By Zach Hagadone
Gem State lawmakers remain in recess until Tuesday, April 6 — in what Capitol watchers have referred to as a “historic” suspension of proceedings owing to “a rash” of COVID-19 cases that ran through the Idaho House of Representatives.
According to Kevin Richert and Sami Edge, of nonprofit news organization Idaho Ed News, six members of the House received positive diagnoses for COVID-19 within a week in mid-March, prompting the body to close its doors for 18 days. Reporting from the Idaho Mountain Express added another three cases: one a Senate staff member and two more among House staffers. Lawmakers had hoped to adjourn, sine die, on March 26, ending the 2021 legislative session.
Ponderay Republican Rep. Sage Dixon told the Reader in a March 25 email that Statehouse business will likely wrap up in April. Responding to rumors that the Legislature may return to business in the summer, Dixon said, “We would only reconvene in the summer if we are not able to address the new federal funding [from the American Rescue Plan Act] when we get back in April. The hope is that we will have a little more direction in two weeks, but no one is sure right now. We will not sine die until after the federal funds arrive so that the Legislature is involved with the distribution.”
As the Boise-based Idaho Statesman reported, even in recess the Legislature costs taxpayers a pretty penny: the sum amounting to about $318,000, according to the paper.
Lawmakers serve part-time and travel from all parts of the state to sit in attendance at the Statehouse in Boise. That requires the supply of living expenses in addition to their salaries. Resulting from an October 2020 decision by the Citizens Committee on Legislative Compensation, legislators receive $18,691 per year, plus expenses for housing and travel during the session, and a constituent service allowance of $2,500. The president pro-tem of the Senate and speaker of the House receive an additional $5,000 per year, while other legislative leaders get $2,000 added to their paychecks.
The Statesman reported that 67 lawmakers live at least 50 miles from the capital city, receiving $139 per day during the recess. The remainder — including those who live within the Boise area — receive an automatic stipend of $71 per day, which is pegged to the federal per diem rate.
Other benefits to legislators include state-funded health care coverage, and those who serve districts 1,000 square miles and larger get a payment of $400 to $3,200 based on the size of the district.
All that amounts to $204,187 just for the recess, according to the Statesman, plus expenses for Idaho State Police security and staff salaries, adding up to a further $113,545.
The wave of COVID-19 cases at the Statehouse could have been prevented, Boise Democrat and House Assistant Minority Leader Lauren Necochea said, criticizing the Legislature’s reluctance to put in place more robust virus mitigation measures prior to convening in January.
“We could have done so much better than this,” she said, according to Idaho Ed News.
Idaho House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, told reporters that the viral spread stemmed from “basically two committees,” identified as the House Education and Judiciary, rules and Administration committees.
Yet Bedke expressed “no regrets” about the Legislature’s pandemic approach.
“I will never tell my peers what to do with their lives,” Bedke said, according to Idaho Ed News. “We could have been a little more careful. I’m not saying we did everything perfectly, but we did pretty well.”
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