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Idaho Legislature approves bill to curb governor’s emergency powers

April 9, 2021 Updated Fri., April 9, 2021 at 10:07 p.m.

By Hayat Norimine Idaho Statesman

BOISE – Idaho legislators took one step closer to stripping the governor of some emergency powers and placing it in their own hands.

Senators on Friday approved a bill that changes Idaho’s State Disaster Preparedness Act to grant more powers to the Legislature.

Under the new law, the governor would still be able to declare emergencies and deploy the Idaho National Guard. But after 60 days, any disaster declaration expires unless the Idaho Legislature chooses to extend it with a concurrent resolution. The governor can also extend emergencies beyond 60 days for the “sole purpose” of receiving federal funding or resources for the declared emergency.

House Bill 135 passed with a 25-10 vote in the Senate and a 49-20 vote in the House – enough support to override a veto by the governor.

Proponents said the bill balances the powers between the executive branch and the Legislature. Critics said it goes too far and restricts Idaho’s ability to respond to an emergency.

Senate Majority Leader Kelly Anthon, R-Burley, said the pandemic showed disasters that require “all hands on deck.”

“They require, and I believe Idahoans deserve, that in those moments, the full array of our elected officials … be brought to Boise to deal with those issues,” Anthon said on the Senate floor Friday.

The Idaho governor would need to call the Legislature into session to extend a disaster declaration under the new law. A joint memorial, if passed by a supermajority in the Senate and approved by voters in 2022, would allow legislators to call themselves into a special session.

Sen. Jim Guthrie, R-McCammon, who voted against the bill, said the Idaho Legislature operates slowly and deliberately by design. That’s not the right process to apply to emergencies, he said.

“There is a time to be deliberate, and there is a time that we need to be able to be nimble,” Guthrie said.

Constitutional law experts: Resolution can’t lift emergency declarations

Opponents also pointed to concerns over whether a concurrent resolution could act as law by removing an emergency declaration. Several constitutional law experts told the Statesman it could not.

Sen. Fred Martin, R-Boise, opposed the measure and brought up an opinion by the attorney general’s office that a resolution can’t lift a disaster declaration.

Martin said it was ironic that the Legislature wants to restrict the governor’s ability to respond to an emergency, when senators all agreed with House members on a recess to protect themselves against a COVID-19 outbreak.

“He did that to protect our fellow citizens, their lives and health,” Martin said, referring to the governor. “A couple weeks ago the good body across the rotunda decided that because of health and safety of its members, that we needed to recess to stop what we were doing to protect life. … So here we’re both attacking the governor for doing his job to protect Idahoans, and we’re willing to do things to protect us.”

Sen. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, said he doesn’t know whether legislators are trying to change behavior or make a statement with this bill.

“We cannot micromanage the governor,” Burgoyne said. “We cannot micromanage the executive branch of government from this Legislature, and we shouldn’t try. It doesn’t work.”

“It is about a remedy”

Supporters of the bill said they need to respond to loud cries from the public.

Assistant Majority Leader Abby Lee, R-Fruitland, said the bill was not a statement. She said the bill will have a chilling effect on any “unnecessary” restrictions on Idaho residents beyond 60 days. Residents have no recourse for those restrictions, Lee said.

“For me, this is about the future, and it is about a remedy,” Lee said. “We all got the phone calls, we all got the pleas. … We are ensuring that if citizens are restricted, we’ve got a remedy in all areas of our statutes.”

But Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, said local jurisdictions should have the ability to make emergency response decisions without relying on the Idaho Legislature.

The Legislature’s not nimble enough to respond to local disasters and shouldn’t get involved in local communities’ decisions, she said.

“I just really worry that, what if all the sailors … go in different directions when the ship goes down?” Stennett said.

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