Idaho Legislature has big to-do list after COVID-19 break

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A huge income tax cut and rebate, legislation to limit the governor’s authority during emergencies, and a proposed constitutional amendment allowing lawmakers to call themselves back into session all remain on the Legislature’s to-do list when it reconvenes Tuesday.

The House and Senate both recessed abruptly on March 19 after at least six of the 70 House members tested positive for COVID-19 within a week. Two senators previously contracted COVID-19 but have recovered and returned to the 35-member Senate.

Of the sickened lawmakers, seven of the eight were Republicans, who typically don’t wear masks. The House, according to its calendar, might debate a bill this week to prohibit government entities from imposing mask mandates.

The House and Senate also have a slew of must-pass budget bills remaining.

The income tax plan includes $169 million in ongoing income tax cuts for individuals and corporations and a $220 million rebate to Idaho residents who paid taxes. The cuts involve lowering Idaho’s top corporate and individual tax brackets from 6.925 percent to 6.5 percent. The other six tax brackets would also be cut.

That bill previously passed the House on party lines with no Democratic support and is now awaiting a hearing in a Senate committee.

There are two primary bills, among various others, aimed at limiting an Idaho governor’s authority during declared emergencies while increasing the Legislature’s authority. Lawmakers say the coronavirus pandemic showed that the state’s current system is a relic from the Cold War-era that concentrates too much power in the executive branch.

A Senate-initiated version targets a governor’s emergency powers during human-caused events, such as a terrorist attack. A House-initiated version targets a governor’s authority during localized natural disasters such as wildfires and floods.

The two bills each allow a governor to declare an emergency and extend it past 60 days, but only to ensure federal aid funding continues. Both bills would require any restrictions accompanying a governor’s order to expire after 60 days unless renewed by the Legislature.

The Senate bill has passed the Senate, cleared a House committee and is awaiting possible amending in the House. The House bill has passed the House, cleared a Senate committee and is awaiting possible amending in the Senate. Leaders in the House and Senate have been cooperatively developing the bills.

A proposed constitutional amendment allowing the part-time Legislature to call itself back into session cleared the Senate with just enough votes to get the two-thirds majority needed. It’s now in the House awaiting action. If it passes the House with a two-thirds majority, it would go before Idaho voters in November 2022, needing a simple majority for approval.

If voters agree, the Legislature could call itself back into session if 60% of lawmakers in both the House and Senate agree. Currently, only governors can call special sessions.

Another proposed constitutional amendment would prevent the legalization of marijuana and other drugs without the approval of two-thirds of the Idaho Legislature. An initial version of that legislation died after passing the Senate. A new version cleared a House subcommittee shortly before the Legislature recessed, and still must clear both the House and Senate.

Legislation prohibiting mask mandates by government entities in Idaho could be debated on the House floor this week. It came up for debate in the House the day before COVID-19 knocked the Legislature into recess. It was pulled back to be amended when some questions arose that it could prevent such things as mask requirements at construction areas.

Republican Gov. Brad Little has never issued a statewide mask mandate, but a handful of counties and about a dozen cities currently have such orders in place. The mandates started appearing last spring as the coronavirus pandemic took hold in Idaho.

The Senate, meanwhile, will possibly take up a bill this week that would outlaw abortions in Idaho after fetal heartbeats are detected. Fetal heartbeats can be detected as early as six weeks into pregnancy, before many women know they are pregnant. Similar bills have passed in about a dozen states but are tied up in courts.

A measure in the House would make it more difficult to get initiatives or referendums on ballots in what is widely seen as a rural vs. urban issue. The bill has already passed the Senate. Current rules require signatures from 6% of registered voters in each of 18 legislative districts in 18 months. The proposed law would require 6% of registered voters in all 35 Idaho districts in 18 months.

Two years ago, Little vetoed similar legislation making the ballot initiative process more difficult, and he has strongly hinted he’d do the same with the current legislation. It passed the Senate with enough votes, 26-9, to overcome a veto.

Little, in his previous vetoes, said he was concerned a federal court could find the proposed ballot initiative process too restrictive and dictate the process for Idaho.