Gov. Brad Little said legislators should strongly consider delaying the upcoming session or moving to a remote setting , as coronavirus cases and deaths continue to increase and pressure mounts on Idaho’s hospitals.
Little said he is also considering changing how he delivers the annual State of the State address, which is scheduled to open the legislative session on Jan. 11.
“This (Statehouse) building is a pretty good petri dish for transmissible moments of COVID,” Little told Idaho Education News during a telephone interview Thursday afternoon. “I would advise my separate but equal legislative branch to seriously consider it.”
When asked to clarify what legislators should consider, Little said, “either figure out some way to more remotely do it or postpone it like a lot of our neighboring states.”
Nothing has been finalized regarding the State of the State address, but Little said one option is delivering the speech from Lincoln Auditorium dais, and allowing legislators to watch separately from their House or Senate floor seats or remotely.
Traditionally, all three branches of government cram into House chambers to listen to the annual address.
“Before we get there, if the numbers don’t do something drastic delivery of the State of the State will look different than it has before,” Little said. “The Constitution says I have to deliver the message, it doesn’t say how.”
At a minimum, Little said he does not expect Supreme Court judges and the judiciary to attend the speech in person.
Little isn’t alone in urging legislators to rethink a traditional session. House Minority Leader Ilana Rubel supports delaying the start of the session.
Rubel, D-Boise, told Idaho Education News she was concerned for her and her family’s safety after last week’s organizational session at the Statehouse. Many House Republicans did not wear masks or maintain distance, with some huddling in close groups and shaking hands.
“The best alternative would be to defer the session,” Rubel said. “It’s ridiculous to expose people to this kind of risk or strip them of their ability to basically participate right on the eve of a vaccine coming out. There is no reason we can’t postpone and come back in March or April when (a vaccine is) available.”
Rubel said she was so worried about exposure and transmission of the coronavirus that she isolated herself from her family until two COVID-19 tests came back negative last weekend.
“I was extremely concerned, just being there two days last week,” Rubel said. “I was in a panic, my whole (legislative) caucus was in a panic. I came home and I did not eat with my family.”
Last week the House adopted the same legislative rules that governed the 2020 session, which means legislators would be required to be in their seats on the floor to debate or vote.
Rubel said it would take a two-thirds vote to change the rules to move to a full virtual session. She did not think there were nearly enough votes, leaving deferring the session as the best alternative.
Rep. John Gannon, D-Boise, said it only takes a majority vote in the House and Senate to pass a statute to allow remote voting.
House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, said legislators will try to modify their behavior in the upcoming session, but he won’t mandate masks, require distancing or otherwise tell legislators how to behave.
“There will be no mandate coming from the speaker’s office on basic comportment,” Bedke said in a Dec. 3 interview. “Everyone understands the concept of not spreading germs and they are all adults. ”
So why meet at all?
“The Legislature has a responsibility to carry out our duties here and we will try to modify our processes to accommodate the public and allow them to participate,” Bedke said.
When asked for an example of how legislators would modify their behavior to more safely accommodate public, Bedke said that if someone approaches him wearing a mask, he would reciprocate.
But when asked if the public could expect every legislator to honor that, Bedke emphasized he will not issue mandates or rules.
Last week, signs at the Statehouse advised and requested the public to wear masks and maintain distancing inside the building and while seated in the gallery. But nothing is required.
Democrats wore masks and have Plexiglass placed around their House floor seats. Some Republicans also wore masks during last week’s organizational session. But many GOP legislators did not mask up and some huddled in close groups as they waited to select their floor seats.
Since March, more than 1,100 Idahoans have died of COVID-19. The state set a new single-day record for the number of confirmed and probable new cases Tuesday and then broke it again Wednesday with 2,298 new cases. On Wednesday alone the state reported 29 deaths attributed to COVID-19.
The city of Boise has a public health order in place that mandates the use of masks or face coverings, but the Legislature has the power to set the rules and procedures for members inside the Statehouse.
Boise’s public health order doesn’t apply and isn’t enforceable, a city spokesman said.
“We don’t have jurisdiction over the Statehouse,” said Seth Ogilvie, a spokesman for Boise Mayor Lauren McLean. “The way rules are written, at the Statehouse the Legislature gets to enforce its own rules.”
Rubel said she’s worried about the health and safety of her fellow legislators, staff and anybody else who has to work at the Statehouse.
“It really is a dilemma for us,” Rubel said. “In order to participate and speak on the floor and represent our constituents, we’re being thrust into this very dangerous situation where we are surrounded in an enclosed space with a large number of unmasked people.”
It isn’t just Little and Rubel who have concerns. Rep. Mike Kingsley, R-Lewiston, told the Lewis Clark Valley Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday he keeps hearing legislators will gather for opening day in January, take care of any immediate urgent business and then recess the session for an unknown time, the Lewiston Tribune reported.
“I think that might be a good idea, until the vaccine is out and all of us can get vaccinated,” Kingsley told the chamber delegation, according to the Tribune.
Bedke and Little said the Legislature has invested in technology to help facilitate remote delivery of aspects of the session. Some legislators used video conferencing technology to attend recent interim committee meetings remotely.
The Legislature will also stream the audio from all of its daily committee hearings and make live video of House and Senate floor sessions available as it has in recent years via the Idaho In Session streaming service.
For Idahoans concerned about visiting the Statehouse in-person, Rubel said it will be important for them to email their comments to legislators, watch streams of the meetings and take advantage of any virtual testimony opportunities offered.
This week, Little was extremely optimistic that Idaho could begin receiving its first doses of COVID-19 vaccines as early as next week.
The first round of vaccines is reserved for health care workers and then K-12 school staff, older adults and critical infrastructure workers such as law enforcement.
Senate President Pro Tem Chuck Winder, R-Boise, said he hopes the vaccine would help stabilize things. Winder also said it will be up to his Senate colleagues to choose whether they get vaccinated.
“One of the things I think we can be proud of in Idaho is we have got one of the most flexible vaccination policies; not requiring, not making them mandatory, giving people a way to go through a process to opt out,” Winder said from the Senate floor Dec. 4. “People need to make their personal choices.”
Little said legislative leaders from both chambers and both political parties are engaged in discussions about how to approach the session. Although he has concerns, Little said he will not try to force the issue.
“I’m not going to tell them what to do, and if I did they would probably not take my advice anyway,” Little said