Idaho Senate passes bill to limit governor’s emergency powers

Adjournment questions remain

The Senate in session at the Idaho Capitol on April 6, 2021. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun)

The Idaho Senate passed a bill Friday that would limit a governor’s emergency declaration powers and limit emergency restrictions that could be placed on residents or workers.

If passed into law, House Bill 135 would make it so a governor could not extend an emergency or disaster declaration passed 60 days, except to continue receiving federal funding and resources. The bill would also make it so a governor could not redeclare successive states of emergency to get around the 60-day limit.

All provisions of emergency declarations (other than receiving federal funding and resources) would expire within 60 days unless the Legislature extends the emergency declaration for up to 365 days.

Finally, a new Senate amendment added to the bill would prohibit restrictions on workers by job type or classification.

This bill is one of several pieces of legislation that represent the Legislature pushing back against Gov. Brad Little and the executive authority he exercised as part of the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

In March 2020, Little signed an extreme disaster declaration and a statewide stay-home order that required Idahoans to self-isolate at home. The stay-home order included exceptions for health care workers, first responders and essential workers, as defined by the state. 

Little lifted the stay-home order May 1 and implemented a tiered reopening plan. 

Supporters of the bill framed it not as a power struggle but as a way to ensure the governor works together with the legislative branch during emergencies.

Senate Majority Leader Kelly Anthon, R-Burley, called it an all-hands-on-deck measure.

“When times are tough, we work together,” Anthon said, debating the bill Friday. “We each take our respective roles and we fulfil our duties to protect each other to meet this emergency head on and assure that all on the ship are safe.”

But opponents — even some Republicans — said the bill goes too far. They worried that legislators would not all be on the same page in responding to an emergency or would use the new power to micromanage how cities or communities would respond to emergencies.

On the other hand, a governor would be able to respond more quickly to a developing emergency where life or property are endangered.

“The point being, the legislative process is very slow and deliberate and that is by design,” Sen. Jim Guthrie, R-McCammon, said. “Even though it can sometimes be frustrating, it is expected.”

The amended version of the bill the Senate passed Friday heads back to the House next. The House passed the original version of the bill 49-20 on Feb. 16 but must decide whether to accept the bill with the Senate amendments tacked on. 

 

Adjournment questions remain

Friday was the fourth day back in session after legislators returned Tuesday from an abrupt 17-day recess called amid a COVID-19 outbreak last month.

How long the session will continue is anybody’s guess at this point.

The general sense heading into this week was the legislators had about one or two weeks’ worth of work remaining to pass the state budget bills and address major unresolved legislation. 

The Legislature recessed March 19, one week before the nonbinding March 26 deadline legislative leaders set to adjourn the session. 

But as this week wraps up, it appears the Legislature is no closer to adjournment. 

Legislators killed two major budgets — the higher education budget and the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare’s Division of Welfare budget — earlier this week. 

The state is obligated to pass a balanced budget each year, and the new budget would take effect on July 1. So the death of the budget bills will force the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee to get back together and draft new budgets for higher education and welfare. 

“We may be further away from adjournment (than when the week started),” said Rep. Brooke Green, D-Boise. “We shouldn’t be killing budgets.”

A general Statehouse rule of thumb is that it takes about two weeks for major budget bills to be redrafted and make their way through the legislative process to passing and becoming law.  However, legislators have the power to suspend rules and put things on a fast track.

Green, a member of JFAC, said rewriting the budgets and sending them back through the legislative process can extend the length of the session, which would cost taxpayers money.

“Rather than coming in and killing budget after budget and killing bills that pertain to education and early preschool programming, I certainly believe the majority of Idahoans want us to continue to keep our state running and provide for kids,” Green said. 

Even budgets that did pass faced strong opposition and scrutiny, sometimes without warning. 

On Wednesday, for instance, the Idaho Health and Welfare Department’s “other programs” budget passed by a single vote even though there was no debate against Senate Bill 1181 before the vote. However, federal grant funding allowed the department to temporarily add one new full-time position and hard-line conservative legislators have seized on grants and federal funding increases in this year’s budget process.

Green said the House’s 12 Democrats and a subsection of the Republican supermajority (the GOP controls 58 of 70 House seats) have worked together to save budgets. Green estimated the alliance has saved nine or 10 budget bills that could have failed. 

It takes 36 votes to pass a bill on the House floor if everybody is present. So, it takes at least 24 Republicans and all 12 Democrats to guarantee safe passage for a budget. 

“They are saving our budgets; they are the ones keeping the wheels turning on the bus,” Green said.