March 7, 2021

1/14/2021 – Article: “Idaho House rejects remote participation amid virus concerns”

  • Article: Idaho State Journal
  • Excerpt: “House Minority Leader Ilana Rubel, D-Boise, noted that the motion was pared down at the last minute to make it as narrow as possible, allowing remote voting only for “a member of the House who has a physical impairment that places them at high risk for serious negative outcomes such as permanent physical damage or death if they were to contract COVID-19.”“This was a very small ask,” Rubel said. “This is basically something that would’ve affected probably two people. … Most other legislatures are already doing this.”

Coronavirus Civil Liability Immunity Legislation Passes Idaho House

Idaho State Capitol – On Wednesday, the Idaho House passed House Bill 6, which would provide immunity from civil liability related to damages or injury from coronavirus, including for grossly negligent conduct. The legislation now awaits a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

All of the Idaho Democratic House Representatives voted against the legislation and argued that it was unnecessary and too far reaching.

“House Bill 6 is using the heaviest hand of government to strip Idahoans of their right to redress for harm caused by even extreme negligence.” House Democratic Leader Representative Ilana Rubel/(D-Boise) said. “The Seventh Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides a right to redress for harm, but this bill substantially erodes that right in the context of COVID. We are told we are on the brink of a potential wave of frivolous COVID-related lawsuits, but we see no support for that fear. We are now almost 6 months into the pandemic, there have been over 30,000 COVID cases in Idaho, and there has not been a single tort suit filed arising from COVID exposure. Idaho already has strong protections against frivolous litigation – caps on damages, fees charged to the losing side, existing tort immunity provisions, and the extreme difficulty of proving that any given defendant caused a particular COVID infection. All this bill will do is prevent genuinely meritorious lawsuits to protect victims of negligence, and send a message that a failure to take reasonable care will carry no accountability.”

“My biggest concern with this legislation is that nearly every group seems to be immune from being held accountable to following safety recommendations put forth by health experts.” Representative Melissa Wintrow/(D-Boise) explained. “Teachers and students are being forced to go back to the classroom in many districts, despite their overwhelming fears of getting coronavirus and spreading it to their loved ones. The government is asking teachers, parents, and students to take an enormous risk and then making sure that they are off the hook when Idahoans end up in the hospital or, in many cases, dying.”

“The definitions in the latest civil liability immunity legislation allow an employer, business, or institution to put Idahoans’ lives in danger without consequences.” Representative Muffy Davis/(D-Ketchum). “The sponsor is correct that there is a trust issue in the state, but this legislation will not help Idahoans trust that we are working hard to keep them safe. We need to make sure that Idahoans are able to protect themselves from gross negligence if we want to restore confidence in our institutions and get our economy back on track. Idahoans will not feel confident when the state is allowing immunity from deliberate and reckless disregard for the safety of Idaho communities.”

“GOP Legislators deliver gut punch to Idaho businesses” – by Rep. Ilana Rubel

In the closing weeks of the 2020 legislative session, it was apparent we were heading into a crisis of unprecedented proportions that would impact not only Idahoans’ health but also our economy, jobs, education system and every other facet of our lives. Businesses had been ordered to close, group gatherings were banned and schools were forming plans not to return from Spring break. However, the Legislature was still operating, and could have taken helpful action if it so chose.

So what did our GOP-dominated Legislature do during these critical weeks? Did it beef up our unemployment insurance system so the expected flood of claims could be processed quickly and efficiently? Afraid not. Laid-off workers were left with a totally inadequate system that left their claims unpaid and their calls unanswered for months.

Did our Legislature help Idaho schools prepare to shift to a remote learning model? Nope – not a peep about training teachers, improving student broadband access, or providing resources that would have enabled a successful transition to online education. What about property tax relief, for which citizens had been begging for months? Another big no – the party in charge blocked six different property tax relief bills sponsored by Democrats.

