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Idaho House Signs Off On Bill Limiting Governor's Emergency Powers

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James Dawson
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Boise State Public Radio

Idaho House Republicans’ latest attempt to reign in a governor’s power during an emergency is headed to the Senate.

During a declared emergency, a governor couldn’t restrict gatherings or declare certain jobs to be nonessential under the bill, which passed 49-20 Tuesday.

The bill backed by most House Republicans would cap an emergency declaration at 60 days, unless extended by the legislature. Lawmakers could further extend it up to a year. It could also be extended by the governor solely for the purposes of receiving federal disaster aid.

“This provides clarity and it provides protections and it allows the state to respond to emergencies,” said House Assistant Majority Leader Jason Monks (R-Nampa).

Legislation like this has been a top priority for Republicans who have made it no secret they strongly disagree with Gov. Brad Little’s handling of the pandemic.

The proposal wasn’t scheduled to be taken up Tuesday. House Republican leaders asked to suspend rules to consider the bill.

During debate, Rep. Vito Barbieri (R-Dalton Gardens) downplayed the coronavirus pandemic.

“A pandemic to me, at my age, was a lot of people dying and we didn’t see that,” Barbieri said.

As of Tuesday afternoon, more than 1,800 Idahoans and more than 486,000 Americans have died due to COVID-19. That’s more than the number of U.S. combat-related deaths in World War II and Vietnam combined.

In December, the Idaho Department and Health and Welfare said COVID-19 was Idaho’s leading cause of death in November.

Preliminary data released last month shows COVID-19 to be the third-leading cause of death statewide in 2020, even though Idaho didn’t report its first death related to the coronavirus until late March. Only cancer and heart disease ranked higher.

Barbieri’s comments echo Rep. Heather Scott’s (R-Blanchard), who said late last month, “The pandemic is over.”

Eight Republicans joined all 12 Democrats in voting against the bill.

Rep. Scott Syme (R-Caldwell), noting that he didn’t have time to prepare his remarks, said he feared what this legislation could bring.

“My real concern is that we are now looking to become a full-time legislature because of different emergencies that are declared,” Syme said.

State emergency declarations are typically issued for natural disasters like earthquakes, floods or wildfires.

When these disasters happen, House Minority Leader Ilana Rubel (D-Boise) says getting the legislature involved could ultimately slow down the state’s response time.

“105 chefs in the kitchen in the case of a raging flash flood or forest fire, I think, could potentially endanger the people of Idaho in terms of our ability to act rapidly,” Rubel said.

House lawmakers have tried to pass similar bills, but those were abandoned due to constitutional concerns.

State senators will choose whether they’ll take up the issue next.

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

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