More than a dozen Idaho lawmakers reportedly gathered at the statehouse in Boise on Tuesday morning to air their grievances against Gov. Brad Little’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
No District 26 legislators participated in the meeting, but one Hailey-based candidate for the Idaho Senate went to show his support.
The gathering, which was scheduled weeks in advance, was advertised as an attempt by lawmakers to call a special legislative session, setting off a back-and-forth of legal opinions. Under the Idaho Constitution, only the governor has the authority to call a special session of the Legislature, the Idaho Attorney General’s Office has maintained.
At the start of Tuesday’s gathering at the Capitol, Rep. Judy Boyle, R-Midvale, acknowledged that the meeting was not an official session of the Legislature, the Idaho Press reported, as a quorum of lawmakers—required by the state’s Constitution for a session to take place—was not present. About 15 legislators were in attendance Tuesday, according to the Press.
A proclamation presented at the meeting consisted of a list of charges against Little, including claims that the governor overstepped his authority during the pandemic by appropriating state funds without convening the Legislature and by making changes to the May primary election. No formal action or votes were taken at Tuesday’s gathering, the Idaho Press reported.
“We have never had an opportunity to publicly say how we feel,” Boyle said Tuesday, as reported by the Press. “He’s usurped our power as an equal branch of this government.”
Eric Parker, a Republican challenging Sen. Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, for the District 26 Senate seat, told the Idaho Mountain Express on Monday night that he planned to attend the gathering because he believes the Legislature should have a greater say in how Idaho distributes the $1.25 billion the state has received in federal coronavirus aid.
“I see it as a protest by the House of Representatives to basically say, ‘We only have the executive branch operating in our state right now and we don’t think this is the right way to handle it and address the problems we’re facing,’” Parker said. “It’s very much about giving them their due respect and their part in the process.”
Parker, who is the founder and president of the group The Real 3%ers Idaho, said members of his organization also planned to attend the gathering, some to observe for research purposes and some to show support.
Ammon Bundy, a rancher who led an armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon in 2016, told the Idaho Press that a group of his armed supporters would provide “crowd control” for Tuesday’s gathering. Parker, who gained name recognition for his involvement in the 2014 standoff between federal agents and the Bundy family in Nevada, told the Mountain Express that he asked members of The Real 3%ers Idaho not to bring shotguns or rifles to the Capitol on Tuesday.
“We told them this time that we would appreciate them not carrying long guns,” Parker said. “It’s not a Second Amendment rally and we don’t want it to be about that. We want it to be focused on what our elected officials are doing.”
Stennett was not in Boise on Tuesday but told the Mountain Express on Tuesday morning that she hoped the event would remain peaceful.
“My hope is that whatever happens at the Capitol today will not escalate into something unsafe,” Stennett said in a text message.
None of District 26’s three legislators participated in Tuesday’s meeting. Rep. Sally Toone, D-Gooding, and Rep. Muffy Davis, D-Ketchum, said they saw the attempt at convening a special session as unconstitutional.
“It’s my job to uphold that Constitution,” Toone said. “It’s like a speeding ticket—you know the law. Whether you like all the points of it or not, it’s your job to uphold it.”
A legal opinion by two Arizona-based attorneys, commissioned by the conservative Idaho Freedom Foundation, argued that lawmakers had the right to convene a special session themselves, pointing to a section of the Idaho Constitution that lets the Legislature take action that is “necessary and proper” to ensure “the continuity of governmental operations” in “periods of emergency resulting from disasters caused by enemy attack.”
“[T]here is at the very least a reasonable factual basis for the Legislature to find that the virus and the destruction it has wrought derived at least in part from the concerted hostile activities of foreign actors,” the opinion stated, citing “credible evidence…that the pathogen may have its genesis in a Chinese laboratory” and “a concerted campaign of false propaganda” by “hostile foreign actors” on social media, “intended to undermine the United States government and amplify social and economic instability inflicted by the pandemic.”
In response, the Idaho Attorney General’s Office issued a legal opinion maintaining that only the governor has the authority to call a special session under the Idaho Constitution. A separate legal opinion from an attorney who represents the Legislature independently of the Attorney General’s Office agreed that the Legislature does not have the authority to call itself into a special session, the Idaho Press reported.
Parker said he and members of his organization had reviewed each of the legal opinions and found them all to be compelling.
“You can make a strong argument one way, you can make a strong argument the other way,” Parker said. “There’s no clear answer as far as we can tell and it’s going to have to be handled by the judicial branch. Having said that, we’re going to go support the legislative branch and those that feel like they need to speak up.”
Davis told the Mountain Express that she understood the grievances of the lawmakers who gathered Tuesday, and had heard from some of her own constituents who disagreed with the steps the governor has taken to address the pandemic. She said she anticipates that some discussion of the state’s pandemic response will take place in the 2021 regular legislative session.
“This is bringing to light some things that maybe Idahoans want to see changed,” she said. “But until that happens, we have to follow the law.”
Both Davis and Toone said they haven’t agreed with every aspect of the governor’s coronavirus response. For instance, they said, they would like to see more support given to the essential workers who worked while the state’s self-isolation order was in place throughout March and April.
“I wouldn’t have done everything exactly the same way,” Davis said. “But I’m not sure breaking the Constitution is how we go about making these changes.”
Davis and Toone both noted that there are three legislators serving on the governor’s Coronavirus Financial Advisory Committee, which oversees spending of the roughly $1.25 billion in coronavirus aid that Idaho has received from the federal government. Lawmakers who don’t sit on that committee are “on phone calls continually” with Little, Toone said.
“I appreciate all the work that he has done to include all of us,” she said. “He has not ventured by himself.
“Have the committees done everything I like?” she continued. “No. But that is part of our process. You don’t always get your way 100 percent of the time. It’s about the conversation and a little give and take and what’s best for everyone.”