BOISE, Idaho — A dramatic and tense reconvened Idaho legislative session came to an abrupt end Wednesday, when a Senate committee killed three House-passed bills after a nearly-four-hour hearing, and both houses called it quits for the year.
The Idaho Press reports out of the 36 bills or resolutions introduced over the course of three days, just one passed: A non-binding memorial to Congress expressing the Legislature’s disapproval of the Biden Administration’s proposed COVID-19 vaccine requirements.
“The best outcome we could hope for was that we adjourned without passing any of them,” said House Minority Leader Ilana Rubel, D-Boise. “All in all, I guess that was a success. It cost a lot of money, wasted some time, but at least minimal damage was done.”
Lawmakers reconvened this week to address GOP concerns over Biden’s COVID-19 vaccine proposals, and to allow the House to finalize its business for the year, since it only recessed, rather than adjourning, last May. That included approving an Ethics Committee recommendation to censure an unrepentant Rep. Priscilla Giddings, R-White Bird, for “conduct unbecoming” a member of the House, after she publicized the identity of an alleged rape victim.
“Obviously, we had to come back and close the books,” said House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley. As for the vaccine proposals, he said, “We have a starting point for Jan. 10. This issue’s not going to go away, short-term.”
Jan. 10 is the date that the Legislature will convene for its regular 2022 session.
Senate President Pro Tem Chuck Winder, R-Boise, said, “It was a very interesting session from the perspective that it’s going to appear to the public that we didn’t accomplish much. But in reality, we had some bills that were considered.”
“All in all, hopefully it gave everyone a better perspective of the complexity of the problems, and that trying to legislate a solution is very difficult,” Winder said. “I know that these issues will be on the front burner when we return.”
The House on Tuesday passed six bills aimed at COVID-19 responses, on everything from vaccine mandates to masks in schools, sending them over to the Senate. On Wednesday morning, the Senate State Affairs Committee convened at 8 a.m., and held full hearings on three of the bills:
- HB 414, from Rep. Mike Moyle, R-Star, on “religious freedom.” Sen. Jim Rice, R-Caldwell, pinch-hitting for Moyle while Moyle was working to fix a tractor early Wednesday morning, told the committee, “It prohibits questioning the sincerity of religious beliefs in a refusal of treatment, which would apply to a religious exemption waiver for a vaccine. … That’s the actual impact, is that you just wouldn’t question the sincerity.”
- HB 417 from Reps. Jason Monks, R-Meridian, and Bruce Skaug, R-Nampa, on workers compensation. It sought to require Idaho’s workers compensation system to cover claims from workers who suffer adverse consequences from employer-required vaccines.
- HB 418 from Rep. Ron Mendive, R-Coeur d’Alene, on creating a “don’t ask, don’t tell” law on employer inquiries about COVID-19 vaccine status.
Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, the committee chair, said in the three days, “I’ve received 4,297 emails. It’s interesting, because there’s as many ‘pro’s’ as there are ‘no’s’.” She said she’d also received more than 1,300 phone calls.
Mendive, addressing the committee, spoke about the Constitution, churches closing or facing gathering limits during the COVID-19 shutdown in March of 2020, liberty, California Gov. Gavin Newsom and more. Senators asked him to stick to the bill.
“I would contend that everything in my bill is already covered, based on the Constitution and the Health Freedom Act, which you covered. But liberty is fundamental,” Mendive told the committee. “The only difference in this bill is it actually does define the issue. This specifically calls out COVID-19 as a reason why we need all this.”
Lodge noted that Mendive said the bill is needed now, but, “You didn’t put an emergency clause on it.”
Mendive responded, “That was a mistake. It will come into effect 60 days after we adjourn. ... But at this point in our legislative session, I still think this bill is useful.”
Lodge said, “So that would make it in February, where we’re already in session and this could be brought back at that time?”
Mendive responded, “I think having it on the books would give businesses some comfort, the Legislature is trying at least to allow them some autonomy to operate, and citizens.”
Sen. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, said, “I understand that we all want to provide our citizens comfort. But what we have presented to us today are three proposed laws. Laws have good and bad consequences. … When we clutter up the code with feel-good stuff we create legal ambiguities that cost people money and create uncertainty.”
All three bills drew lots of questions from the senators. Ultimately, the committee killed all three bills after hearing extensive public testimony. Senate Majority Leader Kelly Anthon, R-Burley, moved to send HB 414, the “religious freedom” bill, to the full Senate with a recommendation that it “do pass,” but his motion died for lack of a second.
Sen. Abby Lee, R-Fruitland, moved to hold HB 417, the workers compensation bill, in committee; Sen. Lee Heider, R-Twin Falls, seconded her motion. “I really think this is an important bill,” Lee said. “There is more work that can be done that needs to be done” on it, she said. The motion passed on a voice vote, with Anthon recorded as voting “no.”
HB 419, Mendive’s bill, died for lack of a motion. “We will hold that bill in committee for more work,” Lodge said.
During the lengthy hearing, 27 people testified, 17 in support of the bills, and 10 against.
Those opposing the bills included Miste Karlfeldt of Health Freedom Idaho, who spoke specifically against HB 414 and 417; representatives of the state’s medical doctors, hospitals and major employers; and citizens. Those speaking in favor of the bills included some who said they or family members had suffered adverse impacts from the COVID vaccine.
Quinton Pike told the committee, “In May, shortly after getting the COVID-19 vaccination, I suffered a grand mal seizure. ... My doctor consulted with me and told me not to get any more vaccines related to the COVID. My doctor stated that he believed the seizure was caused by the vaccine, and that I should not get any more going forward.”
