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Idaho legislators to take on Biden vaccine rules, ethics complaint against Rep. Giddings

The Idaho House of Representatives in session at the Idaho Capitol on April 6, 2021. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun)
Otto Kitsinger
The Idaho House of Representatives in session at the Idaho Capitol on April 6, 2021. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun)

Lawmakers to meet Monday at Statehouse to continue longest session in Idaho’s history

The longest legislative session in Idaho history will be extended Monday when legislators return to the Statehouse to consider a response to President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 rules for employers and take action on an ethics complaint against Rep. Priscilla Giddings.

At this point, it’s no surprise that the Legislature is reconvening.

Momentum has been building since the summer, with Republicans looking to push back against the Biden administration’s COVID-19 testing and vaccination rules for large employers.

“I am grateful for the chance to go back and weigh in on this issue,” Rep. Wendy Horman, R-Idaho Falls, said in a telephone interview. “I do think the Biden rules and mandates are a vast overreach against individual liberty and even against federalism.”

But Democrats are pushing back against reconvening, saying the process is unnecessary and a waste of taxpayers’ money with the 2022 legislative session, which will begin Jan. 10, around the corner.

“This is not, in my opinion, the appropriate way we need to address these types of mandates,” Rep. Brooke Green, D-Boise, said in a telephone interview. “We’re a part-time Legislature for a good reason. We have sessions for a reason. That is the time we need to address any legislative concerns. Calling us in for a special session at the whim of certain legislators any old time they are unhappy with a certain mandate creates a precedent we don’t want to take and we shouldn’t. We should adhere to being a part-time Legislature.”

Green said it is her duty as an elected official to participate when the Idaho House of Representatives reconvenes, which is set for 9 a.m. Monday in the House Chambers. The Idaho Senate is also scheduled to reconvene at 9 a.m. Monday.

“I do not feel at all, under any circumstance, that the introduction of any bills is appropriate,” Green said.

One of the state’s most powerful business lobbying groups, the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry, also pushed back against legislators in an open letter from Tuesday addressed to the “representatives, senators and people of Idaho.”

“IACI and its member companies will oppose any attempts by the Legislature to impose unnecessary restrictions and new liability on Idaho employers regarding vaccines,” IACI President Alex LaBeau said.

IACI’s membership includes more than 300 businesses of all sizes. Its board of directors is stacked with executives representing some of the titans of industry in Idaho, including J.R. Simplot Co., St. Luke’s Health System, HP, Clif Bar & Co., Chobani, Idahoan Foods, Mountain View Hospital, Micron, Melaleuca and Idaho Power.

“Idaho businesses have worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic to find solutions to keep their businesses open and their employees safe,” LaBeau wrote. “The Idaho Legislature should do nothing to threaten those actions, and instead should wait until the United States Supreme Court rules on the dictates coming out of OSHA and the White House regarding new vaccine mandates on employers. There is no sound reason for the Legislature to be in session until that happens.”

House Minority Leader Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, said she agrees with much of the IACI letter. With Biden’s rules before the court, the vaccine mandates will either be upheld or thrown out, Rubel said.

“If those mandates are legal, then whatever we pass is probably going to be illegal and lead to costly litigation,” Rubel said in a telephone interview. “If those mandates are not legal then there is no need to pass any legislation. Whatever we pass regarding vaccine mandates is likely to be either needdless or illegal or both.”

What to expect when the Idaho Legislature reconvenes

Bedke told the Idaho Capital Sun he wants representatives to limit the bills they introduce to “the issues surrounding vaccines.” He also said new bills up for introduction will be routed through the House Ways and Means Committee.

Once introduced, bills may be assigned to other committees as appropriate, he said.

Green and Horman said they aren’t sure what to expect when the Legislature reconvenes or how long legislators will remain in session. Legislators have planned to set aside three days, but even that is uncertain. Horman has already made arrangements to have a substitute legislator, retired Sen. Dean Mortirmer, R-Idaho Falls, to serve in her place should the session extend past Tuesday.

