The first day of Idaho’s special legislative session erupted into chaos before it even began as dozens of unmasked protesters, some of them armed, shoved their way past state troopers to pack the gallery overlooking the state’s House of Representatives.
The clash was a manifestation of the anger and frustration from a vocal minority of far-right Idahoans that has been compounding over the last several months as the state has navigated its reopening amid the pandemic.
The gallery area above the House chamber had limited seating to try to promote physical distancing to prevent the coronavirus from circulating among the public. Idaho has one of the highest rates of COVID-19 cases per capita according to the White House, especially in Ada County, which includes the capital, Boise.
But after the confrontation with state troopers, which resulted in the shattering of a glass door, House Speaker Scott Bedke (R-Oakley) relented, allowing protesters to fill every seat.
“I want to always try to avoid violence,” Bedke later told the Associated Press. “My initial reaction of course was to clear the fourth floor. But we had room for at least some more.”
He told the AP he was more disappointed than surprised at the violence.
“I think we’re better than that. I think that Idahoans expect more out of their citizens.”
The response stands in stark contrast to 2014 when dozens of advocates pressuring lawmakers to pass LGBTQ protections were arrested for standing silently in a hallway, blocking access to the Idaho Senate chamber.
Idaho State Police spokeswoman Lynn Hightower said Monday she wasn’t aware of any pending charges against protesters. On Tuesday, she released a statement, saying, "Idaho State Police personnel determined they could not have made arrests on the spot without elevating the potential for violence," and that an investigation was ongoing into any criminal behavior "that may have occurred."
Protesters later swarmed committee rooms, defacing paper signs meant to leave one empty seat between those in the audience, and laughed at one Democratic state lawmaker who refused to participate in the hearing due to a lack of social distancing.
The group of protesters included supporters of a far-right militia and anti-vaccine advocates who were at the Idaho capitol to blast a proposal that would limit civil liability for businesses, schools and governments and to demand the current state of emergency be lifted.
The bill would also open up these entities to litigation if they don’t follow laws and ordinances, including mask mandates issued by public health districts.
“The insanity of this bill is beyond me,” said Boise resident Pam Hemphill, during a committee hearing Monday afternoon. “We don’t stop our lives, suspend our civil rights and panic each year for the flu.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say more than 176,000 Americans have died due the coronavirus in the first eight months of 2020, compared to an estimated 24,000-62,000 people who died last flu season.
Idaho Gov. Brad Little (R) called the legislature into special session last week to take up civil liability issues, but also due to election concerns from county clerks. They want to be able to count the massive influx of absentee ballots earlier than they can now under state law, as well as have the option to consolidate polling locations to deal with an extreme shortage of poll workers.
The special session is also the result of months of intense pressure and blowback from Little’s own party.
One state lawmaker referred to the governor as “Little Hitler” after he ordered the shutdown of nonessential businesses in late-March. His lieutenant governor, Janice McGeachin, who is elected separately and has ties to militia groups, has openly challenged Little’s reopening push by visiting businesses that reopened earlier than allowed under his plan.
And legislators pressured him to relinquish control over the state’s coronavirus response to regional public health districts, even threatening to come after his executive authority in the future if he didn’t comply.
Still, most Idahoans appear to stand by Little.
State senators overwhelmingly passed two bills related to elections laws Monday, which still need approval from the House. Lawmakers will continue to debate civil liability issues this week.
Follow James Dawson on Twitter @RadioDawson for more local news.
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