The Idaho people have been through enough during the COVID-19 pandemic.
They don’t need a reckless, unprecedented special legislative session to make things any worse.
Gov. Brad Little can stop it cold.
Little is under pressure to mollify elements of legislative Republicans who have bristled at his allocation of COVID-19-related federal aid dollars along with his decision to shut down part of the economy in response to the pandemic. They want to call some of the shots, but they can’t do it unless the governor exercises his unilateral authority to call them back to Boise.
So the governor has thrown them an olive branch. Little agreed to convene the Legislature on Aug. 24.
Monday, he’ll exercise his discretion to set the agenda.
How broad or narrow is entirely his call.
Therein lies the rub.
Lawmakers want to consider the following:
l A series of tweaks to the election system — such as shorter deadlines to mail out absentee ballots and consolidated election centers in response to an anticipated dearth of election workers.
l Limited immunity from COVID-19-related liability lawsuits for businesses and schools.
l Stripping Idaho’s seven regional health districts of their authority over schools and institutions of higher learning.
What’s unprecedented about this is the sheer scope of the agenda.
Six times in the past four decades, lawmakers have been called back to Boise.
In every case, the sessions revolved around a single issue — not three — and it typically studied a technical solution to an imminent problem, supported by a consensus of lawmakers. Contentious policy issues were left for another day.
In 2000, for example, lawmakers needed a half-day to safeguard the state’s low-cost electricity rates.
Five years ago, they went back to correct their earlier mistake by securing federal funding needed to support the state’s child support enforcement system. That took a little longer, but they were out of the Capitol by the dinner hour.
The exception was 2006, when under the tutelage of then-interim Gov. Jim Risch, Republican lawmakers drastically altered the tax system supporting public schools, leaving them impoverished when the Great Recession struck two years later. For a special session, it was extremely contentious. Risch’s measure passed only after opponents, mostly Democrats, were worn down by a 15-hour marathon.
By permitting lawmakers to pass the liability and health district measures, Little would be repeating Risch’s folly.
These are complicated matters. Altering them in a few hours inevitably will lead to unforeseen consequences.
Liability exists to protect people from the stupidity, negligence or outright recklessness of others. It also serves to discourage government or businesses from engaging in practices they know will land them in court.
Idaho’s health districts possess the know-how and the political will to implement policies to protect the public. Transferring that authority to 114 Idaho school boards would invite chaos. And having been delegated this responsibility by Little’s refusal to implement a statewide standard, it hardly seems fair to strip those panels of their discretion now.
What’s the rush?
Why push these bills to passage in late August, thereby precluding the public vetting and careful deliberation that would come during a regular 90-day legislative session beginning less than five months from now?
Even the legislators responsible for these measures can’t agree.
The judiciary working group behind the immunity package was divided not only among Republicans and Democrats, but also among its House and Senate contingents. At the end, some members — notably House Assistant Majority Leader Jason Monks, R-Nampa — reserved the right to oppose the measure on the floor.
Behind the diminution of public health district authority was a divided education working group. The Senate component split 5-4 while the House delegation voted 11-3 in favor.
Far more popular — and realistic — are the series of election reforms approved by a state affairs working group. Senators on the panel voted unanimously in favor of the changes as did 10 of the 14 House members.
As fodder for a special session, it’s appropriate.
The problem is imminent: Idaho is about to conduct a general election in the midst of a pandemic that shows no indication of slowing down.
The measures have broad support from Ada County Clerk Phil McGrane and his colleagues throughout the state.
The package is specific. It’s a one-time remedy to an extraordinary challenge.
Of course, Little risks further antagonizing his own party in the Legislature with such a narrow agenda. But when it comes to making changes during the summer — when few people are watching closely and even fewer can do anything about it — let the governor be guided by a simple standard:
First, do no harm. — M.T.