Idaho House passes resolution designed to repeal limit on gatherings

Rep. Barbara Ehardt, standing, leads off debate over HJR 2 on Monday. Screenshot courtesy of Idaho In Session.

The Republican-led Idaho House comfortably passed a resolution Monday that aims to void the limits on gathering sizes established by Gov. Brad Little’s Dec. 30 public health order.

House Joint Resolution 2 is one of more than 10 proposals legislators have introduced in the early days of the legislative session as a showdown over separation of powers escalates.

The cap on attendance at high school sporting events was a big talking point when HJR 2 surfaced last week.

Since then, Little and the State Board of Education modified the state’s athletics plan, allowing schools to expand spectator limits to 40 percent of a gym’s capacity. Most other public and private gatherings are restricted to a 10 person limit under Little’s  Dec. 30 Stage 2 Stay Healthy Order.

Legislators who backed the resolution say partially expanding capacity at sporting events isn’t enough.

“Thankfully on Friday we got 40 percent of our First Amendment rights back,” said Rep. Brent Crane, a Nampa Republican who co-sponsored HJR 2. “We are sending a very clear message that we want 100 percent of our First Amendment rights back.”

“Make no mistake this is absolutely about more than sports and always has been,” said Rep. Barbara Ehardt, an Idaho Falls Republican and another co-sponsor.

Rep. Fred Wood, a Republican from Burley and a retired physician, was one of three Republicans to vote against the resolution.

“The ability to limit people gathering is one of the significant tools that we have to limit the spread of communicable diseases and to eliminate that tool completely I think is inappropriate,” Wood said.

During the debate, many Republicans downplayed or diminished the coronavirus pandemic and said the state is sacrificing too many freedoms in its efforts to combat the coronavirus.

“We have 1,600 deaths, which are nowhere close to a pandemic,” Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, said.

“The pandemic is over by all means of data,” Scott added.

According to the state’s data, 320 Idahoans have died of COVID-19 in the past month, since Christmas Eve.

Several Republicans, many of whom do not wear a mask when they gather in a group of 70 on the House floor, said Idahoans are smart enough to make their own decisions.

“Let people use their own common sense,” Rep. John Vander Woude, R-Nampa said. “If I invite somebody to my house and they feel uncomfortable, they don’t come.”

Vander Woude added that he broke the state’s gathering limit “a few times over Christmas.”

HJR 2 passed 55-12, with three House Republicans joining the 12 Democrats in opposing it. GOP Reps. Scott Syme, R-Caldwell, Dustin Manwaring, R-Pocatello, and Wood voted against the resolution.

HJR 2 heads next to the Senate. Because it is a resolution, not a full bill, it would not need to go to Little for his consideration if the Senate adopts HJR 2. Crane previously said it is unclear whether the resolution would affect local governing bodies, which have tailored their limits and guidelines to Little’s order. Crane called it an unanswered question last week.

Charter funding hearing moved to Tuesday

The House Education Committee pushed its hearing over a charter school funding bill to Tuesday.

House Bill 22 is designed to remove a cap on funding increases for charter schools experiencing rapid growth. The situation applies to Idaho Virtual Academy and Idaho Connections Academy, who both experienced rapid enrollment grow during the pandemic, said lobbyist Suzanne Budge, who brought the bill forward.

While statewide K-12 enrollment dropped this year, charter schools added thousands of students.

Chairman Lance Clow, R-Twin Falls, is co-sponsoring the bill and said he wants to put the bill on a fast track so the virtual charter schools do not miss out on funding this school year.

The committee initially planned remote public testimony over the bill on Monday.

Last week, the committee announced it would hold a hearing with remote public testimony on Monday. Clow talked about that schedule twice, saying the public would need to go the Legislature’s website and register in advance to provide any testimony.

Over the weekend, Clow emailed Idaho Education News and said the hearing will now take place Tuesday because he “did not understand the timing required up and down the calendar through the floor.”

Anyone wishing to testify Tuesday still must go to the Legislature’s website in advance to register for a spot to testify, whether they plan to testify remotely via Zoom or in person at the Statehouse.

Tuesday’s hearing begins at 9 a.m.

Clark Corbin

About Clark Corbin

Reporter Clark Corbin has covered Idaho government and education for more than a decade. He’s followed every legislative session, gavel-to-gavel, since 2011. Clark is a co-host of the Extra Credit podcast with Kevin Richert published on Fridays. You can follow him on Twitter: @clarkcorbin. He can be reached by email at [email protected]

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