Idaho’s 66th Legislative Session begins today, and it won’t be like any other.
Gov. Brad Little’s State of the State address will be delivered at 1 p.m. and held remotely from a Statehouse auditorium. Normally the governor delivers the speech on the House floor with all three branches of government present.
The public will be able to watch at the Capitol in person, but there will be social distancing measures and capacity limits. Virtual streams of the meetings will be available on Idaho Public Television.
From coronavirus restrictions and Capitol security, to basic transportation and education funding, Idaho lawmakers will have their hands full. Here are just a few of the biggest issues state legislators will be addressing in the coming months.
GOV. BRAD LITTLE’S EMERGENCY POWERS, CORONAVIRUS RESTRICTIONS
Expect state legislators to debate whether to strip some of the governor’s executive powers around an emergency.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Winder said legislators will also consider changes that would allow them to start a special session rather than wait on the governor. Idaho law currently states only the governor can call the Legislature into a special session. Some state legislators also want to remove local health districts’ ability to create restrictions due to a public health emergency. Winder said they will consider legislation that would have county commissioners — elected officials —make those decisions and have health districts play more of an advisory role.
“I think there’s good support for it,” Winder said Friday.
One bill would allow all employees to be considered “essential,” which would allow anyone to work and all businesses to remain open during the pandemic.
“We have a piece of legislation that says all workers are essential,” Winder said. “Therefore they’re not subject to have their businesses close down. They have the right to work and to make a living.”
CAPITOL SECURITY IN BOISE
State officials provided Idaho State Police with $350,000 for more security at the Capitol using federal coronavirus relief aid. The additional funding would be enough to provide eight troopers for security detail 40 hours a week during the session.
Some legislators have expressed fears about crowd control challenges after the special session in August, in which unmasked angry spectators broke through glass when they couldn’t enter the House of Representatives.
The insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday only stoked more speculation that statehouses could be a target for violent mobs. In Washington state, Jay Ulfelder, a fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, told the Associated Press that some far-right groups saw the U.S. Capitol insurrection as a recruiting tool. Ulfelder has said he fears those groups are now energized and could threaten people in statehouses.
“We’re asking the public to allow us to do our work and not to interfere with that, but we also have an obligation to allow the public to participate,” Winder said.
The Capitol won’t be on lockdown or require masks, but on Thursday, two Democratic state legislators with compromised immune systems sued House Speaker Scott Bedke over ADA accommodations, asking for self-contained office space and the ability to work remotely due to the coronavirus.
Rep. John Gannon, D-Boise, expects there to be additional legislation proposed on statehouse security.
IDAHO’S $630 MILLION SURPLUS, TRANSPORTATION NEEDS
Idaho now has a surplus of $630 million, said Alex Adams, head of the governor’s budget-writing Division of Financial Management. What the state does with the money is up for debate.
State legislators will push for all kinds of tax relief this session. As Idaho residents are being priced out of their homes due to rising property taxes, pressure is mounting on lawmakers to lessen the burden.
Adams said the governor intends to propose the surplus also be used for major infrastructure improvements. But Little still plans to “play it safe” given the state of the economy, Adams said. Winder said part of the surplus will likely be used to beef up rainy day funds.
“You’ll see pretty substantial investments in infrastructure — specifically roads, bridges and water infrastructure,” Adams said.
A Boise State University study recently concluded that Idaho has nearly a $242 million a year transportation gap just to keep up with its current infrastructure, the Idaho Press reported.
David Adler, director of the Andrus Center for Public Policy, said transportation improvements are “badly needed” in Idaho.
“If you’re going to spend one-time money, that’s a great area to address,” Adler said. “This is the year to do that.”