After weeks of anticipation, Gov. Brad Little made it official Wednesday, convening a special legislative session on Aug. 24.
In a proclamation, Little authorized legislators to work on two topics — the safety and security of November’s election, and civil liability protection during an emergency.
“Special legislative sessions by their very nature are intended to deal with time-sensitive issues that require immediate legislative action and cannot wait until the general session in January,” Little said in a news release.
Liability protection is an important issue for school administrators who said insurance carriers have told them they likely won’t cover costs if someone catches COVID-19 at school and sues.
Little’s proclamation is important because the Idaho Constitution prevents legislators from working on any other issues that aren’t specified in a proclamation. That means legislators will have to wait for January’s regular session to look at school closure authority and funding flexibility. A legislative education working group hoped to take up both issues during the special session, which is officially called an extraordinary session.
On Wednesday, Little said school closure authority and funding flexibility have merit as issues, but do not require immediate legislative action.
Little opened the door to a special session earlier this summer. But he maintained he would only call a session for issues where there was consensus.
“Out of 105 legislators, there’s probably 300 issues,” Little said during an Aug. 4 telephone town hall meeting. “In my mind, that’s a general session.”
Momentum for a special session picked over the past month.
- On July 30, a House-Senate judiciary and rules working group approved a liability proposal for a potential special session.
- On Aug. 5, Little announced he would call a special session during the week of Aug. 24.
- On. Aug. 10 the education working group approved a proposal to take away the power of public health districts to close schools, limiting health districts to an advisory role.
- On Friday, the judiciary and rules working group met again to consider eight amendments to the civil liability proposal. The discussion was all over the map, perhaps offering a preview of the special session.
- On Tuesday, Little curiously softened his tone on a special session, saying he was leaning towards it.
Little didn’t place time limitations on the special session. But his news release noted special sessions are limited by law and recent tradition has limited special sessions to one or two days.
“We owe it to taxpayers to pull off a swift and successful special legislative session. I appreciate the work our legislators put into the proposals for a special session and for their willingness to come to Boise next week and address these issues on behalf of the people we serve,” Little said.
It will be the fourth special session in the past 20 years in Idaho. Previous special sessions took place in 2000, 2006 and 2015.
The special session will begin at 10 a.m. Monday.
Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin took to social media Wednesday to criticize Little for not acting on school closure authority or education funding flexibility.
“Unfortunately, the proposals that will be considered do not include any action on reining in the overreach of public health districts or dealing with education funding,” McGeachin wrote.
“Idaho has more than 300,000 K-12 students whose education and futures hang in the balance,” McGeachin wrote. “Schools across the state are declining to reopen at full capacity and are stranding families without a fully functioning education system even as record-high property taxes continue to pull money away from hardworking Idahoans.”
McGeachin has clashed with Little during the pandemic. At one point, Little told reporters the two had not spoken for about three weeks.
On the other hand, two members of Republican legislative leadership issued statements praising Little.
“We are ready to get to work on safeguarding a free and fair election, one of the major underpinnings of our republic,” said House Caucus Chair Megan Blanksma, R-Hammett. “It is our duty to protect the votes of every Idahoan, and that is exactly what will happen.”
“The proposals we will debate come from the various interim working groups set in motion by Speaker of the House Scott Bedke and President Pro Tempore Brent Hill,” said Senate Majority Caucus Chair Kelly Anthon, R-Burley.
What to expect on Monday
Although things are sure to look different next week, many legislative procedures appear unchanged.
Anyone interested in following the special session can attend in person at the Statehouse or follow the online streaming, just as during regular sessions.
Some additional remote viewing will be set up to allow for social distancing at the Statehouse, Blanksma said.
Public comments will be accepted in person during committee hearings, just as during regular sessions.
But the Legislature’s guidance on masks and gathering sizes will deviate from Central District Health’s public health order for Ada County, which mandates masks in public and prohibits gatherings of 50 or more.
Blanksma (who is also a member of Central District Health’s public health board) told Idaho Education News in a Wednesday email that “masks will be recommended if social distancing cannot be maintained.”
She said the power to set rules for the Statehouse is reserved for the legislative branches.
“The House and Senate are solely responsible for the rules regarding use and activity of their respective bodies within the Capitol according to Article 3 Section 9 of the Constitution,” Blanksma said.
When asked for details on rules and procedures for the special session, Little’s communications director referred questions to legislative leadership.