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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Fight over governors’ emergency powers continues in Idaho, Washington

In this Oct. 1, 2020 photo, Idaho Gov. Brad Little gestures during a press conference at the Statehouse in Boise, Idaho. On Friday, Little said he would veto a bill that would limit executive powers during states of emergency.  (Darin Oswald)

Gov. Brad Little said Friday he would veto two bills that would limit executive powers during states of emergency, the latest attempt by lawmakers across the country to restrict governors during emergencies, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

In an announcement Friday, Little, a Republican, said the bills politicize emergency response and would threaten the safety of Idaho residents and its economy.

The two bills in Idaho would allow the governor to declare a state of emergency, but if it lasted more than 60 days, the governor would have to call the Legislature into session to approve extending it. The governor could extend the state of emergency past 60 days only if it means the continuation of federal funds.

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

Four former Idaho governors issued statements in support of Little’s decision. Little called the bills “irresponsible.”

“Let’s be honest, these bills are an emotional, knee-jerk reaction because of anger about the pandemic and some of my decisions during a very uncertain time last year,” he said.

The Legislature would need a two-thirds majority to override Little’s veto. Republicans hold that supermajority in both chambers.

In a similar move to limit restrictions that became a cause for discussion during the pandemic, the Idaho House of Representatives passed a bill Wednesday to prohibit mask mandates by government entities in the state. It now heads to the Senate.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, almost 300 bills in 47 states have been introduced to deal with legislative oversight of executive authority, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Most are proposals brought forth by Republican lawmakers critical of their executive’s decisions during the pandemic, regardless of the governor’s party affiliation.

In Indiana, lawmakers approved a bill to limit executive powers. Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb vetoed the bill, only to be overridden by the House. It awaits approval in the Senate. In Ohio, the Republican-led general assembly overrode Gov. Mike DeWine’s veto on an emergency powers bill. In the Democratic run New York Legislature, lawmakers passed a measure to limit Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s emergency powers.

In Washington, Republicans tried and failed Friday to bring a debate on a bill that would limit governors’ powers during states of emergency.

The bill, which had previously not made it past the deadline, would expire states of emergency signed by the governor after 60 days, unless the Legislature renewed them. It would also allow the Legislature to end the state of emergency at any point.

House Republicans attempted to pass a resolution to allow the bill to be debated despite having missed its deadline.

“By it’s nature, the legislative body is closest to the people,” bill sponsor Rep. Drew MacEwen, R-Union, said on the floor. “It is vital the people have a voice through the Legislature.”

Republicans had been critical of Gov. Jay Inslee throughout the pandemic, saying he overstepped with his emergency proclamations and refusal to call the Legislature into special session. Inslee on Thursday said he did not think limiting the powers was necessary as the courts have yet to rule that they have been misused. The emergency powers used in the last year saved lives, he said.

“It’s about whether people live or die,” Inslee said. “These things we have done have actually had the impact of saving people’s lives.”

The motion to debate the resolution failed 56-41. Democrats have been less critical of Inslee, and many have said legislators were involved throughout the interim in decisions regarding the COVID-19 pandemic.

Democratic House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, of Covington, said the purpose of establishing cutoff dates is to ensure the Legislature finishes in 105 days. The Legislature is scheduled to finish by April 25.

“Let’s finish that work and not get distracted by this resolution,” Sullivan said on the floor.

Laurel Demkovich's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.