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Legislative review: Legislature takes a break amid COVID-19 surge
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Legislative review

Legislative review: Legislature takes a break amid COVID-19 surge

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State of the State address goes virtual

People hold American flags Monday, Jan. 11, 2021, outside the Capitol building in Boise. Governor Brad Little gave his State of the State address later that afternoon virtually.

BOISE — Amid a surge in COVID-19 cases in the Capitol, the Legislature voted Friday to pause the legislative session for a few weeks.

At least six members of the House — including Rep. Lance Clow, R-Twin Falls — tested positive within the last week. As a result, both the House and Senate briefly gathered in their chambers Friday morning to recess the session until April 6.

Prior to the Senate vote, Majority Leader Kelly Anthon, a Republican from Burley, said senators should use the time to prepare for the issues the Legislature will pick up when it returns in April. He specifically mentioned the lawmakers needing to figure out how to spend the $2.2 billion the state recently received from the federal government in COVID-19 relief money.

In addition to addressing this funding, Anthon said the Legislature will need to deal with tax cuts and transportation issues when it reconvenes.

“We will use this time productively for the Idaho people so that when we come back together on April 6 … we will be ready to work quickly,” Anthon said.

In a joint statement released after the votes, House Assistant Minority Leader Ilana Rubel and Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett said they are thankful for the decision but that lawmakers should have treated COVID-19 more seriously earlier session.

“We hope our colleagues are able to heal quickly and return, so we can finish the session,” the Democratic lawmakers said in a statement. “But we can’t help but be disappointed in how bad things have become at the Capitol, when we could’ve prevented this from becoming a hot spot all along.”

The lawmakers didn’t specifically say in their statement what changes they would like the Legislature to make when it returns, but they did note that the Capitol is fully equipped with remote capabilities. Near the beginning of the session, the House rejected one lawmaker’s attempt to participate in the session remotely.

Keeping August elections

School districts will be able to continue holding elections in August after a Senate committee killed a bill that would have removed the summer election date.

The Senate State Affairs Committee unanimously voted to prevent House Bill 106 from moving forward during its meeting on Wednesday. The House passed the bill in February with a 45-24 vote.

Deputy Secretary of State Jason Hancock told the committee that eliminating the August election date would give county election officials throughout the state more time to maintain voter registration lists and complete election system updates.

Under existing law, there are four election dates in the state with one in each of March, May, August and November. Hancock said the secretary of state’s office proposed eliminating the August date because it is the most lightly used. For the most part, only school districts run elections on this date.

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But Quinn Perry, policy and government affairs director for the Idaho School Boards Association, said this date is important for districts seeking supplemental levies, which districts throughout the state have become reliant on as a key source of funding.

“To yank a tool from school districts when these election dates have become an unfortunate part of funding and operating our schools feels completely unfair to us,” Perry said.

Legislators agreed and voted to keep the August date as an option for school districts. President Pro-Tem Chuck Winder, R-Boise, said that it’s partially the Legislature’s fault school districts have to hold supplemental levy elections.

“I think this is a symptom of a problem we have in Idaho,” Winder said. “Symptom of the fact that we probably don’t appropriate money properly for our schools. I won’t say it’s criminal that we have to have supplemental levies, but it’s pretty close to that.”

Abortion heartbeat bill

The Senate State Affairs Committee moved a bill forward on Wednesday that would ban abortions in Idaho once a fetal heartbeat has been detected. This can happen as early as six weeks after conception.

The bill does include some exceptions including cases of rape or incest. However, to quality for these exceptions, the act of rape or incest must be reported to a law enforcement agency. A copy of the report must then be given to the physician who is performing the abortion.

Blaine Conzatti, executive director of the Family Policy Alliance of Idaho, presented the bill to the committee. He said that 12 states in the U.S. have passed similar bills.

“This heartbeat bill gives Idaho the opportunity to join the ranks of those other states in protecting the lives of preborn citizens,” Conzatti said.

Almost all of the public testimony the committee heard was from people in support of the bill. However, a few people testified against the bill, saying it didn’t go far enough in preventing abortions from taking place in the state.

President Pro-Tem Chuck Winder said he would like to see an end to all abortions, but that’s not possible under the the existing court system.

“I wish I could, with a stroke of the pen, get rid of Roe v. Wade,” Winder said.

Following the hearing, after the committee voted to move the bill forward, several organizations opposed to the ban released statements claiming they weren’t given the opportunity to testify against the legislation. Lauren Bramwell, policy strategist with ACLU of Idaho, said the “hearing undermined state legitimacy.”

“This was not a public hearing — it was an echo chamber,” Bramwell said in the statement. “The chair allowed testimony from numerous people affiliated with the same anti-choice clinic, but refused to hear testimony from organizations including Add the Words, Planned Parenthood and the ACLU of Idaho.”

Help is on the way, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer declared from the Senate floor on Saturday, moments after the Senate passed the American Rescue Plan, a comprehensive COVID relief package championed by President Joe Biden.When the bill passes the House and is signed by President Biden, the average American making $75,000 or less will receive a stimulus check for $1,400. Individuals earning up to $80,000 a year or couples earning $160,000 per year will receive reduced payments.Unemployed Americans will receive an additional $300 a week from the federal government on top of their state unemployment check, a credit which was set to expire this week but now will last until early September.Families with children will also see additional tax credits increased, from the customary $2,000 per year per child to $3,000 per year for children aged 6-17, and $3,600 for children under 6. Additionally, cities and states will be given money to distribute housing assistance, including $30 billion to help families afford rent and utilities, and $10 billion in mortgage payment assistance for homeowners.For companies, there will be additional Paycheck Protection Program funding and $25 billion going to the restaurant industry, aiming to cover payroll, rent and utilities for restaurants still struggling to get by. Not in the deal, however: a $15 per hour minimum wage, though Democrats vow to keep pushing. We didnt get the votes for that, Schumer told reporters over the weekend, but were going to keep fighting for it.The American Rescue Plan is expected to pass the House as soon as Tuesday and head to the presidents desk for a signature before the end of this week. Eligible Americans could receive $1,400 direct deposits as soon as later this weekend or early next week. 

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