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Idaho Lawmakers Cap Off Special Session By Passing Civil Liability, Elections Bills

The Idaho State Flag hanging inside the Statehouse Rotunda.
James Dawson
Boise State Public Radio

After a tumultuous three days, Idaho lawmakers have passed a bill limiting civil liability for businesses, schools and others related to the coronavirus.

It took hours of testimony throughout the week, which was at times interrupted by protesters, before the proposal could even be debated by lawmakers. Troopers arrested four people over the course of three days, including twice arresting anti-government activist Ammon Bundy.

The civil liability bill went through six different versions before being approved.

Gov. Brad Little had directed lawmakers to work on such a measure during the special legislative session, which would protect businesses, schools and local governments from civil lawsuits if someone said they contracted COVID-19 there.

Most Democrats, including Sen. Grant Burgoyne (D-Boise), opposed it. He said that it goes against a lesson he was taught as a young child.

“If you break it, you fix it. It’s so obvious even a child gets it and when we grow up, what do we call it? Accountability and responsibility,” Burgoyne said.

AARP Idaho, which represents older Idahoans, also came out in opposition to the proposal. More than half of the 337 deaths due to the coronavirus in the state have occured at long-term care facilities, which the group says should be liable for any negligence.

But Sen. Todd Lakey (R-Nampa) said the bill will give peace of mind to those that are covered, including public schools.

“Of course, our schools are primarily focused on the education of our children, but this is in the back of their mind and this will help provide some comfort to them and, from my perspective, hopefully reopen sooner,” he said.

Public health districts, as well as federal and state governments, are not included among protected entities.

The vehement opposition to the bill by protesters suddenly dissipated Wednesday night, despite many protesters having testified against it earlier in the day.

That could be because one part of the proposal was removed that would’ve yanked immunity for businesses if they didn’t follow public health mandates, like mask orders.

Earlier in the day, state senators also passed a bill that would require Idaho voters to always have the option to vote in-person if they chose. That’s in addition to another measure that will let county clerks to count absentee ballots earlier than previously allowed.

But the two chambers were at a stalemate when it came to trying to lift Idaho’s state of emergency over the pandemic.

House lawmakers overwhelmingly passed a resolution to do so Tuesday, saying residents had had enough of government restrictions imposed upon their businesses and personal lives, though the resolution would not have invalidated local or regional mask and social distancing orders.

Instead, the senate never took up that resolution, but drafted their own, which lays out a roadmap they intend to follow when lawmakers return to Boise in January.

Those priorities include:

·      Declaring every working Idahoan “essential” during an emergency

·      Amending the state constitution to allow the legislature to call itself back into session in limited circumstances

·      Limiting the duration of an emergency declaration without lawmaker approval

·      Curtailing the governor’s executive authority during an emergency

·      A prohibition on quarantining healthy individuals

·      Ending any order barring residents from attending religious services

·      Reviewing the authority given to public health districts

Both the civil liability and absentee ballot bills now head to the governor’s desk for his signature.

Follow James Dawson on Twitter @RadioDawson for more local news.

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I cover politics and a bit of everything else for Boise State Public Radio. Outside of public meetings, you can find me fly fishing, making cool things out of leather or watching the Seattle Mariners' latest rebuilding season. If you have a tip, please get in touch!