Instead of focusing on providing help to Idaho’s people and businesses, the GOP supermajority spent these precious weeks ramming through bills on every divisive social issue they could think of. Most notably, over the strenuous objection of every Democratic legislator, they passed the nation’s most extreme anti-transgender legislation. In doing so, the GOP supermajority disregarded warnings from current and former Attorneys-General that the bills were unconstitutional and would cost the state a fortune to defend, and they ignored forceful opposition by many of the state’s largest employers (including Micron, the INL, Clif Bar and Chobani) who warned of serious harm to business interests.

Now, our reeling businesses and workers must pay the price for these legislators’ reckless actions at a time when we can least afford it. California law does not allow taxpayer dollars to pay for travel to states that discriminate against LGBTQ Americans, and Idaho just landed on this banned travel list because of our new anti-transgender laws. This means that California’s public universities will not be able to send athletes, students, or even debate teams to Idaho. Conference and convention planners will be reluctant to choose Idaho for events because California state employees won’t be able to come. Further, this announcement comes on the heels of news that the NCAA is considering blacklisting Idaho because of these laws, potentially costing $15 million in lost business.

Our hospitality industry was already hit brutally by the coronavirus pandemic. The very last thing our hotels and restaurants need right now is this devastating and totally unnecessary blow, dealt by Idaho’s own legislature. As we are now looking at cutting $100 million from our education budget and deep cuts to other critical services, it is beyond infuriating to watch tens of millions of dollars set on fire by a GOP-dominated legislature that seems only to be interested in escalating culture wars.

Both of Idaho’s new discriminatory anti-transgender laws are currently being challenged in federal court. Maybe we’ll get lucky and the judicial branch will strike them down, saving us from more catastrophic impact to our hospitality industry. But we shouldn’t have to count on such intervention to save us from our own elected leaders. We should have a legislature that focuses on helping, or at least that does no harm.

The myth of the GOP as the “pro-business, fiscally conservative” party has been shattered once again. Too often the majority party is ready and willing to inflict crippling economic losses on Idaho workers and businesses in service of a divisive social agenda. For decades, GOP legislators have forced taxpayers to pay millions to defend right-wing legislation that was clearly unconstitutional but passed anyway to indulge various ideological fixations. We can’t afford this behavior any longer. We are in a recession and that money needs to go to schools, roads and necessary government services. Idaho voters – you have the power. Insist that your legislators stop wantonly hurting our economy and stay focused on protecting our freedoms and improving education, economy and quality of life.

Democrats Propose Slate of Solutions for Idaho

On Monday, the Idaho Democratic leadership held a press conference to propose a slate of Democratic solutions that would address the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic and set the state on the path to a better future. Senate Democratic Leader Michelle Stennett/(D-Ketchum) and House Democratic Leader Representative Ilana Rubel/(D-Boise) outlined actions that should be taken at the state level to improve the lives of everyday Idahoans.

The press conference was held during the lunch break of the State Affairs Working Group. The Democratic leaders delivered their thoughts on the importance of making tangible changes that will positively impact Idaho communities.

“The pandemic has caused financial, educational, health, and mental distress on Idaho families,” said Senator Stennett. “No one was prepared for this, but it is up to all of us to do our piece towards recovery. The Legislature has a duty to find solutions to protect public health and safety and provide economic security. There is no excuse for inaction or political posturing.”

“The legislature’s foremost responsibility is to keep Idahoans safe.” Rep. Rubel stated. “The Democratic caucus has put together a slate of solutions that should be implemented as soon as possible. The coronavirus pandemic has had dire financial, health, and educational impacts on Idaho families, and there are numerous steps that can and should be taken to meaningfully alleviate the risk and suffering facing our people. We hope our Republican colleagues will join us in pressing forward with these plans.”

The Democratic caucus compiled a list of solutions that can be accomplished through state action, as follows:

1) Education. A $100 million cut to our education budget, as has been imposed by the Governor, is not acceptable.

