wonder what Reagan would think of last week’s legislative rush to help. In the course of a three-day-long special session, GOP lawmakers obliterated the ability of ordinary Idahoans to hold businesses, employers and some government entities — but not all — to account if they negligently exposed them to COVID-19.
But it got progressively worse. What started out as a measure that would exempt private and public entities from liability if they acted in good faith emerged as one that would bar any and all claims — except when someone willfully, recklessly and intentionally infected another with coronavirus.
In the process, the Idaho Freedom Foundation’s outlook on the enterprise evolved. Had any lawmaker supported the first version, he would have been dinged with a negative-7 on its Idaho Freedom Index. The ultimate bill carried a neutral rating, however.
Here’s one other striking change: The draft measure extended liability immunity to ... “the state of Idaho and any agency or subdivision thereof.”
The measure that passed specifically excluded from this legal umbrella the state of Idaho — with the exception of state colleges and universities — and the public health districts. Perhaps that reflects legislative annoyance with the restrictions Gov. Brad Little and the health districts set in place to restrain the epidemic.
In any event, that choice may have unintended consequences for the legislators and for the taxpayers.
For instance, Idaho’s lawmakers engaged in a super spreader event. Anywhere else in Boise, they would have been subject to restrictions set by the city and the Central District Health Department: no groups larger than 50 while everyone is required to wear a face mask and practice social distancing in public.
Within their chambers and meeting rooms, lawmakers answer to their own rules.
They set no limits on crowd size. Start with 105 legislators. Throw in possibly 50 legislative staffers, lobbyists and reporters. Don’t forget the small army Emmett anarchist Ammon Bundy assembled.
With no requirements, few wore masks and few practiced social distancing.
As far as many lawmakers are concerned, the pandemic is a farce. They even illegally voted to terminate Little’s emergency order.
“This emergency declaration has created the situation we’re in, not the virus,” said Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens. “(In) reaction to the potential damage from the virus, the government — oh, isn’t that normal for the government to create a problem and then figure out a solution that’s always more draconian, always more expensive?”
But where does that leave someone whose job required him to attend the special session?
If the state remains liable for simple negligence, would that expose to potential litigation a group of lawmakers who denied the pandemic and took almost no steps to contain it?
What about the other gorilla in the room — the thousands of people in state custody at the penitentiaries?
Just about anywhere you turn these days, there’s a COVID-19 outbreak among those held in confinement. So far in Idaho, there have been case surges at the Ada, Bonneville and Twin Falls county jails. The state of Idaho reported a second state inmate died of the coronavirus.
What did the Legislature tell families of inmates whose underlying health conditions — older, obese, diabetic or suffering from heart disease or an immunocompromised state — puts them at greater risk?
What did the Legislature say to families of inmates who are being held on non-violent drug offenses and whose release on medical grounds would pose no risk to the rest of us?
This is the work product of a legislative session on a tight schedule held in late August. There wasn’t time enough for lawmakers to review all the issues or even hear all the people who had a stake in its outcome.
Do you think something got by them? — M.T.