BOISE, Idaho -- The Idaho Legislature on Wednesday wrapped up a chaotic, three-day special session by passing coronavirus-related legislation while anti-government activist Ammon Bundy was arrested for the second day in a row at the Statehouse.
Lawmakers on the last day of the session called by Republican Gov. Brad Little approved legislation intended to smooth the counting of what is expected to be a surge of absentee ballots for the November election.
Lawmakers in both the House and Senate also approved and sent to the governor legislation intended to shield businesses, schools and government entities from lawsuits if someone catches COVID-19.
“I think this bill is important for Idaho’s economy to get back on track,” said Republican Rep. Caroline Troy.
The bill overcame some late trouble when the attorney general’s office issued an opinion saying the bill’s language was so broad it could negate a current Idaho law and allow price gouging by businesses during a declared emergency.
The legislation also carried a sunset clause rendering it null on July 1.
“This is an important piece of legislation, particularly for our schools,” Republican Sen. Dean Mortimer, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, said in urging the bill’s passage.
Lawmakers earlier in the special session approved a measure forbidding elections limited to mail-in ballots only. Little and Republican Secretary of State Lawerence Denney made the May 19 primary an election with absentee ballots and no in-person voting due to the coronavirus. But some lawmakers felt Little and Denney went too far.
Another bill specifically cited by Little in calling the part-time Legislature back into session failed. It involved creating voting centers to allow greater opportunity for in-person voting for the November general election amid the pandemic. Election officials say they’re facing a shortage of poll workers fearful of working during the pandemic.
But the House passed a resolution urging Little to use some of the federal coronavirus rescue money to pay poll workers more.
The Senate passed a resolution expressing its desire to end Little’s emergency declaration made in March as the virus entered the state. Little initially issued a stay-at-home order, but that expired at the end of April, and most businesses are now allowed to open.
Idaho saw an increase in infections as businesses opened. Johns Hopkins University reports that Idaho through Tuesday had nearly 31,000 infections and 336 deaths.
The House also passed what’s called a concurrent resolution aimed at ending Little’s declared emergency. But the Senate rejected it as being outside the scope of the special session, and therefore unconstitutional.
Both chambers are expected to pursue more substantive legislation when they meet again in January to reduce the authority of the governor during declared emergencies.
The liability-shield law went through multiple iterations and was the target of Bundy and his supporters.
On Monday, angry protesters not wearing masks forced their way into the Idaho House gallery that had limited seating because of the coronavirus pandemic, the window of a glass door shattering as protesters jostled with police. There were no arrests.
On Tuesday, more than 100 protesters shouted down and forced from the room lawmakers on a committee considering the liability-shield bill. Bundy was arrested for trespassing when he wouldn’t leave the room. Two others were arrested at the same time for the same reason.
Bundy returned to the Statehouse on Wednesday despite a year-long ban after the trespassing arrest. Idaho State Police quickly arrested him a second time and removed him from the Senate gallery. Protests calmed following the arrests, which coincided with a much larger police presence in the Statehouse.
The 44-year-old Bundy led the 2016 occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon as a show of support for state rights, planning to dissolve the federally-managed refuge. He and others were ultimately arrested, ending the 41-day occupation. But he was acquitted of all federal charges by an Oregon jury.
The Idaho liability legislation he viewed as an unnecessary intrusion by the state caused by a hoax pandemic. Bundy is a supporter of Black Lives Matter, and he supports defunding police to limit what he said has become a police state.
Gov. Little has given no indication that he would veto the legislation heading for his desk.