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Idaho Legislature adjourns longest session in history without passing any new laws this week

The House Public Gallery is full at the statehouse in Boise, Idaho on November 15, 2021. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun)
Otto Kitsinger
The House Public Gallery is full at the statehouse in Boise, Idaho on November 15, 2021. (Otto Kitsinger for Idaho Capital Sun)

Conservatives led the push to reconvene to fight federal, employer COVID-19 rules

The Idaho Legislature adjourned Wednesday after not passing any new laws during three uneven and sometimes tense days back in session at the Idaho State Capitol.

The Idaho House of Representatives and the Idaho Senate voted Wednesday afternoon to adjourn the session “sine die,” using the Latin phrase to signify legislators adjourned without setting a day to return. That officially and definitively wraps up the longest legislative session in Idaho history at 311 days.

House conservatives led the charge to reconvene to fight COVID-19 vaccine and testing rules from President Joe Biden and employers.

But in the end, after three days in session this week, the Legislature was only able to agree to adopt a Senate Joint Memorial, which does not carry the force of law, opposing Biden’s vaccine rules and mandates.

“As you can see, we kinda got trumped by the Senate,” House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, said as he prepared to adjourn the House.

Using the $30,000 per day rule of thumb estimate for the cost to be in session, Sen. Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise, tweeted it cost Idaho taxpayers $90,000 for legislators to send a letter opposing vaccines, testing and mandate policies.

“That’s a pricey postage stamp for a letter,” Wintrow tweeted. “Next time send an email.”

Some House Republicans expressed disappointment and the Idaho Freedom Foundation tweeted the return to session was “… a complete and total disaster. This is embarrassing.”

“We were here to address serious violations of our bodily autonomy, our medical privacy and our natural, God-given rights identified in the Constitution and in our Declaration of Independence,” Rep. Karey Hanks, R-St. Anthony, said on the House floor as legislators prepared to adjourn.

“I don’t know how bad it has to get before we awake and act to preserve these rights,” Hanks added. “I came here in all sincerity to address these issues and to provide some relief and some help to our constituents, to our fellow Idahoans, and we have not done that.”

Why didn’t legislators pass any laws?

The Legislature reached a sort of stalemate Wednesday when the Senate State Affairs Committeedidn’t advance any of the bills the House passed Tuesdayeffectively killing them.

Speaker of the House Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, had set the stage for House members while the Senate State Affairs Committee was still meeting.

“The Senate is in receipt of all of the bills that we sent over there yesterday,” Bedke said. “They have chosen to take three of them up.”

“If they act, then we will have things to act upon. If they don’t, then we won’t,” Bedke added.

By late morning, the Idaho House was down to “dotting the ‘Is’ and crossing the ‘Ts’ procedurally,” Bedke said.

But without help from the Senate, the House didn’t have a path forward.

After adjournment, Bedke told the Idaho Capital Sun the bills that the House passed will likely come back in some form during the upcoming 2022 legislative session. Democratic and Republican members of the Senate State Affairs Committee also agreed they anticipate seeing similar legislation in January.

“We took an attempt to set some policy with regard to the COVID situation and, obviously, we were unsuccessful,” Bedke said. “That just comes with the bicameral system.”

Other House Republicans pledged to take the issue up in 2022 as well.

“So I think the message to take away from this is the Legislature is going to come in in January and solve this problem or business could step forward and solve the problem themselves,” House State Affairs Committee Chairman Brent Crane, R-Nampa, told the Idaho Capital Sun.

Rep. Ryan Kerby, R-New Plymouth, voted for each of the seven bills the House passed Tuesday. He told the Idaho Capital Sun he talked to some of his friends in the Senate on Tuesday night and urged them to pass the bills.

“(The Senate) stayed and they heard them and the fact they didn’t just go home, at least the process went through,” Kerby said in an interview. “The process was followed. Either house could have gone home and tried to show the other up, so to speak, but that did not happen. Relationships between the (legislative) bodies would have spiraled down, but it didn’t happen.”

