Idaho Legislature pushing through bills — again — to curb governor’s emergency powers

Updated 6:33 p.m. on May 5 after the House approved a fourth bill.

With little debate this time, Idaho lawmakers pushed through four bills to curb the governor’s powers during times of emergencies, on day 115 of this legislative session.

After Gov. Brad Little vetoed two Republican-pushed bills that would have limited actions he could take during disaster declarations, enough senators switched their votes to prevent an override, sinking the measures. Republican leaders rushed to reintroduce them — separating the restrictions into three House bills in the hopes they could garner enough support in the Senate.

Senators approved those three bills in party-line 28-7 votes, while the House approved a fourth Senate bill Wednesday. They will now head to the governor’s desk, and Little will have five days to decide whether to veto the measures once they arrive.

Senate Assistant Majority Leader Abby Lee, R-Fruitland, said in committee that she believes the bills are a “softer and lighter touch” to what leaders wanted to accomplish with previous bills.

Little last month vetoed two bills aimed to curb his executive powers, saying that they would put Idaho residents at risk and prevent any future governors from making decisions quickly in times of emergencies.

“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,” the Republican governor said.

House Bills 391, 392 and 393 would protect the right to assembly for religious reasons; prevent the governor from changing or creating new laws during emergencies; and bar the governor from restricting jobs based on job type or classification.

The House also approved another emergency powers bill in a 48-8 vote Wednesday hours after senators introduced the bill in an unannounced committee meeting.

In addition to protecting the right to assembly during emergencies, Senate Bill 1217 declares that all workers are essential, prohibits the quarantine or isolation of healthy people, and requires that the Legislature extend any emergency declaration that lasts longer than 90 days. The previous version of the bill required the Legislature’s approval after 60 days.

That bill now needs approval from the House.

Senate Majority Leader Kelly Anthon, R-Burley, said that in watching the pandemic response, it was obvious to him that “we can do better” in future disasters.

“The fact of the matter is, we’re given an opportunity to make improvements to code so that future Idahoans, future leaders of this state will have better tools,” Anthon said.