Legislature puts final touches on COVID bills

by CRAIG NORTHRUP
Hagadone News Network | August 27, 2020 1:00 AM

Idaho lawmakers put in the final legwork Wednesday on a few pieces of legislation as the House wrapped up its business and prepared to head home from an extraordinary special session.

The Senate had put forth a last-minute nonbinding resolution and sat down for an evening hearing on HB 6, a House bill that provides certain immunities from COVID-contracting lawsuits. The bill protects individuals, corporations, churches, cities, counties, schools, colleges and other institutions.

Different versions of the bill had tried and failed to make it through the House that included rejected language that would have protected those same entities from COVID-related lawsuits, such as disruptions of scheduled plans and an inability to provide equitable services, as well as a “good-faith” definition. The draft that made its way to the Senate Wednesday evening focuses on whether a person contracted COVID-19 from a particular place, and whether that transmission happened because of negligence, willful or otherwise.

“I think it was passed in an attempt to give people a sense of security and stability,” Rep. Tony Wisniewski, R-Post Falls, told The Hagadone News Network. “People want to know they would not be held liable...And that’s absolutely the main reason I voted for it. We have enough to worry about right now. There’s just too much uncertainty out there. People need to know they can open up without having to worry about lawsuits right now.”

Rep. Paul Amador, R-Coeur d’Alene, said the House took great pains to hammer out the details before coming to an agreement.

“It was a compromise bill,” Amador said. “I don’t think anybody is happy with it, but I think everybody is OK with it. I think it provides stability and confidence for businesses and schools to open up with confidence in a time when the goalposts are being moved on us, where the best practices for (combating) COVID-19 are constantly changing.”

The concurrent resolution that started almost in tandem with the opening of the special session — a resolution that would have ended Gov. Brad Little’s emergency declaration — never made it to the Senate floor after passing the House 48-20-2. But Senate President Pro Tempore Brent Hill announced a nonbinding resolution Wednesday night that echoed the House’s resolution to end the statewide emergency protocols. The Senate also voted by unanimous consent to table the House’s HCR 1, presumably until the regular session meets in January.

Despite the Senate’s late progress, Rep. Ron Mendive, R-Coeur d’Alene, expressed disappointment that the House resolution to end the emergency never blossomed into law, in part because of a clause in the Idaho Constitution that says special sessions can only be called upon by the office of the governor to discuss particular topics.

“The House voted — rather convincingly, I thought — to stop the governor’s declaration,” Mendive said. “The Senate has an opinion on this, and about a week and a half ago, we received a letter with a constitutional opinion that said he could change the subject, but the Senate had other ideas.”

The civil liability bill, dubbed the “Coronavirus Limited Immunity Act,” was debated into the evening, where lawmakers heard testimony from citizens both in favor and against the legislation.