By Zach Hagadone
The 2021 Idaho Legislature is off and running after gaveling into session Jan. 11, with lawmakers already lining up priorities for the state’s massive tax revenue collection, digging into bills aimed at limiting the governor’s emergency powers, and sparring over COVID-19 safety protocols at the Capitol in Boise.
According to the latest figures, Idaho’s December general fund revenue “shattered” forecasted tax receipts by $36 million, according to Alex Adams, who serves as budget director for Gov. Brad Little.
Speaking before the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee on Jan. 12, Adams said the state is 14% above on income tax, 25% above on corporate income tax and 7% above its sales tax revenue for the year. A big part of that robust revenue growth stems from income tax withholding, which has “been shattering targets,” he said.
Little outlined his proposed $4.2 billion budget for fiscal year 2022 at his recent State of the State address, which amounts to nearly 4% more spending than initial appropriations. According to Adams, those extra funds will be critical to building “a cushion for uncertainty” as the COVID-19 pandemic continues into its 10th month in Idaho. Yet, despite the many challenges posed by the pandemic, the Gem State has been performing financially much better than anticipated, Adams said, noting that the governor remains hopeful that Idaho will come out the COVID-19 era “stronger and more resilient than we entered into it.”
Navigating COVID-19 has also figured centrally into a handful of early pieces of legislation making their way through the Statehouse — including four bills introduced Jan. 13 to the Senate State Affairs Committee, all focused on limiting the emergency powers of the governor.
According to the Idaho Press “Eye on Boise” blog, among the proposed pieces of legislation is a House resolution from Blanchard Republican Rep. Heather Scott that would end the state COVID-19 emergency as well as Idaho’s receipt of federal emergency funds due to the pandemic. Meanwhile, the paper reported, the Senate version ends the emergency but leaves intact Idaho’s share of federal aid to entities such as the Idaho National Guard, hospitals and long-term care facilities.
Senate President Pro-Tem Chuck Winder, a Boise Republican, said the Senate version is intended to retain the governor’s emergency declaration powers in order to access federal aid, but bar the state’s chief executive from instituting the types of restrictions that have come with the Idaho Rebounds COVID-19 reopening plan.
Little’s use of emergency powers to manage a phased reopening of Idaho’s economy — including enforced closures of certain types of businesses — has rankled many Idaho lawmakers for months, including Scott, who convened unofficially at the Capitol last summer to challenge the governor’s authority. A later extraordinary session in August 2020 included protests, some property damage and the arrest of famous anti-government activist Ammon Bundy at the Capitol, where demonstrators and some lawmakers alike pressed for limits on Little’s emergency powers and an end to the pandemic state of emergency.
Finally, the COVID-19 safety of the Statehouse itself has become a legal and political football, with Reps. Sue Chew, D-Boise, and Muffy Davis, D-Ketchum, asking a federal judge to order the Legislature to adopt more stringent coronavirus protocols. Chew and Davis named House Speaker Scott Bedke in their lawsuit, claiming pandemic guidelines such as face coverings aren’t being followed to keep lawmakers, staff and visitors to the Capitol adequately safe from the virus.
A federal judge declined to grant Chew and Davis a preliminary order Jan. 12, though the case will move forward.
Meanwhile, disability rights groups have filed their own action, naming Bedke and Winder as defendants and likewise demanding more reasonable accommodations for immuno-compromised individuals to safely participate in the proceedings at the Capitol.
The Disability Action Center NW joined the suit Jan. 13, stating that it and other complainants “were hoping for a simple resolution of the issues through negotiations, etc., but Speaker Bedke and President Pro Tem Winder have implemented a policy of denying adequate public health and safety protocols for the 2021 legislative session in light of the threat posed by COVID-19.”
According to the Associated Press, Winder and Bedke are due to submit a written response to the suit, but that response had not materialized as of press time.
“We do not want to choose between exercising our constitutional and statutory rights and our health,” stated Mark Leeper, executive director of DAC NW, which operates throughout North Idaho from offices in Post Falls, Moscow and Lewiston. “By not being able to equitably participate in the 2021 legislative session, our rights will be violated. Those we represent are among the most vulnerable in our state.”
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