The state will spend $1.24 million to allow lawmakers to work remotely — for the rest of the year, and perhaps during the 2021 session.
But Gov. Brad Little’s budget director conceded that the idea has drawn backlash — from teachers who questioned why the state is enabling lawmakers to work remotely, while pushing to reopen public schools.
The money comes from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, a $2 trillion stimulus package passed this spring. Legislative leaders requested the $1.24 million in CARES Act money to upgrade Statehouse technology, and revamp the way lawmakers work during the continuing global pandemic.
The goal is twofold, Legislative Services Office Director Eric Milstead told a gubernatorial panel Wednesday. First, the upgrades would enhance safety during the pandemic. Second, the upgrades would better allow Idahoans to observe the legislative process from outside the Statehouse — and perhaps allow remote testimony, which lawmakers have tried out in past years on an experimental basis.
“We’re driving towards that as a distinct possibility,” Milstead said.
No one testified for or against the proposal Wednesday. But Alex Adams — the head of Little’s Division of Financial Management, and the chair of Little’s committee overseeing CARES Act spending — said he had heard from teachers who questioned the plan.
Milstead suggested the plan has been misunderstood. Legislators cannot use the money to buy computers that would allow them to work from home. And lawmakers will likely work from within the Statehouse, practicing social distancing by logging in from their offices or meeting rooms.
However, the plan clearly allows for legislators to work from outside the Statehouse.
“Currently, we anticipate a hybrid (2021) session, with most legislators participating from within the building, but a percentage participating remotely,” Milstead said in a July 7 letter outlining the request.
Little’s Coronavirus Financial Advisory Committee approved the request unanimously, and added $20,000 to it. Rep. Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise, requested the money for closed captioning, and the committee signed on.
The Legislature plans to put the upgrades to work before 2021, for legislative interim committees and working groups this summer and fall, and for new member orientation and the organizational session after the November election.