Idaho House Approves Curbs On Governor's Emergency Authority

Feb 16, 2021

Rep. Vito Barbieri [R-Kootenai County] was one of 49 House members who voted Tuesday to limit the governor's authority during emergencies.
Credit Idaho Public TV screenshot

The Idaho House took a step Tuesday toward limiting the governor’s authority and extending the legislature’s in managing emergencies, such as Covid.

The body voted 49-to-20 for a bill that requires the governor to terminate a disaster declaration as soon as he or she determines the immediate danger has passed.

It says a disaster declaration or extension cannot last more than 60 days, except for the purpose of collecting federal disaster relief. And it says the legislature, if it is in session, may terminate a governor’s disaster proclamation.

Supporters of the bill, including Rep. Vito Barbieri [R-Kootenai County], say the governor has abused his power in allowing the formal emergency to continue for months.

“It just brings the legislature into the process and, if this bill is vetoed by the gentleman on the second floor, it’s not because it limits the executive powers. It’s because he doesn’t want us in the mix because we are too deliberative, because we are too ponderous, because it takes time for us to make a reasoned decision. But isn’t that how reasoned decisions are made?” he said.

Supporters of the bill say the disaster declaration has forced businesses and schools to close and caused economic hardship.

Its sponsor, Rep. Jason Monks [R-Meridian], said his bill is not a direct response to the governor and his actions. He says it’s a reaction to what legislators have learned during the pandemic.

“We’ve been in this for over a year, coronavirus. Actually it’s been longer than that, if you really want to know the truth. It’s been here a lot longer. We’ve lived through it. What better time to do a debrief and find out where we were lacking?" he said. "If we would have tried to do something like this last year, in April if we were sticking around a little bit longer in the legislative session, yeah, I would agree that that’s probably not the appropriate time.”

Monks’ bill received push back from Democrats and a handful of Republicans, including Rep. Scott Syme from Caldwell, who says he likes some of what the bill represents.

“My real concern is that we are now looking to become a full-time legislature because of different emergencies that are declared and I just am really against that," he said.

That’s a concern shared by Rep. Ilana Rubel [D-Boise]. She says the governor is better equipped to handle fast-breaking situations, such as emergencies.

“It’s really hard for 105 people to come together in a truly urgent situation and come up with a direction to act in that moment. 105 chefs in the kitchen in the case of a raging flash flood or forest fire I think could potentially endanger people of Idaho in terms of our ability to act rapidly and unidirectionally in a way that’s required in an emergency," she said.

The bill now moves to the Idaho Senate.

Governor Little has reacted negatively to calls by legislative leaders that he immediately end the state’s emergency status. In a statewide address on January 22, he argued the declaration is necessary to access federal help at a time when it’s distributing Covid vaccine to communities around the state. He says the formal declaration allows Idaho to access federal help. Ending it would jeopardize that and potentially require the state to spend its own money to buy vaccine.

He urged Gem State residents to contact their legislators and get them to ease the pressure on the governor’s office. House Republican leaders responded by calling his comments “inflammatory.”