Analysis: The 2020 Legislature goes from surreal to scary

The Idaho Statehouse is a scary place these days. That isn’t hyperbole or humor.

That’s science.

While pandemic grips the world and COVID-19 cases surface in Idaho — wreaking havoc on  commerce and community events and shuttering schools across the state — it’s business as unusual at the Legislature. Lawmakers are passing bills. Killing bills. Honoring student pages. Socializing after hours.

And working in close quarters.

It’s surreal — but scary is a better word.

The legislative session, which continues Wednesday, defies two of the key guidelines health experts recommend in hopes of slowing the coronavirus: practicing social distancing and avoiding large groups. In fairness, the rules are changing quickly. Behaviors that were commonplace two weeks ago — and certainly were when the Legislature opened its session on Jan. 6 — now seem reckless. But the decision to stay in session imposes hard choices on every lawmaker, and every Idahoan who cares about any bill on the docket.

Full disclosure: I have decided to cover the rest of the session remotely. I’m doing most of my work from our office, where our six employees have dedicated offices and workspaces and can spread out. I’m watching the proceedings through Idaho Public Television’s invaluable live streams.

It’s not optimal. But I’d sooner compromise access than compromise public health. My only regret is that I didn’t decide to do this earlier in the outbreak.

Certainly, lawmakers are cognizant of the crisis.

On the policy end, they are pivoting, approving a $2 million coronavirus spending bill and contemplating how a pandemic-driven downturn could affect the economy and the demand for government services.

On the logistical end, legislative leaders are pushing to pass this year’s budgets so they can adjourn, and perhaps finish business Wednesday. However, this has not prevented House Republicans from killing a string of spending bills, slowing the pace of the session and forcing budget-writers to redo the higher education budget bill twice.

And to be sure, lawmakers are certainly talking about the coronavirus. Which isn’t always a good thing.

Responding to Centers for Disease Control recommendations on group gatherings, Rep. John McCrostie took to Twitter. “I’m thinking the House (Republican) caucus should meet more often,” said McCrostie, D-Garden City, the House’s assistant minority leader. “You know, for strategy purposes. Yeah, that’s it; strategy purposes.”

That drew a pointed response from Rep. Greg Chaney, R-Caldwell. “So to make sure I’m understanding your inference correctly … you want the 56-member (caucus) to meet more frequently to increase the probability of contracting a potentially deadly virus. Is that what you’re saying?”

“Not a death wish, but point taken,” said McCrostie. “Def wish others in your caucus took #COVID19 more seriously.”

McCrostie did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

For another reaction to the CDC guidelines on group gatherings, here’s Rep. Megan Blanksma, R-Hammett, the GOP’s caucus chair and a board member for Central District Health.

“OK enough,” she tweeted Sunday. “This is not the plague. Stop treating it as if it is. Wash your hands and act like responsible humans.”

Two days later, in her capacity in House leadership, Blanksma co-signed a news release outlining the Republicans’ “proactive steps” to combat coronavirus — from emphasizing hand-washing to expediting budget bills to allowing attaches and staff to work from home or “end employment early” before the end of the session.

Blanksma says her tweet and her news release made the same point.

“So many people have got alarm bells going and are only looking at national releases and ignoring local advice,” she said in an email to Idaho Education News Tuesday. “Currently, our situation in Idaho involves confirmed cases of folks that have returned from traveling. So far we have not experienced community spread as other locations have. If and when that happens, the precautions and protocols change.”

Regardless, at least three lawmakers have decided to call it a session: Sen. David Nelson of Moscow; retiring Sen. Maryanne Jordan of Boise and Rep. Steve Berch of Boise. On Tuesday, Berch wrote on Facebook that he is monitoring the legislative endgame from home.

“I have a family member whose immune system is significantly compromised,” he wrote. “As a precaution — and in accordance with the advice of credible health and public safety experts — I have suspended meeting with large groups of people.”

For what it’s worth, Nelson, Jordan and Berch are all Democrats. I don’t pretend to be an expert in infectious disease, but I’ve seen nothing that suggests COVID-19 differentiates based on political ideology. We’re all in this together.

Let’s juxtapose what’s happening at the Statehouse against what is unfolding in public schools and college campuses across the state. By Idaho Education News’ count, the majority of Idaho’s 115 school districts have closed, or are getting ready to close. A majority of Idaho’s K-12 students are home. Idaho’s higher education system is turning online and on a dime.

School administrators are in an almost impossible bind, dealing with a crisis and an overload of input. From frightened parents and staffers. From the Idaho Education Association, which has pushed for a statewide closure. From Gov. Brad Little, who did not call for a statewide shutdown. Even the CDC’s signals are mixed — the CDC has cautioned against closing schools too early, while also cautioning against gatherings of more than 50 people.

Idaho’s education system has by and large opted for a shutdown, to try to halt community spread of the coronavirus. And they’ve done so even though, based on the body of science, coronavirus appears to pose less of a risk to children or young adults.

We’re all confronting an invisible and unforeseen threat. I can’t imagine the gravity of the decision facing education leaders — or legislative leaders.

And yet, as the House closed its Tuesday session, Rep. Dorothy Moon, R-Stanley, stood up to invite her colleagues to an end-of-session after-hours gathering at the Basque Center. The invite came about five hours after Little fielded questions at a teleconference town hall with AARP Idaho members, and urged “significant social distancing” to flatten the coronavirus curve. And less than an hour after the Republican news release, which said lawmakers were staying out of crowded rooms as a precaution.

Yet it’s business as unusual at the Legislature.

A few days ago, that would have been surreal. We’ve moved straight into scary now.

Each Thursday, Kevin Richert writes an analysis on education policy and education politics. In the interest of timeliness, this week’s analysis is running Wednesday.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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