Idaho’s top House Republican does not want to delay January’s legislative session, despite the outbreak of coronavirus in the state.
In an interview with Boise State Public Radio on Thursday, House Speaker Scott Bedke (R-Oakley) said he doesn’t support putting off next year’s legislative session.
“With what I know right now, I wouldn’t vote to delay,” Bedke said. “We have things to do that are timely in nature."
Altering the legislative schedule requires a two-thirds vote of approval by both the House and Senate. That same vote threshold is needed to allow state lawmakers to cast votes remotely.
“I think there’s a lot of momentum with the status quo and I think people will want to operate that way until they cannot,” Bedke said.
States across the country have moved legislative sessions online or have postponed in-person meetings. Wyoming plans to delay the start of its session after a state lawmaker died. His son said he was hospitalized with COVID-19.
Montana lawmakers are allowed to participate remotely, though a panel rejected further restrictions Thursday.
“I would imagine we are going to have members who are going to get sick. It’s possible there will be members that die. But that possibility is there regardless of if we’re here or not,” said Montana Sen. Jason Ellsworth, according to the Associated Press.
Idaho Democratic lawmakers have asked Bedke and Senate Pro Tem Chuck Winder (R-Boise) to reconvene the legislature sometime after April 5 in a letter sent last week.
House Minority Leader Ilana Rubel (D-Boise) and Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett (D-Ketchum) say the move would allow time for more vaccines to be distributed, and for the current winter wave of coronavirus cases to calm down.
“Proceeding with session in a few weeks, indoors, in-person, and with no masking or distancing requirements flies in the face of all public health guidance, sets the worst possible example for our citizens, and would likely contribute substantially to community transmission at a time when our healthcare facilities can least afford to be further inundated,” the two wrote in the letter.
Last week, Gov. Brad Little urged the legislature to “seriously consider” delaying the session or to allow attendance online, according to Idaho Education News.
State lawmakers won’t be required to get a coronavirus test before coming to Boise, Bedke said. There’s no legislative policy in place for how to handle a legislator who gets COVID-19.
“There’s just the manners and the policies of polite society. If you’re sick and you can get somebody else sick, and that could have long-term health implications, yeah, you step back; and I can’t imagine someone not doing that,” he said.
Lawmakers will not be required to wear face masks or get vaccinated.
Access to the legislature remains a concern for members of the public who want to testify on legislation; also for special interest groups who lobby the legislature.
The Idaho Council on Developmental Disabilities, on behalf of 30 other organizations, sent a letter last week to Bedke, Winder, Little and other state leaders. The council’s letter said their members and staff would not be able to safely attend legislative proceedings without additional restrictions or enforcement.
The letter pointed to August’s special session in which anti-vaccine advocates and militia groups, some of them armed, routinely flouted public health measures:
“All Idahoans benefit from the participation of a diverse coalition of people in the legislative process, including individuals with disabilities, disability-rights groups, and family advocates. Enforcing Idaho’s COVID-19 protocols and laws prohibiting private militia activity is necessary to ensure such participation.”
Bedke said new cameras have been installed in committee hearing rooms; previously only audio from the meetings was available.
Upgrades will allow for more remote testimony to be heard during legislative hearings, he said, though it would be at the discretion of committee chairs.
“If that’s not enough, I guess they can take their issues to the court and make their case,” Bedke told the Idaho Press earlier this week.
Lawmakers will reconvene in Boise on Jan. 11.
Follow James Dawson on Twitter @RadioDawson for more local news.
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