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Senate passes legislation to trim Idaho governor’s powers

UPDATED: Fri., March 12, 2021

FILE - In this Friday, Jan. 15, 2021, file photo, the Idaho Senate gathers in the Statehouse in Boise, Idaho. The Senate has approved a new version of a constitutional amendment allowing the part-time Idaho Legislature to call itself into session. Lawmakers voted 24-11 on Wednesday, March 3, 2021, to clear the two-thirds majority needed for a proposed constitutional amendment that now goes to the House, where it will also need a two-thirds majority.  (Keith Ridler)
FILE - In this Friday, Jan. 15, 2021, file photo, the Idaho Senate gathers in the Statehouse in Boise, Idaho. The Senate has approved a new version of a constitutional amendment allowing the part-time Idaho Legislature to call itself into session. Lawmakers voted 24-11 on Wednesday, March 3, 2021, to clear the two-thirds majority needed for a proposed constitutional amendment that now goes to the House, where it will also need a two-thirds majority. (Keith Ridler)
By Keith Ridler Associated Press

BOISE – The first significant piece of legislation aimed at trimming a governor’s powers during declared emergencies while increasing the Legislature’s power cleared the Senate on Friday and is headed to the House.

The Senate voted 27-7 to approve the measure that targets emergency powers during human-made events, such as a terrorist attack.

A companion House bill targets a governor’s authority during natural disasters. Both bills have similar language.

Lawmakers say the coronavirus pandemic showed that the state’s current system is a relic from the Cold War that concentrates too much power in the executive branch.

Should a governor have the authority to declare an emergency “and then, without limitation, ad infinitum, forever and ever maintain that power and overturn the law, declare martial law, and exercise government by the military without ever calling upon the Legislature to consider the issue?” Republican Senate Majority Leader Kelly Anthon asked his fellow senators during debate on the Senate floor. “That is not proper balance of powers as we as Americans know it.”

Idaho governors have substantial authority during declared emergencies, which Republican Gov. Brad Little has used during the coronavirus pandemic.

He issued a temporary stay-at-home order in late March as patients overwhelmed some hospitals and health care workers became sick. Health care facilities feared running out of protective equipment as the illness spread. The lockdown allowed the situation to stabilize and the state to bring in masks and other equipment.

But Little declaring the lockdown angered many lawmakers, especially when he categorized some workers as nonessential.

Little loosened restrictions as infections fell over the summer, but reinstated them as sick patients threatened to overwhelm hospitals again late last year. Those restrictions have all been lifted, and the current statewide precautions issued by Little are now only recommendations.

Little has extended the emergency by simply renewing it every 30 days. He also called on the Idaho National Guard to help deal with coronavirus testing and vaccinations.

The Senate and House bills each allow a governor to declare an emergency and extend it past 60 days, but only to ensure federal funding continues. Both bills would require any restrictions accompanying a governor’s order to expire after 60 days unless renewed by the Legislature.

Republican Sen. Mary Souza said the “bottom line” is that the bill gives the governor “a decent and reasonable window of time to quickly and competently respond to any serious and extreme peril situation that may occur in our state.”

Democratic Sen. Grant Burgoyne noted that the legislation supported by Republicans was caused by a pandemic that many in the GOP consider a hoax.

“This fight against this horrible virus is not over – we still have work to do,” he said. “And in my estimation, this legislation is not equal to the task.”

Opponents of the bill have said the state has to move fast during emergencies, and getting a majority of the 35 senators and 70 representatives together to pass legislation to respond is too cumbersome and slow.

Some 25 pieces of legislation have been introduced concerning the coronavirus pandemic and how the Idaho government should be structured to respond to it and future emergencies. Most of those bills have died, but many others are working their way through the system.

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