Here we have Idaho:

What’s happening at the Legislature this week: Battling over emergency powers

By Zach Hagadone
Reader Staff

As most Idaho Statehouse watchers anticipated, the fight over the governor’s emergency powers and COVID-19 health orders has become the dominant political story only a handful of weeks into the 2021 legislative session in Boise.

Up to eight separate bills have been working their way through the Legislature, all aimed at limiting the powers of the governor’s office in cases of emergency — specifically as they have been deployed to confront the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Blanchard Republican Rep. Heather Scott recently made headlines with her statement that “the sick emergency is over,” fronting legislation that would immediately lift the current state of emergency, along with potentially relinquishing Idaho’s share of federal pandemic aid. 

The state Capitol in Boise. Courtesy of Creative Commons.

“If you look at the facts and numbers, by all means the sick emergency is over,” Scott said on the House floor Jan. 25. “There may be a debate about whether we still want to keep getting [federal relief] money; that’s a different story. But the pandemic is over.”

Ire among some lawmakers over Gov. Brad Little’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic dates back to his initial “stay-home” orders and mandated business closures as the state moved through the phases of its reopening plan last year. Scott, again, made national news last summer for referring to the governor as “Little Hitler” for what she perceived as his executive overreach, while petitions to recall or impeach Little circulated among some particularly outraged citizens.

The notion of removing Little from office over his pandemic policies has once more come to the forefront, with Iona Republican Rep. Chad Christensen taking to Facebook on Jan. 24 to announce that he is leading an effort to impeach Little, with articles of impeachment forthcoming.

Former Idaho Chief Justice and onetime state Attorney General Jim Jones told the Idaho Falls Post Register in an interview Jan. 25 that Christensen’s effort “won’t work” and looked more like “a publicity stunt” than a legitimate attempt at impeachment.

For his part, Little has been uncharacteristically forceful in his comments about lawmakers’ drive to lift the COVID-19 emergency. In a surprise televised statement Jan. 22, the governor criticized lawmakers’ arguments that his emergency declaration of March 13, 2020 represents a shutdown of the state or an infringement of Idahoans’ rights, calling them a “myth” that some legislators are “perpetuating” for short-term political gain. 

“They’re playing politics, and unfortunately the loser in this shameful game will be you, the citizens of Idaho,” Little said, underscoring that the state of emergency is vital to ensuring the distribution of vaccine supplies from the federal government.

“It means the vaccine rollout is jeopardized, something that is unacceptable in this final stretch of our pandemic fight,” he added.

The Idaho Republican House and Senate caucuses called Little’s remarks “inflammatory” in a pair of written statements, adding that his message “maligns legislative efforts as the Senate works diligently to address the much-needed rebalancing of power.”

Senate President Pro Tem Chuck Winder, R-Boise, said efforts are being made to draft legislation that lifts various public health restrictions under the governor’s order while retaining access to federal aid. 

The state’s largest business lobby, the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry, in a statement Jan. 22 cautioned lawmakers not to jeopardize federal pandemic funding by lifting the emergency order — rather, IACI stressed that health orders are what limit public gatherings, regulate business reopenings and have otherwise “created a constraint on the normality of our lives.”

“The emergency order is the pathway to getting that normalcy back,” IACI stated.

Meanwhile, as the various pieces of legislation targeting emergency powers move through the process, former Idaho Republican House Speaker Bruce Newcomb and Idaho Republican Congressman Mike Simpson — himself a former Idaho speaker of the House — came to Little’s defense Jan. 27 in a joint public letter.

“The Idaho Legislature’s attempts to strip not just our current Governor but any future Governor of their ability to lead during an emergency is wrong for Idaho and endangers the lives of Idahoans,” they stated. “… [A] crisis is not the time to dismantle the Governor’s ability to respond quickly during an emergency. A crisis is the time to lead.” 

Calling the move to limit emergency powers and lift the COVID-19 emergency declaration “reckless and careless,” Newcomb and Simpson continued: 

“We urge the Idaho Legislature to end the political jockeying and untruths about emergency declarations and do what is right for the people of Idaho and our state’s economy. Take a step back and think this through. The safety and prosperity of this generation and future generations of Idahoans depend on you.”

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