As we face a global pandemic and the resulting economic fallout, Idahoans may have been hopeful about the legislature’s recent special session. Since the pandemonium at the Statehouse dominated the news, Idahoans may still be wondering what was actually accomplished. The answer, unfortunately, is not much.
Republican legislators spent most of the time pandering to the far right, and the only really substantive legislation enacted was actually harmful. We left all of our urgent challenges unaddressed. The Idaho legislature did not shield schools from funding cuts, make coronavirus testing more accessible or timely, reduce property taxes for homeowners, get our economy back on track, or resolve any of the other challenges that Idahoans are facing. In fact, the only helpful action that the legislature took was incredibly modest—a bill that gives county election officials a little extra time to process absentee ballots.
The most notable harmful legislation rolled back basic protections from gross negligence. House Bill 6 gives corporations and other institutions a pass when it comes to protecting people from contracting coronavirus.
Earlier versions of the legislation asked businesses to act in good faith and follow local health orders in exchange for immunity from liability. When Republican legislators objected to these safety precautions, the compromise was blanket immunity for all, even in the worst cases. This bill gives businesses permission to defy local orders, reject safety protocols outright, or be egregiously sloppy when it comes to protecting workers, customers, and the community. Even when a business commits extreme negligence, harmed Idahoans no longer have the right to seek redress.
The AARP, representing Idaho seniors, spoke out forcefully in opposition to this bill, explaining that Idahoans who live in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities need more protection, not less during this pandemic. The AARP also decried that lawful, constitutionally guaranteed protections are stripped by this bill.
This legislation is a solution to a non-existent problem. Six months and over 30,000 cases into this pandemic, no one can point to a single frivolous lawsuit (or any lawsuit at all) in Idaho about coronavirus transmission. Idaho already had robust restrictions against unnecessary lawsuits, and our existing laws squarely protected those who should be protected from lawsuits. If businesses are acting in good faith to follow the law, they need not worry.
Under this new law, there is a huge risk that someone with a legitimate case could be harmed and left without recourse: a health aide who isn’t given proper equipment or a resident of a nursing home without any infection-prevention protocols. There is also a risk that businesses are more likely to have sloppy safety protocols now that the legislature has removed accountability. Our right to seek redress is protected in the U.S. Constitution and the Idaho State Constitution. This virus shouldn’t change that.
The other disappointment was the long frivolous debate about an unconstitutional resolution to end the state’s emergency declaration. This would not make COVID-19 go away, but it would take away our ability to draw much-needed FEMA funds to buy PPE for schools, nursing homes, etc., shifting the burden to already struggling Idahoans to pay for these critical resources. We face dire economic and budget outlooks and should be leveraging every dollar available to help our state fight against this virus. House Republicans used the debate to bemoan the powers vested in the executive branch by the Idaho State Constitution rather than reveal how ending the emergency declaration would solve any problems for Idahoans. The resolution sailed through the House, but was fortunately rejected by cooler heads in the Senate.
Now is the time to come together with the goal of protecting our fellow Idahoans from a terrible virus so that we can get our economy back on track, get our kids back at school, and return to doing the things we miss. This ‘special’ legislative session not only missed the mark, it was aiming at the wrong target.