Will Members of Idaho's Disability Community Be Allowed to Safely Exercise Their First Amendment Rights In Person During 2021 Legislative Session?

January 4, 2021

Idaho's Legislative Session is scheduled to start on January 11, 2021.  During this upcoming session, the expectation is that there will be proposed budget cuts to Medicaid and discussion regarding staffing shortages that will harm the disability community and those who benefit from such necessary services to maintain their quality of life.  While normally self-advocates, family members and members of organizations such as the Idaho Council on Developmental Disabilities (ICDD) participate in such sessions either by talking to their legislative representatives directly or attending hearings to provide personal testimony regarding their concerns.  In-person attendance may not be possible if precautionary safety measures are not put in place to help ensure the safety of those in attendance.  Because of these concerns, on December 14, 2020, Christine Pisani, Executive Director of the ICDD, wrote an 11-page letter on behalf of the ICDD and 30 other organizations to Idaho's governmental leaders.  In the letter, possible legal concerns were raised as well as a request for additional safety measures to be put in place to "foster a safe environment where individuals with disabilities, family members, and advocates will be assured the ability to testify on important public policy issues presented" during the upcoming session.

The concerns alluded to were based on a special legislative session that occurred in 2020 to address the concerns of COVID-19 and the safety of the state's citizens.  During this session, a group of citizens from Health Freedom Idaho, and another group called People's Rights, led by Ammon Bundy, helped lead protests. They refused to follow the CDC's safety recommendations regarding wearing masks and social distancing and engaged in disruptive actions that caused safety concerns during the session. Numerous media stories were published regarding the events of the special session.  Included was an incident on August 24, 2020, when a group of angry and shouting protesters (including a person carrying an assault-style weapon and other armed individuals) pushed their way past officers from the Idaho State Police and stormed a legislative hearing that resulted in a shattered glass door and legislative members walking out due to the lack of safety.  Other events during the session included Mr. Bundy and other members of Health Freedom Idaho being arrested, with one such incident resulting in Mr. Bundy having to be dragged from Idaho's Capital on August 26th by members of the Idaho State Police after refusing to move out of press corps seats that lead to shouting by members of the group.  During this incident, legislative members had to leave the room and move the hearing to another room to finish their legislative agenda.  After several of these events during the special session, Mr. Bundy was served a no-trespass order that will not expire for one year.

The responses to this letter, thus far, from Idaho's legislative leaders that have been made public have not been supportive in taking additional actions to enforce CDC guidelines or address safety concerns regarding protestors and others who are present during legislative sessions.  Idaho's Speaker of the House, Scott Bedke, responded through comments in the media on December 15, 2020, by stating that he was unwilling to delay the legislative session to address the concerns raised in the December letter.  Bedke noted that he opposed mandated mask legislation and "will stop short of making demands on people's behaviors."  Bedke also stated in his comments that he agreed that the 2020 special session "got out of hand" and that measures would be taken for such aggressive actions to not happen again during a legislative session.  However, precisely what those measures are for this upcoming session have not been made public. 

He has stated that members of the public could provide testimony or speak to their legislative representatives virtually if they do not feel safe doing so in person, but that is left to the discretion of the committee chair.  Representative Bedke further stated, "If that's not enough, I guess they can take their issues to court and make their case."  Later in a letter to Ms. Pisani on December 21, 2020, outlining the safety precautions in place during the upcoming legislative session, including that masks would be available.  However, nowhere in the additional safety guidelines for the 2021 legislative session does it state that CDC recommended guidelines, including wearing of masks or the social distancing of all present, be enforced.     

Idaho's Senator Pro Tem, Chuck Winder, also wrote a letter dated December 22, 2020, stating that while he was concerned with safety during the upcoming legislative session, he was "unaware of any complaints or incidences of intimidation" and further recommended that any such concerns should be taken to the Idaho State Police.  However, the 2020 special session events provide evidence to the contrary since several incidences could be construed as intimidating.  Concerns of a repeat of these types of events or worse happening in the upcoming session will be heightened for those who want to attend and have health concerns, difficulty with mobility issues, or handle stressful situations. Now they will need to weigh those concerns with being able to invoke their right to speak in person to their legislative representatives regarding matters that could directly harm their quality of life. 

While Ms. Pisani stated that she had discussed the letter she wrote and the responses from Representative Bedke and Senator Winder, with both Idaho's Governor, Brad Little, and Attorney General, Lawrence Wasdon. There have been no public statements from either Wasdon or Little in response. On December 15, Idaho's House and Senate minority leaders wrote letters to the majority leaders for a delay to the legislative session's start to address safety concerns.  Governor Little also advised Idaho's lawmakers to delay or hold the legislative session virtually.  However, Bedke has stated this is unlikely since it would require a 2/3 majority vote by Idaho's legislature in favor of such a delay.  In the meantime, organizations such as the ICDD and Medicaid Matters in Idaho are calling upon the public to contact Idaho's legislative majority leaders and Governor Little's office to express their support of the need for additional safety measures for the upcoming legislative session.  Having these additional measures helps to ensure a safe environment that allows for people with disabilities and their families to provide in-person testimony and any other member of the public who wishes to attend in-person.

Representative Scott Bedke (R)

[email protected]
Speaker of the House
District 27
House Seat A
9th term
P.O. Box 89, Oakley, 83346
Home
(208) 862-3619
Statehouse
(208) 332-1123 (Session Only)

Senator Chuck Winder (R)

[email protected]
Majority Leader
District 20
6th term
5528 N. Ebbetts Avenue, Boise, ID, 83713
Home
(208) 853-9090
Statehouse
(208) 332-1354 (Session Only)

 

Governor Brad Little (R)

Contact Information:  Link to Contact Form for Idaho Governor's Office