BOISE – The Republican-dominated House on Wednesday voted to override GOP Gov. Brad Little’s veto of a measure seeking to curb a governor’s power to respond to emergencies like the coronavirus pandemic.
Lawmakers voted 48-19 to attain the two-thirds threshold needed to override the veto and send the measure to the Senate.
Its fate in the Senate is uncertain as lawmakers there on Monday opted not to override a veto of similar legislation to curb a governor’s emergency powers. It’s not clear when the Senate will have an override vote on the bill from the House.
Supporters of the measures said the governor has too much power during emergencies. Opponents said the Legislature shouldn’t have emergency authority because it would be too slow to act during a time of crisis.
The coronavirus pandemic spurred the legislation, with lawmakers in Idaho and several other states taking aim at rules intended to stem the spread of the virus, like limiting gatherings and nonessential travel.
Idaho lawmakers were especially incensed that Little imposed a statewide stay-at-home order last spring that limited gatherings, including church gatherings, and classified some workers as nonessential to try to reduce infections and deaths as hospital systems neared collapse.
Republican Rep. Brent Crane argued the two bills limiting a governor’s emergency powers were to “ensure that constitutional rights were never limited, were never temporarily suspended for the greater good.”
“I am extremely disappointed that that happened in our state,” he said. “And our citizens expect our action to protect their constitutional rights and to ensure that this never ever happens again.”
Little imposed the restrictions at a time when infections were spiking and there was no vaccine or therapy to help those who contracted COVID-19. About 185,000 Idaho residents have been infected with the virus, and more than 2,000 have died. Those numbers have slowed as more Idaho residents received the coronavirus vaccine, with some 430,000 residents now fully vaccinated.
Not all Republicans agreed with curbing the governor’s emergency powers. Republican Rep. Scott Syme said the Legislature was operating on emotion due to the pandemic.
“Making decisions based on emotion is never good,” he said. “Reasoned decisions are what we should always be making.”
Republican Rep. Fred Wood said none of his constitutional rights were threatened, in part because his religious belief system agreed that the coronavirus was deadly and that it could be spread with gatherings.
“Now my life was (threatened), in some manner,” he said. “I’m not a spring chicken anymore. I have some underlying medical conditions. So should I have happened to contract COVID-19, I don’t know what would have happened. May not have had much of a problem, or I may not be here today. But the fact is, that’s where the real threat came from.”
Republican Rep. Chad Christensen, who sought to have the governor impeached following the stay-home order, argued to override the veto.
“My constituents had their lives overturned,” he said. “Business shut down. Couldn’t go to church. Their God-given rights restricted because of this overreach.”
Democratic Rep. John Gannon said the fact that it took months to craft the bill showed the Legislature couldn’t act with the speed needed during an actual emergency.
“It’s a structural problem,” he said. “Legislatures aren’t designed for executive action.”
Both bills would allow a governor to declare an emergency and extend it past 60 days, but only to ensure federal funding. Both would require any restrictions accompanying a governor’s order to expire after 60 days unless renewed by the Legislature.
They also would prevent a governor from imposing some restrictions. A governor’s emergency order couldn’t prevent people from going to work or gathering, including for religious services. An order also couldn’t quarantine healthy people.
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