by Logan Finney, Idaho Reports
An influential Senate committee held an informational meeting Tuesday morning on four COVID-related bills, in which the lawmakers did not vote on any of the proposals after hearing from bill sponsors and members of the public.
“The reason I feel it’s important that we do this is it’s a limited time session,” said State Affairs chairwoman Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston. “If you don’t have time to look over legislation, you sometimes have more problems.”
Lodge said that circumstances are rapidly changing around the federal vaccine mandates, as some circuit courts have blocked their implementation and Gov. Brad Little announced Monday night that Idaho is joining a third multi-state lawsuit against them.
Lodge also pointed out that the legislature reconvenes in less than two months for the 2022 regular session.
“We have time to look at this legislation and see what’s going to be in the best interest of all our citizens,” Lodge said.
Lodge told Idaho Reports on Tuesday afternoon that her committee isn’t likely to hold any votes on the bills before them, but things could change as the session progresses. She spoke in favor of a collaborative legislative process with input from many lawmakers and stakeholders, rather than rushing to pass something quickly.
“There’s lots of questions about those bills, and that we haven’t had time to look into them and amend them on the fly,” Lodge told Idaho Reports. “Not enough time to look at the unintended consequences.”
The Senate Democrats brought a bill that would direct the state to prioritize spending federal COVID-19 relief funds for a number of projects: reimbursing employers for wages to workers for COVID-related time off, making testing available for citizens and schools, standing up vaccination clinics, distributing multilingual COVID-19 vaccination information, creating a sick leave bank for state employees and school personnel, offering bonuses to essential workers, and creating a COVID-19 vaccine injury compensation program.
Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking, D-Boise, pointed out that Idaho has only spent one percent of the state’s American Rescue Plan Act funds, and detailed some of the challenges that school teachers and staff have faced over the course of the pandemic.
Sen. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, said the state should set up a COVID-specific vaccine injury compensation fund because the federal program has been dysfunctional in handling those cases.
“While those [COVID-19 vaccine] injuries are exceedingly rare, they do occur,” Burgoyne said.
The House is also considering a different piece of legislation that would cover injuries from employer-mandated vaccines under workers’ compensation.
Sen. Peter Riggs, R-Post Falls, brought a bill that would amend the Idaho Health Freedom Act to prohibit termination for refusing to receive a COVID-19 vaccine and require employers to provide their unvaccinated employees with reasonable accommodations — such as COVID testing, personal protective equipment and adjustments to their work environment — unless doing so would cause an undue hardship on the business.
Riggs said that the current climate has created a lot of tension between employers and employees, and that the state should set up a general framework for businesses and their unvaccinated workers to come together and resolve their differences collaboratively.
“We don’t want the knee-jerk reaction from the business community to be to fire those people wholesale,” Riggs said.
Sen. C. Scott Grow, R-Eagle, brought a pair of bills to create medical, religious, natural immunity, and personal belief exemptions for employer-mandated vaccines.
The meeting demonstrated the whirlwind pace of the reconvened session that legislative leadership hopes to finish by Wednesday.
Legislators presented their bills to the committee all in a row, followed by public testimony where each speaker had two minutes to address all four pieces of legislation.
That led to a tense exchange between Lodge and the first testifier, Maggie Goff, who complained that the public had little time to review the bills and to give input. Goff attempted to speak over the chair when her time ran out, which escalated into a minor shouting match.
The situation cooled quickly and senators apologized for the rushed legislative pace, saying they are doing their best to hear from as many voices as possible. Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise, reassured Goff that the committee was not planning to vote on the bills.
Public testimony was largely opposed to the legislation, with several citizens objecting to accepting federal funds that add to the national debt and asserting that they have the religious freedom to reject vaccination outright rather than being forced to apply for an exemption or submit to testing.
Idaho Hospitals Association president and CEO Brain Whitlock echoed Lodge’s opening comments about the federal mandate landscape changing rapidly, and said that the legislature should wait to act until the January session because new state laws would cause “more confusion and consternation” at this point.
“We do have to be very careful in how we draft legislation,” Sen. Kelly Anthon, R-Rupert, said on the Senate floor later Tuesday morning. “That has been a major concern as we reconvened for this particular portion of the 2021 session; that we don’t rush, we take our time in drafting the language.”
The Senate State Affairs Committee will meet at 8am on Wednesday to consider bills passed by the House.