There was an elephant in the room during Idaho Gov. Brad Little’s State of the State address Monday and it didn’t take long to emerge.
By Tuesday, House Republicans were on point toward cutting Little — and presumably, all future governors — off at the knees. Senate Republicans followed up with their own version on Wednesday.
They want a say — if not veto — over how Little and his successors respond to future emergencies.
Talk about lousy timing. Not only is a new, highly infectious strain of the coronavirus threatening to transform the COVID-19 pandemic into a more dangerous event while vaccinations lag, but the state Capitol could be a target of right wing domestic terrorism.
That’s not to say Little’s management of the pandemic was flawless.
Certainly, lawmakers are within their rights to question how a governor distributed more than $1.25 billion of federal relief without so much as one legislative appropriation.
But there’s also the fact that Little — perhaps mindful of the howling coming from members of his own party — has been a reluctant leader. After shutting down much of the economy during the early surge, he kicked the can down the road about such things as face mask mandates and whether to allow bars to remain open. It was left to regional and local officials — many of whom lack the ability to withstand a political backlash — to decide.
As a result, the state continues to have one of the nation’s highest rates of positive COVID-19 tests. And its per capita rate of infection — while down considerably since the holidays — still remains half again as high as Washington’s and double that of Oregon’s.
Consider some of the remedies floating around a Legislature that itself refuses to take the pandemic seriously by wearing masks, practicing social distancing or even putting off its business for a month or two to avoid spreading the infection:
l Canceling Little’s emergency order. Little’s budget director, Alex Adams, told Idaho Public Television such a move might shut off the flow of federal dollars paying the lion’s share for such things as deploying the National Guard to support the state’s response to COVID-19.
l Blocking any governor’s ability to keep non-essential people at home in order to stem the spread of infection. If everyone is essential, than nobody is. And how would this affect a governor’s ability to protect children or seniors — who can be most at risk, depending on the nature of a virus?
l Prohibiting the quarantining of healthy people. With so much of the COVID-19 pandemic spread by asymptomatic individuals, how do you know who is healthy and who might spread the contagion?
l Blocking the government from interfering with places of worship. Like it or not, a virus does not respect separation of church and state. It spreads just as easily in a crowded church as it does inside a packed movie theater. Nobody wants to tell a church to close, but what’s wrong with preserving the option to impose some guidelines, such as mask mandates or social distancing?
l Limiting the power of public health districts and local officials. Why would you do that when it was the local officials who filled the void left by Little’s relatively passive response?
It’s not just the effect on public health being contemplated by a Legislature with little regard for science or medical facts.
Idaho has a part-time citizen Legislature with a comparatively small staff. For 60 to 90 days each year, it sets policy. Then it returns home, relying on an executive branch with division of labor and spheres of expertise to implement that policy — or in the case of an emergency, to marshal those resources to meet the challenge.
For the Legislature to second-guess — or even veto — gubernatorial decisions within 30 or 60 days would require a full-time, professional Legislature with substantially beefed up staff resources to keep up.
Lawmakers intend to ask Idaho voters next year to pass a constitutional amendment that will lead toward that end — giving them the ability to call themselves into session, whether the governor wants them back or not.
Some — but certainly not most — Idaho lawmakers might be up to meeting such a challenge. But in the main, they are a group of people who are better at navigating politics and group dynamics than operating a state government in the midst of a crisis.
If you don’t like the job Gov. Little is doing, then get another governor.
But why create a Legislature that will cost more and do more than most people in this small state want?— M.T.