The Idaho legislature is moving swiftly to use $4 million in taxpayer dollars to refresh its depleted legal defense funds as Republican leaders face multiple lawsuits claiming they haven’t done enough to ensure the safety of those with disabilities at the state Capitol during the pandemic.
A bill introduced Thursday noted that an “emergency” exists to make that transfer immediately during the current fiscal year.
The Legislative Legal Defense Fund was created in 2012 for top lawmakers to fund any necessary legal expenses for the legislature. It's separate from the state's Constitutional Defense Fund, which has historically paid out opponents' legal fees when it loses in court.
Both the House and Senate manage their legal defense funds separately. The House has no money left in its account, while the Senate has $286,170.
One lawsuit, brought by Reps. Sue Chew (D-Boise) and Muffy Davis (D-Sun Valley), claims House Speaker Scott Bedke (R-Oakley) is violating the Americans with Disabilities Act by not allowing them to vote and participate remotely during the pandemic.
Both lawmakers have health conditions that put them at risk for having severe complications if they were to contract COVID-19.
Republican legislative leaders have declined to implement mask mandates for lawmakers or the public at the Capitol amid the coronavirus pandemic. Many don’t wear them and refuse to practice physical distancing as recommended by the vast majority of health professionals.
Capacity limits in hearing rooms are in effect and air purifiers have been installed in parts of the building. In past statements, Bedke has said Republicans are working toward creating a safe environment for all.
Republican lawmakers have also focused much of their efforts so far this session in stripping away Idaho’s emergency declaration, which could jeopardize up to $24 million in federal funding for vaccine distribution, school districts and veterans’ services, among others.
A resolution that would lift all limits on gathering sizes is scheduled for debate Monday on the House floor. Other proposals include limiting the governor’s authority during an emergency and the ability of public health districts or other state agencies to impose or enforce restrictions on gathering sizes or the practice of religion.
That lawsuit from Chew and Davis is ongoing, though a judge recently declined to immediately intervene on their behalf for several reasons, including the fact that neither objected to the adoption of House rules in December requiring all votes take place in-person.
A second lawsuit by disability rights advocates made similar claims of lawmakers creating a hazardous environment, including the fact that the ability to testify remotely will be left up to those who chair each individual committee.
In their response to the second lawsuit, Bedke and Senate Pro Tem Chuck Winder (R-Boise) said the public can always offer their testimony via email and that they’ve made several accommodations to promote safety.
The proposed $4 million legal funds transfer still needs legislative approval.
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