Former House Speakers: Legislature endangering Idahoans

By Melissa Davlin, Idaho Reports

On Wednesday, former Speakers of the House Bruce Newcomb and Congressman Mike Simpson released a joint statement condemning the Idaho Legislature’s recent attempts to curb the Idaho governor’s ability to declare emergencies and issue public health orders. The opinion piece was the latest in the public fight over COVID-19 mitigation efforts and legislative versus executive powers in the state.

“We both held the position of Speaker of the Idaho House of Representatives. We understand the constant disagreement that occurs between members of the Legislature and especially between members of the same political party,” Simpson and Newcomb wrote. “We understand the disagreement that occurs between the legislative and executive branches.”

“However, a crisis is not the time to dismantle the Governor’s ability to respond quickly during an emergency. A crisis is the time to lead,” they wrote.

In their op-ed, Newcomb and Simpson said efforts by lawmakers wouldn’t just affect the current COVID-19-related emergency declaration, but future declarations in response to fires, floods, and other disasters.

“The Governor needs to make decisions quickly during an emergency. That is one of the proper roles of the executive. The emergency declaration is the Governor’s main tool to act quickly and save lives during a crisis,” they wrote. “Days and even hours make the difference in a life and death situation. Fires, floods, and earthquakes wait for no one. Only executive-speed decision-making can get families the immediate help they need in an emergency.”

Lawmakers have introduced a number of resolutions and bills this session in response to Gov. Brad Little’s COVID-19 response, ranging from placing time limits to future emergency declarations to attempts to end the current declaration entirely.

On Wednesday morning, Sen. Steve Vick, the sponsor of a resolution to end the emergency declaration without affecting federal funding, asked the Senate to send the resolution back to committee, effectively killing that version. Vick said his intent was to end Stage 2 restrictions on businesses while maintaining FEMA funds that help with vaccines, PPE, and other COVID mitigation tools. The resolution “probably does neither of those things,” Vick said.

Senators had heard this during committee testimony on the resolution last week; Director Brad Richy of the Idaho Office of Emergency Management told members of the Senate State Affairs Committee that their concerns over business closures and group size limitations had nothing to do with emergency declarations, but with public health orders — something not addressed in the resolution. Richy also told lawmakers that regardless of their intent, ending the emergency declaration would likely cost the state millions of dollars in federal funding and National Guard deployment to help with vaccine distribution.

Still, senators passed the resolution out of committee.

Attempts by lawmakers to end the emergency declaration prompted Gov. Brad Little to decry their efforts in a statewide televised address on Jan. 22, prompting House Republicans to fire back in a statement decrying his “inflammatory comments.” 

“The life-altering concerns revolving around the COVID-19 emergency continue to be in the front of our minds,” wrote Rep. Megan Blanksma, House Majority Caucus Chair, in a statement. “Our members are working on various forms of legislation to help the state on its road to the recovery that Idahoans have been demanding for months and we call on the Governor to work with us in this process.”

The full op-ed by Simpson and Newcomb is below.

Idaho Legislature’s actions on emergency declarations endanger Idahoans

By Congressman Mike Simpson and Bruce Newcomb, Former Speakers of the Idaho House of Representatives

Boise, ID – “The Idaho Legislature’s attempts to strip not just our current Governor but any future Governor of their ability to lead during an emergency is wrong for Idaho and endangers the lives of Idahoans.

“We both held the position of Speaker of the Idaho House of Representatives. We understand the constant disagreement that occurs between members of the Legislature and especially between members of the same political party. We understand the disagreement that occurs between the legislative and executive branches.

“However, a crisis is not the time to dismantle the Governor’s ability to respond quickly during an emergency. A crisis is the time to lead.

“The Idaho Legislature’s reckless and careless attempts to end the COVID-19 emergency declaration and weaken Idaho’s response in future emergencies puts this generation and future generations of Idahoans at risk. 

“Emergency declarations are very common. At its core, an emergency declaration allows states and local communities to access federal assistance – our taxpayer dollars – in the event of a crisis. Sometimes those crises and their aftermath last a few weeks and sometimes they last months or years, as in the event of a devastating flood, earthquake, landslide – or a pandemic.

“The COVID-19 emergency declarations are wholly separate from the public health orders that limited certain activities to protect lives and prevent our hospitals from being overrun with patients all at once. 

“In the immediate days and weeks ahead, ending the COVID-19 emergency declaration would slow down the vaccine rollout. Hospitals would lose access to critical equipment and staffing resources. It would jeopardize the state’s ability to tap the Idaho National Guard to assist with vaccine administration, testing, and support for foodbanks and medical facilities. Financial support for small businesses would end. It would burden local communities – the entities that requested the emergency declaration to begin with. It would limit the state’s ability to remove regulatory barriers that stand in the way of better healthcare access for our citizens. 

“But Idahoans also need to know that the Legislature’s actions today would limit the state’s ability to quickly and decisively respond during potential future emergencies in their backyards, such as a flood, landslide, earthquake, or other natural disaster. Take for example the extraordinary flooding caused by rapid snowmelt and heavy rains in 2017. Residents of 33 counties will remember both the perilous conditions that endangered lives and property and also the swift action taken by Governor Otter to activate state and federal resources to come to their aid. The flooding occurred over a period of months, and the emergency declarations, resulting from these major natural disasters remain in effect today because of their longstanding impacts.   

“The Governor needs to make decisions quickly during an emergency. That is one of the proper roles of the executive. The emergency declaration is the Governor’s main tool to act quickly and save lives during a crisis. Days and even hours make the difference in a life and death situation. Fires, floods, and earthquakes wait for no one. Only executive-speed decision-making can get families the immediate help they need in an emergency.     

“Idaho has the strongest economy of any state in the nation. We are leading states in the financial solvency of our state budget. That didn’t happen by accident. Quick action during the pandemic, combined with years of fiscal conservatism demonstrated by the Legislature and Governor, have positioned Idaho for continued strength.  

“We urge the Idaho Legislature to end the political jockeying and untruths about emergency declarations and do what is right for the people of Idaho and our state’s economy. Take a step back and think this through. The safety and prosperity of this generation and future generations of Idahoans depend on you.”

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