Rep. Steve Berch Newsletter - Special Session edition

  This newsletter covers results from the Special Session of the Idaho State Legislature that took place on August 24-26. 

It’s an honor to be your Representative for District 15 here in West Boise.  Please feel free to contact me anytime for any reason. My contact information can be found at the end of this newsletter.

 

 

Broken Glass

In preparation for the Special Session of the legislature, House leadership decided in advance to open the fourth floor gallery to the public with two constraints: 

  1. One-third of the gallery was to be roped off and reserved for legislators who wanted to attend the session in an environment that provided social distancing.
  2. The remaining two-thirds of the gallery would be open to the public with social distancing by labeling selected seats to remain vacant – and no requirement to wear a mask.

You've probably heard about the protesters who shoved security guards, stormed the door to the visitor gallery and shattered the door’s glass window (see picture below).  Several of these protesters were armed, with one reported to be carrying an assault rifle loaded with a 30-round clip. 
 
I was on the fourth floor gallery when it happened. My wife has a compromised immune system. I was one of several legislators who planned to sit in the reserved section of the gallery. We were making the personal choice to protect ourselves and our loved ones.  The protesters who took over the gallery and refused to take any precautions chose to indulge their choice at the expense of mine. This was unnecessary since gallery was configured to accommodate both their choice and mine.  Here’s what I observed:

  • Those who arrived early in the gallery ripped away the red social distancing signs. Another group of people removed the rope and started sitting in the reserved section.
  • Protesters outside the House Chamber surged forward and shoved security guards, breaking the glass. 
  • A Capitol building administrator urgently suggested I leave the fourth floor for my personal safety, which I did.
  • The protesters were eventually allowed to fill every seat in the gallery.

I understand and am sympathetic with those who get frustrated when they feel their voice is not being heard. People may “hear” you when you shout at them, but it doesn’t make them want to listen to you.
 
It’s easy to clean up and replace the broken glass. It’s harder to clean up and replace the loss of civility and respect for law and order.

 

 Special Session Results

Note: Please contact me if you have any questions or concerns as to how I voted on any of these bills and my reasons for doing so.

Governor Little issued a proclamation calling the legislature into Special Session (officially called an "Extraordinary Session") in reaction to COVID to address two issues: changes to election laws and the waiving of liability. According to the Idaho State Constitution, the legislature can send bills to the governor that pertain only to the purpose for which the session is called. After much machinations and false starts, the legislature wound up passing and sending three bills to the Governor, all of which he signed into law.
 
Delivery and tabulation of absentee ballots (S1001a). County clerks across the state expect about 75% of the votes cast for the 2020 November election will via absentee ballot – an unprecedented volume that current law and processes are not equipped to accommodate. This law does two things to make it easier for county elections officials to deliver and tabulate this expected volume. It is a temporary change to the law that expires on December 31, 2020.

  1. The deadline for local ballots to be mailed to voters would be moved from 45 days prior to the election to 30 days prior. The existing time frame to prepare the first mailing is very narrow, and this would allow more time to ensure the proper preparation of the ballots going out (military and overseas ballots will still be mailed 45 days prior). This does not prevent county elections from mailing out the ballots earlier than 30 day, it just gives them more time if needed.
  2. Provides additional time to physically open and scan all of the ballots received. This bill allows elections officials to open absentee ballots up to seven days before Election Day and scan them into the system – but not tabulate them until the polls close on Election Day (9:00 pm PST). The bill also provides for appropriate security measures and controls. 

I voted for this bill, especially since it helps ensure that results will be known within hours after Election Day and not drag on for days or weeks – which could create consternation and suspicion. 
 
NOTE:  For anyone living in Ada County who requested an absentee ballot in advance, it is my understanding that those ballots will start being mailed on September 30th and will likely be delivered on or around October 5th.

