This editorial was published by the Idaho Press of Nampa.
Rep. Muffy Davis, who injured her back in a skiing accident as a teen and now has limited lung function, was left in tears Jan. 15 when the House voted down a motion to allow her to participate in the session remotely.
Rep. Davis, we are not only mourning with you, we are outraged.
The House voted on an 11-49 party-line vote to deny the motion, which would have allowed remote voting only for “a member of the House who has a physical impairment that places them at high risk for serious negative outcomes such as permanent physical damage or death if they were to contract COVID-19.”
In presenting the motion, Davis also gave each House member a letter from her doctor, which notes that her spinal cord injury left her with impaired respiratory function including “a severely diminished ability to cough,” and saying, “Were she to contract COVID-19, this would likely be a life-threatening proposition for her.”
Lawmakers who voted against the motion are putting rules over people. Rep. Kevin Andrus, R-Lava Hot Spring, said he has “sympathy” for Davis but is concerned about suspending rules. The House, however, routinely suspends rules, including those forbidding eating or drinking on the House floor and rules requiring multiple readings of bills.
“Technology is amazing, but there’s so much you get from being in person,” Andrus said. “The non-verbal cues are critical.”
More critical than someone’s health and safety?
Rep. Brent Crane, R-Nampa, defended his “no” vote, telling the Idaho Press, “She took an oath of office, and when she ran for office, she knew what the rules were.”
What a callous response. Here is a woman, your colleague, trying to do her job safely — and in 2021, virtual access is not a big ask. Davis should not have to plead with her fellow lawmakers for this option; House and Senate leaders should be the first in line to make sure this session is as safe as possible for all involved. Instead, leadership has put no mask mandate or social-distancing rules in place for the Capitol, and has refused to give at-risk lawmakers the option to participate remotely — leaving Davis to reluctantly file a lawsuit seeking relief, and next to ask her colleagues to approve a rule change that would let her work remotely.
“People’s health and welfare shouldn’t be partisan,” Davis, D-Ketchum, told the Idaho Press, her voice breaking. “And unfortunately this virus, which doesn’t care whether you’re disabled — it’s affecting everyone all over the world — has become a political pawn.”
In a statement the day of the vote, House Speaker Scott Bedke claimed “the safety of all members of the House of Representatives, staff, and the public in the Statehouse continues to be my top priority.” We see this evidenced only by his words, not his actions.
The vote shows exactly why, during the worst health care crisis in 100 years, the Idaho Legislature cannot be trusted with the keys that determine whether people live or die. If they cannot even respect the life of one of their own, how are they going to respect the lives of ordinary Idahoans they don’t even know?
Republican leadership in the House and Senate are also pushing bills to limit the governor’s authority and increase the Legislature’s power in emergencies.
Problem is, when you have an emergency, such as a flood or fire or, God forbid, a worldwide pandemic, the ability to act nimbly and quickly is vital. Can you imagine having to call back 105 part-time lawmakers so they can debate the best step forward? Would any company operate that way — entrusting urgent decisions to a 100-person committee in the face of an emergency?
We don’t want to see an imbalance of power giving one person, the governor, too much control. But this is the highest position we elect to represent the entire state and entrust with decisive action when disaster strikes.
If the governor needed legislative approval for any emergency spending, it would take weeks. There would be bickering, sideboards, renegotiating and hearings; suddenly, we’re a month into a devastating fire season with no funding and therefore, no relief.
Legislators are absolutely allowed to disagree with Gov. Brad Little’s handling of the pandemic. Our board itself has been critical of some of Little’s actions, or lack thereof. We saw a patchwork of chaos across the state as the governor stood back and let city councils, health district boards and county bodies fend for themselves.
But using the Legislature as a countermeasure to the governor in emergencies is inefficient, costly and puts Idahoans at risk. It does nothing to solve the leadership challenge we saw in our state, and only makes dire situations more chaotic.
Limiting gubernatorial power is nothing but red meat for legislators whose constituents disagree with Little’s actions.
It’s the same partisanship we see at play with 49 Republicans refusing to make a small rule change so people like Rep. Davis can safely represent her district.