On Wednesday, Aug. 26, the Idaho Legislature adjourned “sine die” from the First Extraordinary Session of the 65th Legislature. While the responsibility to call the extraordinary session lay with the governor, the impetus was a legislative effort to address constituent concerns about pressing issues in our state related to the COVID-19 situation.
On June 11, the House GOP Caucus met to discuss frustrations that legislators and constituents alike had with Idaho’s ongoing response to COVID. There was a common theme that the Legislature needed to be involved in the decision-making process due to the sweeping nature of actions being taken, as well as the varied impact COVID was having across the state.
This meeting resulted in the House and Senate forming working groups to prepare legislation for the 2021 regular session.
At the same time, many legislators and constituents were asking the governor to convene an extraordinary session to address topics ranging from emergency declarations and school closures to election law and liability concerns. Another topic wanting attention was the fact that the Legislature cannot call itself back into session, as well as the murky ability the Legislature has to end an emergency declaration.
As the working groups appeared to finalize proposed legislation, the governor relented and issued an executive order calling for an extraordinary session on Aug. 24 to cover election law and limited liability from tort lawsuits. As the day drew closer, new drafts of the proposed legislation continued to emerge in an attempt to allay fears about what the legislation might do. Primarily this had to do with the liability legislation, but the legislation focused on election law brought concerns as well.
For years, most in state government have held the understanding that, during an extraordinary session, only the topics stated by the governor could be brought forth. The night of Aug. 23, the House received an opinion from the Idaho attorney general that stated other legislation could be proposed during an extraordinary session so long as it had a direct link to the stated topics. A few members had prepared legislation in anticipation of this opinion, and they began to discuss the possibility of having them heard with the chairmen of the relevant committees.
Prior to the session, there was concern that this would be a process controlled by the governor with no debate — or public testimony — allowed and the Legislature merely “rubber stamping” what the governor wanted. Contrary to that view, our normal processes were followed, and the standard committee meetings ensued, complete with amendments being proposed and voted on by the members of each committee.
The election law legislation started in the Senate and seemed to go forward without any problem. However, in the House, for a variety of reasons, the limited liability hearings became difficult to complete on two separate occasions. This caused the committee meeting to be moved to a different hearing room on both Monday and Tuesday. Eventually, the committee was able to complete its work on Wednesday morning.
Many of the same people attended the hearings regarding limited liability in the Senate, as well, but without any of the disturbances experienced in the House. Our normal legislative process is very transparent, always welcoming public participation, and this extraordinary session was no different.
Because I was not able to speak directly with members of the public who attended the hearings, I do not know what the exact complaint was. It appears that there may have been an assumption that there would be a prohibition on testimony, and that there was a mis- understanding as to when the time to testify would occur.
Many of us are concerned that these actions will begin to restrict public access to the capitol in an effort to protect the public, staff and legislators. We are proud of how open to the public our capitol is right now, and we do not want to lose that special facet of our government that many other states do not share.
The COVID situation has caused a great deal of concern for the public and government alike. The topics addressed in the extraordinary session were intended to uphold our constitutional structure and to provide confidence and stability going forward. There are many topics that still need to be addressed with the knowledge we have gained thus far, and I am certain the 2021 regular session will seek to further strengthen our response to public emergencies and our state in general.