As Republican lawmakers seek to limit the governor’s emergency powers through a series of legislative proposals, a battle over governmental authority has broken out in the Idaho Statehouse.
State representatives passed HJR 1, a proposed constitutional amendment and the early focus of those limiting efforts, Thursday on a 51-18 vote on the House floor. All but four Republicans voted in support of the legislation, while all Democrats voted against it.
HJR 1 now moves to the Senate where it would also require a two-thirds majority approval before appearing on the next general election ballot. There it would need to receive a simple majority from voters to pass into law.
The proposed amendment would allow the part-time legislature to call themselves into session within 15 days of receiving 60% legislator approval to return.
Currently, only the governor can call a special legislative session. That fact was a cause for contention when Gov. Little’s emergency declaration and COVID-19 restrictions remained in place much longer than originally anticipated last year.
In that regard, the efforts to curb the governor’s power have been in the works since at least the fall. HJR 1 is but one of a series of legislative actions aimed at that superordinate goal: restore governing power to the state legislature.
Tuesday, the Senate State Affairs Committee voted 7-2 to approve legislation that would end the governor’s coronavirus emergency declaration and restrictions. That move has drawn criticism, and the Idaho Office of Emergency Management director said that could put $20 million worth of federal aid in jeopardy.
A more sweeping attempt to control executive emergency powers is currently on hold after state lawmakers won a small battle in the duel between gubernatorial and legislative authority.
House Concurrent Resolution 2 would lift the governor’s restriction on groups of 10 or more people. Rep. Brent Crane (R-Nampa) presented HCR 2 in the House State Affairs Committee last week where it was approved and sent to the House floor.
Crane said the legislation found its genesis in high school sports, where crowds have been limited to just two fans per player. Those directions came under the authority of the Idaho State Board of Education and the Idaho High School Athletic Association.
Before HCR 2 could receive a full vote in the House, Gov. Little announced he’d instruct the State Board of Education to review those restrictions and said further details would be made public in the coming days.
The House determined to put that legislation on hold until Monday, Jan. 25, giving the governor’s office a small window to make the promised revisions.
In the meantime, the war over Idaho’s lawmaking authority continues on a different front.
During debate on HJR 1 on the house floor Thursday morning, several Republicans expressed frustration about having to tell constituents there was nothing the legislature could do about the governor’s emergency declarations or restrictions. This amendment would put those legislative keys back in lawmakers’ pockets.
Beyond attempts to fix the government’s response to COVID-19, though, Republicans have not been shy about what this sort of legislation would mean in the long-term.
“We are not, and we are not meant to be co-equal branches of government,” Rep. Barbara Ehardt (R-Idaho Falls) said in testimony on the House floor Thursday morning. “The main branch of government is actually the legislative body. Why? Because we have so many more people that need to answer and work together in order to accomplish something.”
Rep. Chad Christensen (R-Ammon) also spoke prior to voting on the amendment. He explained what he sees as the purpose of this legislation.
“The three branches of government should not be equal,” Rep. Christensen said. “Our founders designed it to be that this branch is the most powerful for an obvious reason: the people’s desires and wants and needs.”
While all Democrats voted against the measure, not all disagreed with its premise.
“My one concern is just about it getting out of hand,” Rep. Ilana Rubel (D-Boise) said during debate. “I could see a scenario where we may easily get 60% of people who want to come in, but they may all want to come in for something totally different.”
Rubel said she would prefer to see an amendment requiring a degree of focused legislative priorities, hopefully to make a legislator-called session more productive.