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The Idaho Legislature is preparing to convene in the midst of a historic, deadly pandemic. Advocates, minority party leaders and the Governor have called for a postponement as COVID-19 vaccine distribution begins. Instead, both Speaker of the House Scott Bedke (R-Oakley) and Senate Pro Tem Chuck Winder (R-Boise) have indicated they’ll gather on January 11 for the Governor’s State of the State Address, and that committee meetings and floor proceedings will go on as usual. Masks and social distancing will not be mandated despite health recommendations and local requirements which don’t apply inside the Statehouse.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise as time and again the legislature has refused to heed expert advice from scientists, doctors and educators.

After all, why should they let a virus that’s killed more than 1,300 Idahoans to date get in the way?

Many, including those of us at ICL, expect the legislature to run headlong into reality, resulting in an eventual postponement of the session until all the people of Idaho can receive the vaccine.

Meanwhile, we’re hopeful that committees will allow remote testimony for citizens and lobbyists alike, and encourage everyone to check out legislative committee hearings via the IdahoPTV Legislative streaming service.

Whenever and however they convene, ICL will do as we’ve done for almost 50 years. We’ll keep you updated on the issues that arise, connect you with legislators who will consider the people’s business, and together, we’ll advocate for the air you breathe, the water you drink, and the lands you love.

So, what’s on tap?

During the special session in August, when the legislature convened for 3 days, there was much posturing over stripping authority from the Governor, local officials, and health districts from implementing public health measures. But the special session is constitutionally-limited to legislate on issues outlined by the Governor’s specific proclamation. As a result, they only considered measures related to the effects of COVID-19 on elections and business liability. Nonetheless, there was mayhem, crowded galleries, violence and arrests. The scene was repeated earlier this month as the Oregon Legislature convened for a one-day session.

Fifteen Idaho House members had previously convened in June, including incoming State Affairs Committee Chairman Brent Crane (R-Nampa), and laid out some of their goals, including limiting the Governor’s authority to declare a Public Health Crisis, restricting health districts from issuing stay-home orders and mask mandates, and amending the state Constitution to allow the Legislature to call themselves into session, to name a few. Referring to Gov. Brad Little as a “self-appointed tyrant,” Rep. Heather Scott (R-Blanchard) argued that protecting public health is unconstitutional and stated that the damage from public health protections “is much greater than what we’re facing from this so-called pandemic.”

Meanwhile over 334,000 Americans have died, and over 19 million have been infected.

We expect these issues to dominate much of the legislative session, and will be interested to see whether the House and Senate will deliver veto-proof majorities on these measures (the Governor can veto bills that receive less than 2/3 majorities in both the House and Senate).

How about conservation issues?

Snake River and Water: For several years, House Speaker Scott Bedke has stated that Idaho has addressed many water quantity issues and now must turn our attention to water quality. ICL looks forward to this focus on water quality statewide.

Every year, the Snake River suffers from pollutants that contribute to outbreaks of toxic algae. As the source for drinking water for over 300,000 Idahoans, it’s past time that the state refocused attention on restoring water quality in the river. 

Similarly, a toxic legacy of mine waste in Lake Coeur d’Alene is being worsened by nitrogen and phosphorus pollution and additional funds are needed to expedite what we know is needed to protect the lake’s water quality. We are also hopeful to see legislation proposed to help protect Payette Lake water quality, which has also suffered in recent years. With an estimated $600 million state surplus this year, these are opportunities to invest in a clean future for Idaho’s precious waterways, air, public lands, fish and wildlife. 

Salmon and Steelhead: We’ll be keeping a close eye on issues related to salmon and steelhead recovery, which we hope will boost the recommendations that resulted from the Governor’s Salmon Workgroup and lead to abundance for these fish as well as keep and make local communities and Tribes whole. 

Climate Change: On the climate front, we’ll be tracking and supporting issues related to energy efficiency, electric vehicles, and clean energy development, and we’ll be monitoring and defending the development of K-12 Science Standards (again), which will be up for legislative approval in 2022.

Public Lands: Unfortunately, public lands will continue to be in the crosshairs of the Idaho Legislature, but it’s too soon to tell whether they will renew efforts to seize public lands, or whether they’ll try to undermine public land protections in other ways. Local issues like the Sawtooth Cell Tower and Payette Lakes Endowment Lands could be topics of discussion, but again the outlook is hazy.

Despite the pandemic and the refusal of legislative leaders to acknowledge science, one thing’s for certain: ICL will be there to continue advocating for clean air, clean water, public lands, and our fish and wildlife. We’ve been at the Statehouse since our founding in 1973, serving as your voice for conservation in the legislature. Through challenging times, I remain honored and humbled to continue this tradition to represent you, our members and supporters, in our work together to promote conservation and restoration of Idaho’s special places. While this session will be like no other, I’m excited to work on your behalf, knowing that together we will succeed.