BOISE — The 2021 Idaho legislative session ground to a halt Friday morning, as a flare-up of COVID-19 infections prompted the House and Senate to approve a two-week recess.
Lawmakers will return to work April 6. All bills will hold their place until then.
“We’re hitting pause, not erase,” said House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley. “Nothing dies.”
At least six lawmakers tested positive for the virus this week, along with a handful of legislative staff and attaches. All of them were asymptomatic. Consequently, even though the session was perhaps a week away of wrapping things up, Republican leaders decided a break was in order.
“When you run the numbers and do the contact tracing from those six (cases), the numbers grow geometrically pretty quick,” Bedke said. “So out of an abundance of caution, to break the cycle, we adjourned until April 6.”
The move caught some staff and lawmakers by surprise. The joint budget committee was supposed to take up several budget bills, but the meeting was canceled shortly after its scheduled 8 a.m. starting time.
Other morning committee meetings were canceled as well, although the House Education Committee met long enough to introduce three new bills.
The House floor session convened at 10:30 a.m., and lawmakers quickly approved a motion to recess.
The Senate followed suit about a half-hour later. Senate Majority Leader Kelly Anthon, R-Burley, said the action was taken to honor a request from the House.
“For government to properly function, both houses need to be here,” he said. “As such, after receiving the request from the House, we decided to honor it.”
A total of 80 bills are still awaiting action in the Senate, along with 68 in the House. Other bills reside in various committees, and at least some new bills will be introduced once lawmakers return.
The joint budget committee, for example, still has to approve several trailer appropriations bills, as well as a new fiscal 2022 budget for the attorney feneral’s office. House Republicans killed the AG’s original budget on a 40-29 vote.
Other unfinished business includes a $369 million tax cut proposal, a $67 million transportation funding plan and several bills designed to rein in the governor’s emergency powers and address the balance of power between the executive and legislative branches.
“None of these things will be left undone,” Bedke said. “This just hits pause. The calendars, the committee agendas, all of the bills will be here when we get back. We still have important work to do.”
The to-do list could also include some issues opponents thought they’d successfully killed. In particular, Bedke mentioned Senate Bill 1108, a property tax relief bill that died in the Senate on Thursday on an 18-17 vote.
“Health concerns are what’s driving this recess, but there could be some ancillary benefits as well,” Bedke said. “The Senate wasn’t able to pass the property tax (bill), so this may give us time to work that out.”
House committees, however, will not be conducting any business during this recess.
“Look at it like a long weekend,” Bedke said. “Committees don’t meet on weekends.”
Democrats offered best wishes for a speedy recovery of their COVID-positive colleagues — all of whom are Republicans — and expressed gratitude for the two-week break.
However, they also said “it shouldn’t have taken an outbreak for lawmakers to start addressing the seriousness of the coronavirus.”
“We can’t help but be disappointed in how bad things have become at the Capitol, when we could have prevented this from becoming a hot spot all along,” noted House Minority Leader Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, and Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, in a joint news release. “We’re just so sorry it took so many people getting sick for us to act. We must do better when we return.”
Bedke said he has “no regrets” about how the House conducted itself. He also made it clear he doesn’t intend to mandate face masks after lawmakers return.
Given that many legislators have rented houses or apartments through the end of March, Bedke said they will continue to receive their $139 per diem pay during the recess.
“We didn’t want to be overly disruptive in their personal lives or personal budgets,” he said.
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