BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A House panel on Wednesday approved legislation trimming an Idaho governor’s powers during declared emergencies while increasing the Legislature’s power.
The House State Affairs Committee voted to send to the House the bill that targets a governor's emergency powers during human-made events, such as a terrorist attack. Specifically, the bill was sent to the House for several slight word changes that won't change the overall bill. The bill passed the Senate last week.
Another bill that targets a governor’s authority during localized natural disasters such as wildfires and floods has cleared the House and is in the Senate awaiting amendments.
The two bills each allow a governor to declare an emergency and extend it past 60 days, but only to ensure federal funding continues. Both bills would require any restrictions accompanying a governor’s order to expire after 60 days unless renewed by the Legislature.
The bills would also prevent a governor from imposing some restrictions during an emergency. A governor's emergency order couldn't prevent people from going to work or gathering, including for religious services. An order also couldn't quarantine healthy people.
Republican Sen. Kelly Anthon told the House committee that the proposed law is intended to give a governor time and enough latitude to act in an emergency.
“But we certainly also don’t want an unfettered executive branch that has no limitations, who would have the ability to declare an emergency unilaterally, maintain enough power to basically do away with civil government, suspend the laws, and then, as I understand it, there's nothing the Legislature can do to stop it,” Anthon said.
A legal opinion from the attorney general's office on the proposed law passed by the House committee on Wednesday, requested by a Democratic House Minority Leader Ilana Rubel, said such a law could make it impossible for the state to effectively address emergencies.
A governor couldn't issue evacuation orders, the attorney general's opinion said, because it might affect the rights of people to go to work.
Lawmakers say the coronavirus pandemic showed that the state’s current system is a relic from the Cold War that concentrates too much power in the executive branch.
Idaho governors have substantial authority during declared emergencies, which Republican Gov. Brad Little has used during the coronavirus pandemic.
He issued a temporary stay-at-home order last spring as patients overwhelmed hospitals and health care workers became sick. Health care facilities feared running out of protective equipment as the illness spread. The lockdown allowed the situation to stabilize and the state to bring in masks and other equipment.
But Little declaring the lockdown angered many lawmakers, especially when he categorized some workers as nonessential. Religious gatherings that had a history of being super-spreader events were also banned early on. Those restrictions have all been lifted, and the current statewide precautions issued by Little are now only recommendations.
Some lawmakers on the House committee suggested slight changes to language to make sure the meaning of certain sentences was clear, recognizing that the legislation could ultimately be challenged in court.
“The only time this is going to be relevant is in front of a court, and to make sure to make sure if there are any challenges with respect to the judiciary, that we have clearly stated our intention,” Republican Rep. Vito Barbieri said.
More than 175,000 Idaho residents have been infected with the coronavirus and more than 1,900 have died, officials say. More than 200,000 residents have now received both shots of the two-shot vaccine for the virus.
After the meeting, Anthon said the legislation wasn't specifically brought because of the COVID-19 emergency.
“Our current governor dealt with the best way he knew how a very terrible situation utilizing the statutes that were in place,” Anthon said. “If anybody is to blame for a bad statute that allows an executive branch overreach, it's the Legislature. He dealt with what hand he was given. I totally understand that. The debate should be about what is good policy, not what's happened in the past."