“I am hearing the same thing about three days, but with the number of bills I suspect it could go longer,” Horman said.

Green expects there could be more than 20 bills up for introduction and has heard there could be attempts to introduce other bills that don’t have anything to do with vaccine rules, including one that seeks to create a new legislative legal fund and a another described as a Texas-style reproduction and abortion bill.

“All of this is stuff that can wait that extra month, quite frankly,” Green said. “We shouldn’t be getting called in there because we didn’t do what we should have from the start, which is (adjourn) sine die.”

Idaho Education News reported Thursday that 32 draft bills have been filed.

Bedke said he considers Biden’s vaccine rules “an overreach” and welcomes legislation to address that issue. But he doesn’t want to open the door for a free-for-all where any bill or issue is fair game.

“All of these (other) things can be taken up in January,” Bedke said in late October.

The Idaho Senate adjourned the legislative session for the year on May 12 after a record 122 days — legislators use the latin phrase ‘sine die’ when they adjourn for the year, without a day announced to reconvene.

However, the same night the Senate adjourned, the Idaho House voted down a motion to adjourn and instead agreed to an extended recess, subject to Bedke’s call as House speaker, due back no later than Dec. 31.

House Republicans did that intentionally so the House could reconeene without having to wait for Gov. Brad Little to call a special session of the Legislature. Under the Idaho Constitution, only the governor may call a special session. House Republicans view next week’s action as merely reconvening the existing session.

The Idaho Constitution also says “neither house shall, without the concurrence of the other, adjourn for more than three days …”

Idaho House expected to vote Giddings ethics complaint

Green said she will only support two things. The first is a vote on the ethics complaint against Giddings, R-White Bird, which states it was unbecoming of a legislator to post a blog that named and included the photo of a 19-year-old legislative intern who accused former Rep. Aaron von Ehlinger of rape in April.

The House Ethics and Policy Committee, which includes three Republicans and two Democrats, voted unanimously in Augustto censure Giddings, who is running for lieutenant governor in 2022, and remove her from the House Commerce and Human Resources Committee. Under the ethics committee’s recommendation, Giddings would be able to retain her seats on the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee and the Agriculture Affairs Committee.

Censure requires a simple majority of the House.

Horman said it is important for the House to vote on the ethics committee recommendation.

“I don’t know of any legislator who likes to have these conversations, but they are necessary for the protection of the institution and our process. However they vote on that recommendation, it is necessary for the integrity of the House to follow through on this.”

Rubel said she supports the ethics committee’s work.

“They proceeded in a thoughtful, nonpartisan manner, and we shall see what the House does with that recommendation,” Rubel said. “Thus far I’ve been impressed with the process, (the ethics committee) took very seriously the need to protect ethics in our body and protect those who come forth with complaints.”

The recommendation to censure Giddings and remove her from the committee came after two days of hearings in August, after 17 Republicans and eight Democrats signed an ethics complaint stating Giddings engaged in conduct unbecoming of a legislator.

Rep. Brent Crane, R-Nampa, said in August that Giddings repeatedly lied to the committee and to media outlets about the committee itself. Horman said Giddings’ conduct was unbecoming and so was her lack of civility toward her fellow legislators during the hearings.

Giddings called the complaint and hearings politically motivated because her Republican primary opponent for the office of lieutenant governor is Bedke. The complaint was filed weeks before Giddings or Bedke announced they were running for the post, however.

Von Ehlinger resigned his seat after the ethics committee recommended his suspension.

Von Ehlingerwas arrested on felony charges of rape and forcible penetration with a foreign object on Oct. 8. He pleaded not guilty to those charges Monday, and the case is scheduled to go to a jury trial on April 26. Von Ehlinger has maintained his innocence and testified before the ethics committee in April that the sexual contact was consensual.

Idaho Capital Sun reporter Kelcie Moseley-Morris contributed to this report. 

The Idaho Capital Sun is a nonprofit news organization delivering accountability reporting on state government, politics and policy in the Gem state.