Pop quiz: How many legislators does it take to change a light bulb?
Answer: In Idaho, it’s 105 and it typically takes 70 days or longer to complete the task. Of course, the governor could change the bulb in a matter of seconds, giving quick response to the emergency at hand – replacing that darn burned-out light.
The bottom line is, when it comes to dealing with a once-a-century emergency such as the coronavirus pandemic, you don’t want the Legislature calling the shots. Ask 105 lawmakers what to do and you’re bound to get that many thoughts on what should be done. We’ve already heard a slew of opinions, ranging from a statewide mandate to going on with business as if a pandemic didn’t exist – both of which would have disastrous effects.
If left to legislators, they could spend months discussing those, and a few other bad ideas, and quite possibly come up with nothing.
The Legislature, by design, is a deliberative body that does most of its work through an elaborate process. The Legislature does take quick action on occasion, usually in the waning days in the session, but slap-dash solutions are not the answer with something such as the coronavirus.
The governor, by contrast, can and does respond to emergencies and Gov. Brad Little has made decisions based on science along with consultations with health experts, federal officials and other governors. And he has not been consumed with winning political popularity contests. While Little huddles with his task force and answers questions from citizens during his weekly AARP conferences, Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin – a potential opponent for Little in next year’s primary -- is doing just about everything during this session except wearing campaign buttons and handing out brochures.
McGeachin has plenty of support from legislators. Rep. Heather Scott, a Blanchard Republican who has compared Little to a tyrant, opened the session with a resolution ending the state of emergency in Idaho. Other measures have been proposed, including taking away the governor’s ability to extend emergency orders. The Idaho House has given its nod to a constitutional amendment that would give legislators the authority to call for special sessions, a duty that has been vested with the governor.
By the end of last week, Little – who normally is a picture of calm – had heard all the nonsense he could stand. As he rightly pointed out, pulling the plug on emergency declarations could cost Idahoans millions of dollars in federal assistance while potentially slowing down the rollout of the coronavirus vaccine.
“Some members of the Idaho Legislature are seeking political gain by perpetuating misinformation about emergency declarations. They are playing politics, and unfortunately, the loser in this shameful game will be you – the citizens of Idaho,” Little wrote.
“I want the people of Idaho to know that I have explained to legislators for months the importance of the emergency declaration and the reasoning behind all of the decisions related to the pandemic response. I have sought their input and applied their advice to the state’s response,” he said.
“As I have stated over and over, the ‘no action’ alternative has never been an option. Pretending there is no COVID-19 emergency – as some in the Idaho Legislature are doing right now – will have devastating impacts on lives, our healthcare heroes who are protecting families and our economy.”
If the Legislature, as a co-equal branch of government, wants to be on equal footing with the governor and have the same access to resources, then it should take another step. Create a full-time Legislature and put professional politicians in charge.
With a full-time Legislature, each of the 105 lawmakers (making six-figure salaries) could have a chief of staff, a couple of legislative aides and maybe a press secretary to tell the home folks what a wonderful job their representatives are doing. With the Legislature at his beckon call, the governor would have a working partner for things like pandemic management and emergency orders.
That kind of partnership works well for the president and Congress, doesn’t it?
I’m not sure if Idahoans would be ready for a full-time Legislature, but politicians in this state don’t always keep public sentiment in mind when it comes to exercising power and massaging egos.
Chuck Malloy is a long-time Idaho journalist and columnist. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org