Kids are being sent back to schools in a month. The state is asking already underpaid teachers to take on unprecedented new risks and responsibilities. Teachers and other school personnel are expected to enter into substantial personal danger, to ensure social distancing for students, to enforce masking in many places and to ensure other precautions are maintained. Teachers are being forced to innovate and learn new methods of instruction for remote learners, and in return for all of this they are getting a pay cut, and losing salary increases they fought for years to obtain.

Idaho already faced a teacher recruitment and retention crisis heading into this pandemic, and this cut is a recipe for disaster. The Democratic caucus believes the following is necessary:

  • Ensure that all safety measures, such as personal protective equipment, hand sanitizer, plexiglass as appropriate, and increased cleaning costs are in place and funded;
  • Ensure that distance learning options are in place and are funded for families that do not feel safe sending children to schools for in-person instruction. This includes ensuring adequate broadband access and device access for students who need them.
  • Restore teacher salaries and pay all leadership premiums to which teachers are entitled. We cannot expect teachers to do more work in more dangerous conditions for less pay. In fact, hazard pay should be strongly considered for teachers and other school personnel. State revenues are actually above projections, we have hundreds of millions of dollars in the rainy day fund, and there are untapped internet sales tax revenues. This is the rainy day we’ve been saving for; a cut of this magnitude to school funding and teacher pay at a time like this is unnecessary and unacceptable.

2) Tax policy.

  • The Idaho Legislature has never allowed internet sales tax to be used to fund education as other sales tax is. Even before this pandemic, this was creating a problem as consumer purchases have for years been shifting from brick and mortar stores (where the tax is used to fund schools) to online purchases (where the sales tax is withheld from the state General Fund). This shift accelerated dramatically during COVID, and we can no longer afford to have this growing pool of revenue held back from our schools – certainly not when our government is cutting $100M from the education budget. Should there be a special session, the Democratic caucus asks that legislation be passed to allow usage of internet sales tax revenue to reverse the draconian cuts to education.
  • We further call for an update to the circuit breaker to assist seniors and our most vulnerable citizens in paying property taxes. This was introduced in the Senate last session and had strong support with the public at large, but was blocked by the House Committee Chair. Seniors have seen their retirement funds drop significantly in value and need help in dealing with property taxes.

3) Voting access.

  • Whether or not in-person voting is available this fall, Idahoans must have easy, safe access to voting by mail. We appreciate that the Secretary of State enabled ballot requests to be made online for the May primary election, a step that led to record turnout. The Democratic caucus believes that access should be made permanent.
  • The Secretary of State has broad emergency powers to alter voting procedures that can either make voting more accessible or suppress voter participation. As these powers are used more and expanded during the pandemic, we question whether it is appropriate for an officer who is beholden to one political party to make material changes to electoral machinery that could significantly favor one party. Accordingly, we propose a Constitutional amendment to make the Secretary of State’s office non-partisan.

4) Health & Welfare.

  • We were surprised and disappointed that no Health and Welfare working group was established during this health crisis. Addressing health concerns should be the principal goal of the state government during the coronavirus pandemic. We have two priorities in the health and welfare area:
    • Testing – Idahoans need more available testing with faster results. Idaho has been identified by the White House as one of America’s hot spots and has skyrocketing infection numbers. Yet Idahoans must wait days both to get tested and to get their results. The only way we are going to beat this virus and get our economy back up to speed is by knowing who is infected and preventing further spread. The state should be making much more meaningful investments in testing and contact tracing.
    • Child care – Child care options in Idaho were already extremely limited, and coronavirus has closed many facilities. If action is not taken soon, the majority of Idaho childcare providers will be out of business and parents will not have safe, reliable childcare options. This would have grave consequences for the health and safety of our children and for the future of our business community as a whole. Idahoans need safe, reliable childcare in order to return to work. The CARES Act has earmarked funds for childcare in Idaho, but the bulk of it has not been released by the Department of Health and Welfare. We call for the release of CARES money to childcare facilities so they can remain safe and operational.