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Idaho governor to call special session due to COVID-19

August 5, 2020 GMT

Idaho Gov. Brad Little said Wednesday that he’ll call the part-time Legislature back into a special session in late August due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Republican governor in a statement said the special session will start during the week of Aug. 24. He said it could include how to conduct the November general election amid the pandemic. Little also said the special session might consider legislation creating a liability shield for protection against lawsuits during declared emergencies such as the pandemic.

The State Affairs Working Group, comprised of House and Senate members, was meeting at the time of Little’s announcement. Little’s director of intergovernmental affairs was in the Statehouse meeting room where members who weren’t taking part online had gathered. She was asked to address the group.

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“The governor’s goal and intent has been clear,” Bobbi-Jo Meuleman told lawmakers. “He wants to see clear, concise and consensus language on topics to address for a special session.”

The governor is the only person who can call a special session.

Working groups comprised of House and Senate Republicans and Democrats have been meeting and putting forward possible legislation for a special session and asking Little to call one.

Election officials at those meetings have said polling places for the November election could be limited due to a lack of volunteers afraid of getting the virus and some facilities declining to be polling places. That has led to suggestions of polling centers with expanded voting times as well as using National Guard soldiers at polling places.

Election officials have also sought changes in the absentee ballot system to make vote counting more efficient due to possibly much larger numbers of absentee ballots.

A majority of House and Senate lawmakers on the Judiciary and Rules Working Group last month concluded that a liability shield law is needed to protect government, schools and private businesses from frivolous lawsuits. Lawmakers said that if someone gets the virus at a school or workplace, they could file a lawsuit.

An Education Working group has also called for a special session but didn’t put forward specific legislation. Schools face a variety of problems that include remote learning for students and additional costs to operate during the pandemic. Social distancing requirements of 6 feet (2 meters), for example, would limit an 82-seat school bus to 13 students.

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It’s not clear that rural Idaho could meet its Constitutional requirement to educate students by going strictly online, and Little recently asked for donated laptops for students.

Lawmakers have also complained they haven’t had a chance to say how the state should spend the $1.25 billion in coronavirus relief money the state received earlier this year. Little with the help of committees he’s formed has been making those decisions.

How a special session would work during the pandemic and how much it would cost is unclear. Officials have said lawmakers would have to be in the Statehouse in Boise for their votes to count.

According to Johns Hopkins University, through Tuesday there were more than 20,000 infections and 210 deaths in the state.

The seven-day rolling average of the positivity rate in Idaho dropped to 17.5 percent through Tuesday from 18.6 percent, according to The COVID Tracking Project. But among states and including Puerto Rico, that makes Idaho seventh-worst in the nation.

The number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested. Studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. But for some — especially older adults and people with existing health problems — it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.