Although Republican reactions were varied, many Democrats were clear that they did not think the Legislature should have returned Monday to pass new bills.

Rep. Brooke Green, D-Boise, said she only wanted to return to session to vote on the ethics complaint against Rep. Priscillia Giddings, which the House did handle on Monday.

“This is not, in my opinion, the appropriate way we need to address these types of mandates,”Green said in a telephone interview last week. “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.

What did Idaho Legislators do this week?

The Legislature introduced 36 new bills Monday morning, with 29 of them coming out of one House committee alone. That set off three days of disjointed, occasionally tense and often fact-challenged testimony and debate.

The Idaho House also voted Monday to censure Giddings, R-White Bird, and remove her from one of her three legislative committees. In September, the Ethics on House Policy Committee voted unanimously to recommend the censure after Giddings posted a link to a blog that identified and included a photo of a 19-year-old legislative intern who accused former Rep. Aaron von Ehlinger of rape. Von Ehlinger pleaded not guilty to felony charges last week and is awaiting a jury trial scheduled for April.

As for the legislative session this week, over the course of the three days, there were occasion disruptions and ugly moments.

Speaker Bedke threatened to clear the seating gallery above the House floor on Monday if there was one more interruption. Bedke didn’t end up clearing the gallery, but warned the public again on Tuesday not to interrupt, call out or cheer.

After adjourning, Bedke told the Idaho Capital Sun he was disappointed in some of the public’s behavior.

There were also tense moments in committee testimony.

One woman, Sara Walton Brady, who testified in the House Judiciary and Rules Committee on Monday, called Chairman Greg Chaney, R-Caldwell, a liar. In 2020, Brady made headlines for asking to be arrested for violating COVID-19 closures at a Meridian park.

Another woman who testified in a committee suggested legislators were acting like “terrorists.”

A different woman, Kendra Martin, compared COVID-19 restrictions to war and the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagaski, Japan, which killed more than 130,000 people.

Biden’s vaccine rules face legal challenges

Biden’s vaccine rules now face legal challenges, and Gov. Brad Little announced Idaho has joined three of the lawsuits, one involving health care workers, another involving federal contractors, and one involving employers with 100 or more employees.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration announced it has suspended implementation and enforcement of the vaccine rule for large employers with 100 or more employees, “pending further developments in litigation.”

Last week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth CIrcuit granted a stay for the temporary emergency testing standard and ordered OSHA to take no steps to implement or enforce the OSHA rule.

“The Biden administration is putting his OSHA vaccine mandate on hold, thanks to the states, including Idaho, which are taking a stand against this unprecedented government overreach into the private sector,” Little said in a written statement Wednesday. “Our work is not done, and we will continue to fight the Biden vaccine mandates, but this is very welcome news for many Idahoans.”

Why did the session run this long?

The session gaveled in back on Jan. 11 and began with Little’s State of the State address.

Usually, sessions run 75-90 days from early January until late March or early April.

Wednesday was day 311 of the 2021 legislative session.

The 2021 session was already the longest in history on May 12, when the Idaho Senate originally voted to adjourn for the year “sine die” after 122 days in session. However, the Idaho House voted down a motion to adjourn that day and instead agreed to go at an extended recess.

House Republicans deliberately chose to go at recess because it left the door open for them to reconvene without having to wait for Gov. Brad Little to call a special session.

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

Sen. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, attempted to adjourn the Senate almost immediately upon reconvening Monday, but his motion failed along party lines. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Winder, R-Boise, said the Attorney General’s Office concluded the Legislature was likely at recess. Therefore, Winder said legislators were simply reconvening the existing 2021 session, not kicking off a special session.

The official House and Senate reading calendars also indicated this week’s action was a continuation of the existing session. All of the days during the recess also counted toward the overall length of the session, since it was never adjourned.

Although the Legislature has now clearly adjourned, the Statehouse halls won’t be quiet for long. 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.