Large crowds of protestors and onlookers descended on the Statehouse Monday as legislators convened for the first day of a rare special session.
The House and Senate met in person to address three issues that Gov. Brad Little outlined when he called the special session, which is officially referred to as an extraordinary session.
- Lability protection during an emergency, such as the coronavirus pandemic.
- Absentee voting.
- In-person voting.
The Legislature didn’t complete the process of passing any bills Monday. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Winder, R-Boise, estimated the season could run into Wednesday.
Once legislators settled in, a handful of other issues emerged from the scrum. Rep. Steven Harris, R-Meridian, pushed House Concurrent Resolution 1, which is designed to repeal the state’s coronavirus emergency declaration that Little originally announced in mid-March. Harris said he believes his approach carries the effect of law — and concurrent resolutions, unlike bills, are not subject to a gubernatorial veto.
The House State Affairs Committee voted to advance Harris’s concurrent resolution Monday evening, garnering cheers and applause from the audience.
Overall, the House State Affairs Committee introduced four different liability protection or immunity bills. One would provide liability protection for schools and businesses. Another would only provide protection for K-12 schools, colleges and universities but not businesses. A different proposal that would have not given any liability protection to schools died in committee.
Liability protection is an important issue for school administrators, who said insurance carriers told them they will likely not cover costs if someone catches COVID-19 at a school and sues.
Even though many of the procedures were the same as a regular session, Monday looked, felt and sounded totally different than your average day at the Statehouse pre-pandemic.
Hundreds of protestors and onlookers filled the House seating gallery and packed committee hearing rooms. Many were not wearing masks or maintaining social distancing, which deviates from the public health order in place for Ada County.
Some members of the crowd, along with the Idaho Freedom Foundation, opposed one of the liability protection bills. During a late afternoon hearing, public testimony ran overwhelmingly against the liability protection bills.
Many also voiced their opposition to Little for enacting a stay-home order and other restrictions in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus.
“We the people are tired,” said Ammon Bundy, a rancher who helped lead an armed occupation at an Oregon wildlife refuge in 2016. “We are tired of government force and we will only take it for so long. I recommend you act wisely because we will not live in fear.”
Some people screamed at legislators, “You work for us,” they said. “This is our house.”
“We are allowed to get sick if we want,” Nampa resident Robert Jones said.
Many disobeyed legislators and capitol security officers attempting to limit group sizes. When members of the crowd who didn’t have a seat refused to leave, it prompted nearly an hourlong delay in starting a meeting.
Before the House even gaveled into session, a crowd of protestors swarmed the seating gallery and broke a glass door above the House chamber, Betsy Russell of the Idaho Press reported. Rep. Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, posted a video of guards attempting to hold back a charging group of protestors.
Rep. Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise, excused herself from the House State Affairs meeting, citing safety concerns as a large crowd packed the Lincoln Auditorium, the Statehouse’s largest meeting space.
“This is not social distancing,” Wintrow said.
“This is the problem. We are here to do the business of the state. I am here to represent my constituents. But I won’t do it in an unsafe manner.”
Members of the crowd immediately reacted loudly, with some booing and jeering Wintrow. The outbursts led House Judiciary, Rules and Administration Committee Chairman Greg Chaney, R-Caldwell, to slam his gavel down in anger and demand decorum.
In a message posted to twitter Monday evening, Chaney thanked Idaho State Police and Boise Police for providing security.
He wrote “it may be the diciest day in (Idaho Legislature) history due to repugnant and inexcusable behavior.”
The crowds were so large and loud that anyone listening to the online streaming coverage of the meetings could clearly hear screaming and cheering coming from Statehouse hallways.
The session will reconvene Tuesday. The House announced plans to go back on the floor at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday. The Senate is due back at 10 a.m.
This is the fourth special session in the past 20 years. Previous special sessions took place in 2000, 2006 and 2015.
Idaho Education News Reporter Sami Edge contributed to this report and took all the photos from the Statehouse.
This is a breaking news story. Check back with Idaho Education News for updated coverage.