Senate makes another try to trim governor’s emergency powers

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Lawmakers on Wednesday initiated another shot at trimming an Idaho governor’s power during an emergency event that threatens residents’ lives such as the pandemic.

The Senate State Affairs Committee voted to introduce a bill that is a reworked version of previous legislation involving emergency declarations that has either been killed or stalled. The vote opens the way for a potential public hearing on the bill before the committee.

The legislation makes sure that “as we grant to the governor extreme emergency types of powers, that there are appropriate checks and balances that go along with those,” Republican Senate Majority Leader Kelly Anthon said.

The new legislation allows the governor to declare a “state of extreme peril” and extend it past 60 days but only to ensure federal funding continues. The proposed law would require any restrictions accompanying a governor’s order to expire after 60 days unless renewed by the Legislature.

Lawmakers are angry with actions taken by Republican Gov. Brad Little to slow the coronavirus, which included a temporary lockdown starting in March when the virus overwhelmed some hospitals with patients and threatened to do so at others. Hospital workers were also getting sick and said they were in danger of running out of protective equipment.

But lawmakers bristled at the pandemic rules, especially the lockdown and the designation of some people as “nonessential” workers. The new bill, Anthon said, would make sure all workers are deemed essential.

Some of the previous legislation faced criticism that it could cost the state $20 million in federal aid in coronavirus help by ending the state of emergency.

The Senate has never taken “the position that we should cut off the funding from the federal government,” Anthon said after the meeting.

The legislation also states that the Legislature can consider measures to appropriate emergency funds. Lawmakers say they should have had a role in spending the $1.25 billion Idaho received in coronavirus rescue money early last year from the federal government. But the Legislature was not in session, leaving Little to decide how to spend the money.

However, three weeks into the legislative session, lawmakers haven’t allocated any of the $900 million the state received in December in the latest round of coronavirus rescue money despite some groups saying it’s urgently needed. Anthon said the legislative process to spend the money is working.

“I know that in joint-leadership meetings these are issues that are in the forefront of discussions,” Anthon said. “But you don’t abandon good process for expediency. I don’t believe in that. I think that the Idaho people expect us to be responsible when we’re spending that kind of money, whether it’s federal tax dollars or state tax dollars.”