Analysis: Lawmakers wish away a pandemic

 

Pandemic? What pandemic?

Many lawmakers who assembled in Boise this week declared the coronavirus crisis over — that is, if coronavirus ever really posed a crisis in the first place.  They agreed, by overwhelming majorities, that the time has come to lift Gov. Brad Little’s coronavirus emergency declaration, which has been in place since March 13, the day the state reported its first virus case.

On Wednesday — 166 days later — Idaho’s coronavirus case numbers are showing signs of slowing, but are still approaching the 31,000 mark. The COVID-19 death toll stands at 337, and has doubled since July 28. Meanwhile, public schools and colleges and universities across Idaho are struggling to open their doors to students, or provide classes online.

House Speaker Scott Bedke speaks to reporters Wednesday.

During a three-day session that ended Wednesday night, lawmakers rebuked Little and delivered a message that defied public health experts. And in an almost-end-of-session news conference Wednesday afternoon, House Speaker Scott Bedke struck a reflective tone. “I’m very aware of all the numbers you cited.”

But Bedke knows a thing or two about staying on message, and he rallied quickly. To him, and to many lawmakers, it’s a question of legislative powers. The emergency declaration has remained intact with no real legislative oversight. The state carved up $1.25 billion in federal coronavirus funding, and the Legislature as a whole had no say in the decisions. Gov. Brad Little and Secretary of State Lawerence Denney decided to “manipulate” the election, Bedke said, ordered a delayed, vote-by-mail spring primary.

So on Tuesday, Bedke took the rare step of leaving the speaker’s chair to debate from the House floor — pushing to rescind the emergency declaration, and warning that the Legislature was at risk of allowing itself to become a “junior branch” of state government.

The House sided with Bedke, by a 48-20 margin. That means 48 of the House’s 56 Republicans signed on to a resolution that said, in part, “There is no longer a need for a statewide emergency declaration.”

The Senate didn’t act on the House-passed resolution, after the attorney general’s office questioned its constitutionality. But senators passed their own resolution, raising similar concerns about the Legislature’s role and pushing to rescind Little’s declaration.

In this turf war between the executive and legislative branches, the emergency declaration became the flashpoint for frustration. Even though the declaration itself has nothing to do with many facets of pandemic life:

  • Frustrated about facemasks? You need to take it up with local governments or health districts — or the businesses that enforce mask mandate, with varying degrees of diligence. Little’s declaration doesn’t require anyone to wear a mask.
  • Fed up with virtual school? The state isn’t ordering schools to go online. That decision rests with your local school board.
  • Yearning to debrief at a bar, after this week’s special session? Understandable. But Ada County’s bars are closed, under health district order. Again, not the governor’s call.

But the emergency declaration qualifies the state for federal coronavirus aid — some $117 million, said Rep. Brooke Green, D-Boise. That’s one reason why House Democrats and a handful of Republicans voted to keep the declaration intact.

But this runs deeper than a wonky debate over legislative powers and federal dollars. At a troublingly visceral level, a number of lawmakers seemed to wish the virus away.

Rep. Steven Harris, R-Meridian, the sponsor of the House’s resolution, conceded that the first few days of the pandemic were a “scary time.” But the state’s hospitals are nowhere near capacity, he said, and that was the whole goal of flattening the curve. Said Harris in debate Tuesday, “We have a much better understanding of what’s going on.”

What’s going on includes nearly 2,500 confirmed and probable coronavirus cases in Meridian alone, and a school district that delayed its opening and will start classes online.

On Wednesday, Rep. Barbara Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls, asserted that coronavirus numbers are down. But on Wednesday, the Eastern Idaho Public Health district reported 1,653 confirmed and probable cases in Bonneville County, a number that has doubled since Aug. 4. Idaho Falls remains on a White House list of coronavirus hotspots, as reported Wednesday by Ehardt’s hometown paper, the Post Register.

Rep. Julianne Young — the first-term Blackfoot Republican who played a key role in crafting the civil liability law designed to protect businesses and schools — turned her floor debate into an appeal for open doors and normalcy.

“The people of Idaho are tired,” she said. “They’re tired of having everything unusual.”

Fact check: True. Idahoans are definitely tired.

And extra exhausted Thursday, after an alarming special session that made national news for all the wrong reasons. For protesters who stormed their way into what was supposed to be a socially distanced Capitol gallery Monday — bringing a mob mentality to Idaho’s revered “People’s House.” For the reliably recalcitrant Ammon Bundy, who parlayed two arrests into a one-year Statehouse ban. I covered much of this session remotely. In the time I spent at the Statehouse this week, though I quickly picked up on a mood that was perceptibly tense, moreso than other recent sessions.

In a way, and by trying to wish the virus away, some legislators seemed to echo the constituents who brought firearms, fears and frustrations to the Statehouse.

And if you’re exhausted now, rest up for January.

The Senate’s resolution might actually be more impactful than the House’s version. It spells out a long list of legislation for 2021: limits on the duration of emergency declarations; legislation that could limit health districts’ powers to close schools; checks on a governor’s spending authority during an emergency. And more.

And a promise that Little will work with the 2021 Legislature to rescind the emergency declaration.

Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg

On Wednesday, in probably his last floor debate after 20 years in office, the avuncular Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill walked through the to-do list and revealed Little’s pledge to lawmakers.

“We’re putting everyone on notice on what we plan to do,” said Hill, R-Rexburg, “and how we plan to do it.”

Plans are great. But this one comes with no asterisks, no consideration for changing conditions. The emergency will be an emergency no more, no matter what.  

Still, can anyone in the Statehouse accurately predict conditions four months from now? Exacerbated by flu outbreaks, will a second coronavirus wave grip Idaho? Will schools be able to safely welcome back students after the holidays? Will there be COVID-19 vaccines on the market or on the horizon?

Legislators have plans.

So do pandemics.

Each week, Kevin Richert writes an analysis on education policy and education politics. Look for it every Thursday.

 

Kevin Richert

About Kevin Richert

Senior reporter and blogger Kevin Richert specializes in education politics and education policy. He has more than 30 years of experience in Idaho journalism. He is a frequent guest on KIVI 6 On Your Side; "Idaho Reports" on Idaho Public Television; and "Idaho Matters" on Boise State Public Radio. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KevinRichert. He can be reached at [email protected]

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