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Gov. Brad Little Vetoes "Ill-Conceived" Bills Limiting Executive Power During Emergencies

Darin Oswald
Idaho Statesman

Gov. Brad Little has vetoed two bills that would constrict executive authority during an emergency and expand legislative powers.

These proposals “threaten your safety and our economy during future emergencies” Little told Idahoans during a video address Friday.

The bills, strongly supported by legislative Republicans, came in response to Little’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

The proposals would only let a governor’s emergency or disaster declaration last for up to 60 days if they impose any restrictions on residents or businesses. Lawmakers could extend these declarations for up to one year after convening in Boise to take up the issue.

“The bills handcuff the state’s ability to take timely and necessary actions to help Idahoans in future emergencies,” Little said Friday.

Disaster declarations for wildfires, rock slides and floods can last for years, though, as the state sorts out the response and how it will be paid for – possibly with federal funds.

If the legislature didn’t extend an emergency or disaster declaration after 60 days, or potentially after the first year, Idaho taxpayers could be on the hook for the bill.

Little also said these proposals violate the separation of powers clause in the Idaho Constitution, which gives each co-equal branch of government distinct responsibilities.

“These prohibitions are necessary to prevent tyranny that can result from absolute power by any one branch,” Little wrote in his veto letter. “But there is also a more practical reason: no branch has the expertise and resources needed to effectively carry out the duties of the others.”

Under the bills, no governor could restrict the ability of people to gather or worship, or to declare certain jobs to be essential or non-essential. The bills would also block the state from telling people where to go during an evacuation.

“This unqualified restriction will complicate efforts to save lives and mitigate emergencies, and will put public safety personnel at risk. The one common denominator of a disaster is that the no-action or slow action alternative is unacceptable and not what our citizens expect and deserve,” Little wrote.

House Republican leaders issued a statement soon after the speech, saying it’s “unfortunate the current governor seems to take the issue so personally.”

“Idaho’s emergency powers laws were stress tested” during the coronavirus pandemic, House GOP leaders said, calling them “outdated remnants of the Cold War era.”

All four of Idaho’s living former governors issued statements supporting Little’s vetoes.

During wildfire seasons, former Gov. Dirk Kempthorne said he was often on the scene with incident commanders who asked him for immediate decisions.

“That is not the time that a Governor should say, ‘I’ll get back to you, I must check with the Legislature,’” Kempthorne said.

Former Gov. Phil Batt recalled handling the 1996 floods in the panhandle, which spanned months.

“Governors need the ability to act quickly during an emergency to protect lives, jobs, and the economy,” said Batt. “That is the proper role of the executive.”

U.S. Sen. Jim Risch, who’s served in the Idaho legislature, as lieutenant governor and governor, said he’s “no stranger to power struggles” between the branches of government. Risch said governors should have the ability to act quickly to address emergencies.

“Such authority should not be unlimited or perpetual, but hampering a governor’s latitude and discretion to act in future unknown emergencies is not in the state’s best interest,” he said.

In a crisis, former Gov. Butch Otter said, “Days and even hours can mean the difference between life and death. An emergency is no time to slow things down.”

Little’s announcement may be in vain – both pieces of legislation passed with enough support in the House and Senate to override Little’s veto stamp. Lawmakers can take up the bills again next week.

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!