Pike, who said he got the vaccine voluntarily, not pursuant to an employer mandate, said his doctor “refuses to … write a medical exemption. I am also not aware of any doctor that will write a medical exemption because they fear losing their license.” He said that corporations “are really trying to seize dictatorial power over our bodies. … I should not have to beg for permission to refuse a vaccine that is clearly dangerous for me.”
April Arnzen, human resources chief for Micron Technology, Idaho’s largest private employer, told the senators, “Our strategy throughout the pandemic has been to keep people safe, while continuing to operate our clean rooms, our research facilities and our manufacturing. From the beginning we have used every tool possible and spared no expense to keep our people safe.”
Vaccines, once they became available, have been “the most effective tool we have utilized to avoid infections, to decrease severe illness and to maintain our operations,” she said.
She also refuted rumors that Micron was firing employees who didn’t agree to be vaccinated. “We have not terminated anyone related to our vaccine mandate,” she told the committee.
Furthermore, she said if Idaho were to ban protocols the company feels it needs to maintain its operations, it’d move elsewhere. “We do need to make sure we have the ability to maintain our operations in Idaho successfully,” she said. “We have to keep our operations going. As you may know … Idaho is the heart of our research and development for our entire company, our 44,000 employees. And if we don’t have the ability to manage our R&D efforts, our manufacturing efforts here in Idaho, we will be forced to consider other options that we have to maintain those operations.”
The company employs 6,000 in Idaho, she said.
“I am responsible for the livelihood of 44,000 employees globally, and I do have to make sure that we’re making the choices that are in the best interest of all employees.”
Winder said, “We learned a lot.”
Major employers like Micron, J.R. Simplot Co. and St. Luke’s Health System, all of whom testified against the bills, are “trying to meet the needs of their employees, meet the needs of their customers, and do it in as safe a way as possible,” he said. “I think we also learned that they’re trying to make an effort, a sincere effort, I believe, to deal with religious and medical exemptions, because they don’t want to lose their good workers.”
Others who testified included Michael Kane, who said as the lobbyist for ICRMP, the Idaho Counties Risk Management Program, he’s concerned about HB 414. “The way I read this bill, it prevents jails from mandating psychiatric treatment of incarcerated prisoners,” he told the committee. “I believe it would allow a mentally ill prisoner to refuse psychiatric treatment in the jail.”
Christy Neuhoff, a senior vice president with St. Luke’s Health System, said HB 414 could interfere with employers’ rights to require drug testing.
Lynn Laird, a psychologist from Meridian, told the senators, “All of these things are really a distraction from our primary problem, and that is we do have fundamental God-given rights. … Fundamentally, we have a right to privacy, which was established by the Supreme Court in 1973, medical privacy. So it’s not even in the purview of an employer to know about my medical history or status.”
Burgoyne asked Laird if she believed a person should have a right to specify that a caregiver coming to their home be vaccinated; she said no, only that that person not be sick.
Sam Sandmire told the senators, “This bill makes it impossible for employers to obtain the information they need to provide a safe environment for their employees, their patrons and their patients.” She noted that more than 3,700 Idahoans have died from COVID-19. “That’s a fact,” Sandmire said, “about 25 a day. Thirty-three Idahoans died yesterday from COVID-19. Zero Idahoans have died from the COVID-19 vaccine.”
Katheryn Whitney said, “Businesses right now are violating the Constitution by requiring vaccines.” As an example, she said her husband, as a state employee, received notice that he could get four hours of paid leave for getting the vaccine, but not for other purposes. “So we are not following the rules,” she said. “Please pass these laws to help beef up what is currently not helping, so you can fight for the citizens of the state and the employed who are being taken advantage of.”
Senators noted that Idaho already has laws on the books regarding health freedom and religious freedom, and the state is currently a party to three multistate lawsuits challenging the Biden Administration’s vaccine mandates. The farthest-reaching of those policies, a proposed OSHA rule requiring vaccines or weekly COVID-19 testing by employers of 100 or more employees, already has been enjoined by a federal court, and the administration suspended it on Wednesday.
Maggie Goff, a citizen who has testified at multiple legislative hearings this week and introduced herself each time as a “child of God,” told the senators, “I know that God told me not to wear a mask … and I do not believe I should be shooting poisons into my body to make somebody else feel better.”
Another woman who has testified multiple times this week identified herself as being from “Rathdrum, in northern California.” The senators corrected her; Rathdrum is in North Idaho.
Winder said senators agreed to reconvene voluntarily, though it wasn’t their preference, rather than forcing the House to vote to call them back into session.
“We still haven’t found a solution that works to deal with the impacts of COVID in our society, whether It be at the school level, the employer-employee relationship level,” he said, “and I think in three days that was an unrealistic expectation.”
“it just shows why we need to take on these issues during a regular session, where we have the time and the public can have the opportunity to participate and know what’s going on,” he said.
Burgoyne said, “I don’t think reconvening was the right thing to do, but I think having reconvened, we found some value in it.”
“It is evident that there are a lot of people who want to be heard on the vaccine, and the two hearings we had (in the Senate committee) were valuable for that. I’ve learned a lot.”
“But I do think the session points up the danger of a full-time Legislature,” he said, pointing to the pending constitutional amendment that will be on the 2022 ballot to let the Legislature call itself into special session; currently, only the governor can call a special session of the Legislature.
“When we come back this way, we hurry,” Burgoyne said. “We make mistakes, we don’t see all the issues.”
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