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Idaho governor calls special session due to pandemic

August 19, 2020 GMT

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho Gov. Brad Little on Wednesday called the part-time Legislature back into a special session due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Republican governor in a news release said the special session will start Monday.

He said lawmakers will consider election law changes as well as establishing temporary civil liability standards related to the pandemic.

Lawmakers meeting in special working groups comprised of senators and representatives from both parties have been calling for a special session to address those two issues.

Election officials have testified before those lawmakers that 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.

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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.

Another group of lawmakers said 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.

But others said such a liability shield would remove responsibility from businesses, schools and government.

The statement released by Little’s office said the governor’s proclamation for the special session “calls for the Legislature to establish temporary and consistent standards for civil liability related to COVID-19 that will help Idaho’s economy recover in a safe and responsible manner while encouraging careful planning, care and safety in responding to the pandemic.”

Under Idaho’s Constitution, only the governor can call a special session, and such special sessions are limited to specific topics.

Little, Republican House Speaker Scott Bedke and Republican Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill have been discussing possible topics for the special session. Generally, topics picked in a special session are expected to already have the votes to get approved.

“We owe it to taxpayers to pull off a swift and successful special legislative session,” Little said in a statement.

“It is our duty to protect the votes of every Idahoan, and that is exactly what will happen,” said Republican Majority Caucus Chair Representative Megan Blanksma in a statement. “We are also ready to work on options for protecting Idaho’s schools and businesses.”

Lawmakers had also called for a special session to deal with education funding and the authority of public health districts, which can mandate the wearing of masks. Little said those two topics are important, but they don’t require immediate action and can be handled during the regular legislative session early next year.

How a special session will work during the pandemic is unclear. Officials have said lawmakers have to be in the Statehouse in Boise for their votes to count. That means 105 lawmakers from around the state are expected to converge to an area that has had community spread of the virus for months.

According to Johns Hopkins University, through Tuesday there were more than 28,000 infections and 282 deaths in the state.

The seven-day rolling average of the positivity rate in Idaho dropped to 15.4 percent through Tuesday from 17.5 percent, according to The COVID Tracking Project. But among states and including Puerto Rico, that makes Idaho sixth-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.