BOISE — The Idaho Legislature on Wednesday wrapped up its longest ever session, one dominated by COVID-19 that entered into numerous speeches, new laws and some lawmakers.
The Legislature took a five-month break before returning Monday for three days that saw a final spasm of three dozen pieces of legislation. The bills mainly centered around COVID-19 vaccines and mask mandates.
But the only one to make it through both chambers was a non-binding declaration stating opposition to President Joe Biden’s vaccine requirements for federal workers and contractors and vaccine requirements for large employers and health care employers.
Idaho is involved in three lawsuits against the requirements, and Biden on Wednesday suspended the requirements for large employers, which had been put on hold by a federal court.
The House approved seven bills in all, but a Senate committee held hearings on only three of them on Wednesday before voting to kill them, effectively ending the session at 311 days.
“I think everybody is just trying to figure out a very complicated situation,” said Republican Senate Pro Tempore Chuck Winder after the committee hearing. “Trying to protect the rights of all the individuals, and it’s not an easy thing to do.”
Typically, the part-time Idaho Legislature meets for about three months starting in January. But the 2021 session stretched into May and included a two-week recess due to a COVID-19 outbreak among lawmakers in the House.
After lawmakers returned to Boise, the House chose not to formally adjourn in May so it could return and deal with millions of dollars in federal pandemic relief money if needed. Republican House Speaker Scott Bedke then summoned House members to the Statehouse this week to deal Biden’s vaccine requirements. The Senate, though it did adjourn in May, also showed up.
Normally, only the governor can summon the part-time Legislature back to the Statehouse after adjourning. The Idaho attorney general’s office said the Legislature reconvening was likely legal, but was unprecedented and a court could decide otherwise, making any laws passed null. However, no laws were passed in the last three days.
Winder and Bedke said versions of the vaccine legislation killed by the Senate committee on Wednesday could return when the Legislature meets for its 2022 regular session in January.
“We think some of these concepts are important, but the testimony we heard was they need some amendments,” said Winder, who is a member of the committee that killed the bills.
Bedke said the two chambers would need to increase cooperation, "and that's how we'll solve these types of issues, including property tax, education policy and set the budgets. Plus there's that little matter of $1.4 billion surplus.”
Lawmakers will return on Jan. 10 for the 2022 regular session, and the state's record budget surplus will be a key focus.
Democratic House Minority Leader Ilana Rubel said she was happy the session had wrapped up.
"I think the best we could hope for out of this session was to get out of it without damaging legislation passed, and so, all in all, I think we largely accomplished” it, she said.
Of the bills killed by the Senate committee Wednesday morning, one involved making it easier for Idaho residents to get worker compensation if they become ill after taking an employee-mandated vaccine. Another bill would have prohibited questioning the sincerity of people claiming religious exemptions from vaccinations. The third bill would have prevented employers from asking employees whether they have received the COVID-19 vaccine.
Lawmakers opposed to the legislation said Idaho already has laws the three bills involved, and that even if passed, the remedy would remain in the courts, not the Legislature.
The lawmakers also noted Idaho is involved in three federal lawsuits against Biden’s vaccine requirements, and legislation is premature until those cases are decided.
Republican Rep. Brent Crane, chairman of the House State Affairs Committee, supported the three bills and testified in the Senate committee. After the meeting, he said he appreciated the Senate panel holding a public hearing on the bills with testimony that went over three hours.
“I also thought it was very productive," he said. "For the businesses sitting in here to realize the Legislature is serious about protecting First Amendment rights. Stop doing what you're doing and punishing people because of their religious beliefs. I think that message was sent loud and clear by the Senate State Affairs Committee today even though they didn't advance the legislation."
Lawmakers have said that workers are losing their jobs for refusing to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
The House on Monday censured Rep. Priscilla Giddings, a Republican from White Bird who publicized the name of a 19-year-old intern who reported she was raped by another legislator. Giddings was also stripped of a committee assignment for the 2022 session.