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OPINION: SEN. MARY SOUZA — Behind the scenes on Idaho COVID orders

by Sen. Mary Souza
| May 20, 2020 4:01 PM

As the State Senator from District 4, which is basically Coeur d’Alene, I’ve been receiving many phone calls and emails from individuals and businesses upset with the COVID-19 shut downs. The other legislators from our area have as well and, believe me, we feel your frustration.

The messages blame us for the restrictions and demand we take action to change them. I would feel that way too, if I didn’t have a view from inside the process. So please let me explain some of the inner workings:

Several obscure and rarely used laws in Idaho outline the power of our state government during a time of emergency or attack. Additionally, our state Constitution defines who can call a special session of the Legislature. In all of this, the power and decision making currently belong only to the governor.

Much to our dismay, the Legislature has had no official role in any decisions regarding the COVID-19 orders in Idaho. Our regular legislative session, which is traditionally January through March, ended early this year when the coronavirus was discovered in Idaho. On the advice of health advisers, we formally adjourned “sine die” (without another day), on March 20.

Since that time much has happened, starting with the governor’s first Stay-at-Home order just days after we left the Capitol. Please realize our governor had to take action based on the best information he had at that moment, just as the president did as well. We know now, in hindsight, that much of that information was not accurate and the models were flawed.

I don’t criticize Gov. Little for his decisions, but I do wish the Legislature had been included in the process. In April, the speaker of the House sent a letter to the governor, which was later made public, asking for more legislative involvement. Then the entire Senate Republican caucus sent a private letter with a similar message. That was all we could do, under our existing laws and constitution. Even though we are the only branch of government able to make law, we currently cannot bring ourselves back into an official special session. This will change with new legislation next year and a constitutional amendment for you to vote on in 2022.

I am telling you all this so you know we take our jobs seriously. You elected us to listen to you and represent you in the Legislature, and this COVID-19 crisis has been enormously impactful for everyone. We have been on conference calls several times a week, texting and emailing departments and directors at the state level, and meeting with local officials, the hospital, public health district and more. We are communicating your concerns.

About a week ago, with our constituents’ frustration building, as well as our own, the Senate GOP caucus organized an in-person meeting in the Capitol. We drove ourselves to Boise from all regions of the state, at our own expense, to talk together as a group. The vast majority of our caucus was physically present, with some on conference call because they could not travel. (Yes, our chairs were spaced out and masks were provided). Our three-hour meeting included a presentation from legal advisers and discussion about updating our laws and constitution. We also spoke directly with the governor’s close advisers, whom we know well, and let them know of our constituents’ concerns. I asked why we were not called back to special session? The answer was that the president’s orders advised against large gatherings. Not what we hoped to hear.

As a former critical care nurse, I understand that in a sudden crisis it is instinct to block out normal procedures and reflexively take protective action. But now it’s time for government to step back. Our message as the Senate Republican caucus last week was consistent from all corners of the state: It’s time to open up and get things going again; it’s time to rely on Idaho common sense and personal responsibility.

Just wanted you to know the rest of the story.

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Sen. Mary Souza is finishing her sixth year representing District 4. Her email is: msouza@senate.idaho.gov