COVID rules and medical marijuana engage legislature

The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee of the Idaho legislature started cranking out bills this week. That means that legislators will now stop dreaming up crazy bills and settle down to getting things wrapped up.  

I admit it didn’t work that way last year–nor the year before–but we can hope.

JFAC has outlined the spending plan for about 40% of the $900 million in Federal disaster aid allotted in December for Idaho public health, child welfare, schools and higher education. The committee also approved $50 million of this year’s surplus for water management projects and another $3 million for state park upgrades. 

Yet, action to limit a governor’s options during emergencies is still central. HB135 is the latest effort to ban emergency rulings affecting jobs, churches, or existing laws. This bill would not only require legislative approval to extend emergency restrictions after 60 days, it would limit emergency declarations to 365 days.   

Elizabeth Criner, a lobbyist for the J.R. Simplot Co. pointed out that Idaho had four regional emergency declarations in 2017 that, under the new law, would have required the legislature to convene in April, May, August and early October to extend regulations. That’s a big extra expenditure.   

There are a number of other pandemic-related bills being considered. SB1060 and HB33 would require restrictions by public health districts to end after 30 days unless approved by county or city officials. HB 67 and HB 68 would give the trustees of  K-12 schools and community colleges, not health districts, the power to decide rules and procedures during epidemics. These last two bills have passed the House along with HCR 5 which seeks to nullify Gov. Brad Little’s current order limiting public gatherings to 50 persons.

But interest in the medical marijuana issue is growing.  This session started with the introduction of a resolution (SJR 101) to insert Idaho’s current drug laws into the state constitution. It’s passed the Senate with a 2/3rds vote, 24-11. 

Supporters raised the fear that out-of-state interests would come in, promote legalizing drugs, and ruin our state. Idaho had, after all, seen an initiative to legalize medical marijuana that might have been on the 2020 ballot if Gov. Little’s COVID restrictions hadn’t made signature gathering impossible. 

And last week a group named Kind Idaho did get approval for a new initiative said to be identical to the earlier one (https://www.facebook.com/kindidaho).    

It’s a real possibility that both issues will appear on Nov. 2022 ballots in Idaho. I can’t imagine anything other than a presidential election boosting voter turnout more. So we might get a chance to find out where Idahoans really stand.

It was no surprise, however, to see a new bill designed to end the power of anyone but the very rich to get an initiative on our ballot. SB 1110 would require signatures from 6% of the voters in all 35 legislative districts rather than just 18. The argument is that having a voice in getting initiatives on the ballot counts as more than getting to vote on the issue.   

And now there is a bill in the House (HB 108) to legalize medical marijuana. It was written by a cancer-ridden Air Force veteran, Sgt. Jeremy Kitzhaber, and introduced by representatives Ilana Rubel (D) and Mike Kingsley (R). Stricter than the initiative, it limits prescriptions to listed ailments and to 2 grams of THC per month unless a patient is terminal. 

If legislators really want to stop the initiative, they could support the bill which, sponsors say, is the strictest in the nation. But that’s not likely to happen in the only legislature in the country still pondering whether to legalize hemp.