Permanent ban on all mail-in voting (H0001).  This bill ensures that voters will be provided an opportunity for in-person voting regardless of a state of emergency. It requires each county to establish at least one polling location for in-person voting. This bill has no expiration date – it is a permanent change to the law. It also has the practical effect of permanently banning mail-in only voting in Idaho, which was how the 2020 May primary was conducted.
 
It was with mixed emotions that I voted for this bill. Many District 15 constituents have told me they like to vote in person for a variety of reasons (tradition, socializing with neighbors, sense of security, etc.). But there are some concerns as well. This bill prohibits mail-in only voting under any circumstance.  The 2020 May primary was a mail-in only election precisely due to the uncertain nature of the emergency situation at the time. For example, if we were to have an outbreak of the Ebola virus, which has a 50+% mortality rate, it would be irresponsible (and probably impossible) to open any in-person polling places.  The timing, extent and severity of an emergency cannot be predicted.  In addition, permanent changes to the law should take place during a normal legislative session where it can be discussed, debated and considered in greater detail – not during a three-day special session.  However, there is also nothing stopping the legislature to reconsider this bill during the 2021 session, which helped mitigate these concerns.

Immunity from COVID consequences (H0006). If there was ever an example of politics making strange bedfellows, this bill is it.  It followed four abortive attempts to find middle ground between a host of diverse factions (click here for links to H0002, H0003, H0004, and H0005 – none of which made it out of committee).
 
Insurance companies do not provide liability coverage for damages caused by the COVID. This bill would give immunity to private enterprises and certain government entities (including school districts) for liability should they be sued for damages as a result of COVID. Embedded in earlier versions of the bill was a requirement that a “good faith effort” be made to comply with health safety guidelines and precautions (e.g. asking patrons to wear masks, wiping down surfaces used by the public, practicing social distancing, etc.).
 
Most major businesses and industries, along with school boards supported this bill. This bill makes it easier to operate without the threat of costly lawsuits from people claiming they caught COVID on their premises and subsequently suffered damages.     
 
Opposing it were people who oppose district health board dictates, and are distrusting of vaccines. They were concerned that requiring a “good faith effort” would result in businesses, schools and government agencies enforcing mandatory vaccinations or the wearing of masks – thus taking away their individual freedom and liberty.  Others were concerned that employees would be forced to work in unsafe conditions if their employer was immune to COVID consequences. Yet others were opposed to this bill on the principle of individual responsibility; that government should not be issuing blanket immunity to anyone for any reason.
 
This bill, which expires on July 1, 2021, removed the “good faith effort” requirement from the previous bills.  This change got enough people onboard to get the bill passed.
 
I voted against this bill for several reasons, including:

  • This bill not only grants immunity to anyone who acts with negligence, but also gross negligence, which is “acting with extreme indifference to or reckless disregard for the safety of others.” 
  • When someone is granted immunity, they can become less diligent and more careless – knowing they can’t be held accountable for their actions.
  • This bill violates the Seventh Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which preserves your right to a trial by jury. This bill takes away that right, especially for injury or damages that occur in high risk environments such as nursing homes.
  • This bill not only grants immunity from liability for COVID, but for any and all mutations of COVID, which could be far more infectious and deadly.
 

In the hopper

Several issues arose during the Special Session and the legislative working group meetings that preceded it.  These will likely be issues the legislature addresses during the 2021 session:

  • Declare an end to the state of emergency
  • Limit the Governor’s ability to declare a state of emergency (requires amending the State Constitution)
  • Allow the legislature to call itself into special session (requires amending the State Constitution)
  • Prohibit district health boards from shutting down schools
  • Make most local elections in Idaho partisan, where candidates must declare a party affiliation
  • Change a variety of education funding laws, including creating an all-voucher system
 

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ABOUT STEVE BERCH

Steve represents District 15, House Seat 15A. He is a member of the Education, Business and Local Government Committees. How to contact Steve:

  • Phone (cell): 208-890-9339
  • Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
 

Best websites for following the legislature

 

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