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Idaho Legislature returns to the Statehouse to fight COVID-19 rules from feds, employers

The Idaho House’s public gallery was full at the Statehouse in Boise, Idaho, on Nov. 15, 2021. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun)
Otto Kitsinger
The Idaho House’s public gallery was full at the Statehouse in Boise, Idaho, on Nov. 15, 2021. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun)

House Business Committee sent several bills to the House floor, and legislative action will pick back up Tuesday

The Idaho Legislature’s first day back in session Monday lasted nearly 13 hours during a disjointed and sometimes tense reconvening of the longest legislative session in state history.

Legislators didn’t pass any bills into law Monday, but they did introduce a total of 36 new bills for consideration, setting the stage for more divisive hearings, testimony and votes at the Idaho State Capitol on Tuesday.

Monday was tagged as the 309th day of the 2021 legislative session on the official Idaho House of Representatives and Idaho Senate reading calendars.

Most of the day was devoted to a committee debate over eight bills regarding COVID-19 rules, vaccine mandates or licensing requirements for employers, as well as for the Idaho House’s debate and vote to censure Rep. Priscilla Giddings, R-White Bird. The Idaho House voted to censure Giddings and remove her from a committee following an ethics complaint alleging she engaged in conduct unbecoming of a legislator after Giddings posted a blog that identified and included the photo of a 19-year-old legislative intern who accused former. Rep. Aaron von Ehlinger of raping her. Click here to read the Idaho Capital Sun’s full coverage of the debate and vote on the Giddings ethics complaint.

Most legislative excitement happened in Idaho House and House committee

Aside from the ethics debate andquick action to introduce the new bills early Monday morning, a lot of the action involved a marathon House Business Committee meeting that started at 2 p.m., recessed for dinner and then wrapped up just before 8:15 p.m.

Ultimately, the House Business Committee voted to send House Bills 419 and House Bill 421 to the House floor with a recommendation they pass. House Bill 419 prohibits anyone or any business from requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccination or booster as a condition of employment. House Bill 421 expands on an executive order to provide that individuals will not be required to provide proof of vaccination or a negative test result to apply for or receive services from the state, enter a government venue or be hired or maintain employment with the state.

The committee sent another bill, House Bill 415,to the House Floor without a recommendation attached to it. The committee also sent out House Bill 410, House Bill 416, House Bill 422 and House Bill 427 out for possible amendments and killed House Bill 413.

Conservative legislators pushed back against vaccine and testing mandates put in place by President Joe Biden and by businesses.

“I think for businesses to make this rash decision at this point — (is) irresponsible — absolutely irresponsible for them to make that decision at this point and force people, tell them to make up your mind whether or not you’re going to work at this place or take this jab,” Rep. Jason Monks, R-Nampa, said during the House Business Committee’s debate.

Many of the members of the public who attended meetings and hearings were aligned with organizations such as Health Freedom Idaho, Take A Stand Now and the Idaho Freedom Foundation, groups that have opposed mask and vaccines requirements.

Many of the members of the public were vocal in telling legislators they weren’t happy with many of the proposed new bills.

“I feel like you need to do better, I feel like there were a lot of things brought to you today and I feel like several of them, especially the last three, you needed to work on them,” Caldwell resident Leah Henry told the House Business Committee. “They are not enough. I am really disappointed that a bunch of bills about health care, because COVID-19 is a health care issue, were sent to a committee that’s not gonna meet to hear them.”

On Monday, Idaho Reports reported that House Health and Welfare Committee Chairman Fred Wood, R-Burley, said he would not hold a hearing on any of the nine bills referred to his committee.

During testimony, other members of the public told legislators they were working too quickly and it was too difficult to follow the process, access the new bills and provide informed testimony in such a short time.

Several dozen members of the public crowded in the seating gallery overlooking the House Chambers on Monday morning. There were a couple of loud outbursts that briefly interrupted proceedings, and Speaker of the House Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, threatened to clear the gallery if there was one more outburst.

Bedke did not end up clearing the gallery.

The Idaho House is scheduled to reconvene at 8 a.m. Tuesday.

Masks aren’t required as legislators debate COVID-19 bills

There is no mask mandate or requirement in the Statehouse or in Boise, and the vast majority of members of the public and legislators did not wear masks Monday.

Earlier this month, one of the six members of Idaho’s bipartisan redistricting commission, which had been meeting at the Statehouse, tested positive for COVID-19. That resulted in the commissioner who tested positive, Tom Dayley, participating remotely for the remainder of the commission’s meetings. There was also a COVID-19 outbreak in April that ground the legislative session to a halt and ultimately infected at least 14 people and spread to the households of those who were originally affected, the Idaho Capital Sun reported earlier this year.

JFAC kills one of the 36 new bill introduced Monday

During a brief afternoon meeting Monday, the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee declined to advance House Bill 409. The bill was introduced early Monday and sought to create a new, $2 million litigation defense fund to fight “federal overreach.”

However, Rep. Ron Nate, R-Rexburg, argued that the Legislature already has access to the constitutional defense fund and legislative legal defense fund. Nate said legislators shouldn’t create a new fund but could simply add money to the funds they already have authorized.

A Legislative Services Office budget and policy analyst told legislators the balance of the two existing legal defense funds is slightly more than $5 million.

“There is no reason to go spending more of the general fund on this; let’s see how it goes,” Nate said.

Idaho Senate adjourns after quiet Monday

Sen. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, attempted to adjourn the Senate shortly after senators first went into session Monday morning. Burgoyne argued the Senate’s vote to adjourn on May 12 should stand because Gov. Brad Little never declared a special legislative session and the courts did not overrule the Senate’s original motion to adjourn.

However, Burgoyne’s motion to adjourn failed along party lines, with just six senators supporting it and 27 voting against it.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Winder, R-Boise, said the Idaho Attorney General’s Office has determined the Legislature was likely at recess. Therefore, he said this week’s action simply represents a continuation of the original 2021 legislative session.

However, Winder said he doesn’t want to open the door to a year-round legislative free-for-all.

“I do not want to ever see this Legislature in my lifetime, or in any of your lifetime, become a full- time Legislature,” Winder told senators on the floor Monday morning.

The Idaho Senate adjourned for the day at about 3:15 p.m. after very little action and a comparatively quiet day.

The Senate State Affairs Committee is scheduled to meet at 8 a.m. Tuesday, and the full Idaho Senate is scheduled to reconvene at 10 a.m. Tuesday.

Why is the Idaho Legislature back in session?

The Idaho Senate had voted to adjourn the session for the year back on May 12, after 122 days in session. But that same day, the Idaho House rejected a motion to adjourn for the year and instead voted to go at an extended recess.

House Republicans made that move so they would have the option to reconvene the session without Gov. Brad Little calling for a special session of the Legislature.

Under the Idaho Constitution, only the governor may call a special session.

Momentum had been building for a return to session since the summer, and accelerated in October after the Interim Committee on Federalism recommended draft legislation to respond to President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 vaccine and testing rules for large employers, government employees and government contractors.

Each of the days since the May 12 recess also count toward the 309-day length of session, since the Legislature did not adjourn. The session was already the longest in state history back in May, so this week’s return to session only extends the record.

Legislators planned to set aside three days to be in session this week, but some legislators are expecting the session to run longer because of the volume of legislation.

The 2022 legislative session begins Jan. 10.

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