BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — House Speaker Clay Schexnayder sought Friday to stall an ongoing effort by his fellow Republicans to revoke Gov. John Bel Edwards’ coronavirus pandemic state of emergency, saying an override would be a “grave decision with potentially dire consequences.”
Schexnayder sent letter to Republican House members discouraging support for a petition circulated by Shreveport GOP Rep. Alan Seabaugh that would remove Louisiana’s state of emergency and nullify the Democratic governor’s orders restricting activity to lessen the spread of the coronavirus.
The letter, delivered via text message, cautioned that revoking the emergency order could create legal headaches for businesses trying to recover from closures; could trigger the overrides of ongoing executive orders tied to previous natural disasters; and could hamper the governor’s authority to respond to any tornadoes or hurricanes that strike.
“The decisions we make in the following days and weeks could have dramatic unintended consequences for the entire state. As your leader, I simply ask that you weigh the risks before making your decision,” wrote Schexnayder, of Ascension Parish.
He said his information was based on “extensive legal and constitutional counsel.”
A group of conservative House Republicans is pushing the extraordinary legal maneuver, a petition that requires support from a majority of the House or Senate to revoke the state of emergency. They say Edwards has infringed on constitutional rights by enacting a statewide mask mandate, restricting business and church activity and limiting gatherings.
Seabaugh, a lawyer, said Schexnayder’s claims about the petition’s implications are inaccurate “fear-mongering.” He said the petition would revoke the public health emergency only as it relates to the COVID-19 disease caused by the coronavirus for 60 days. He said it would not affect Edwards’ authority to declare emergencies for hurricanes or floods.
“If you’re not for the petition, that’s fine. But at least do get your facts right,” Seabaugh said. “All the talking points are just wrong.”
It’s unclear how close petition backers are to the 53 House signatures required for passage because the document has not been released publicly. But Friday’s letter from Schexnayder suggests the House speaker thinks passage is possible.
Monday’s start of the facial covering requirement seems to have renewed calls for the petition — even as Louisiana again has one of the nation’s fastest growing infection rates per capita.
Attorney General Jeff Landry, a Republican currently in quarantine after a positive coronavirus test, issued a legal opinion Wednesday saying Edwards’ order requiring most people to wear face coverings and limiting bars to takeout and delivery is “likely unconstitutional and unenforceable.” The opinion does not negate the order, but could be used to bolster a lawsuit if someone wanted to file one.
Schexnayder noted that Vice President Mike Pence, during a Tuesday visit to Louisiana, offered the Trump administration’s support for the mask mandate. Schexnayder was among the officials who met with Pence during his trip.
Pence “said that he and President Trump were in 100% support of the steps Louisiana has and is currently taking to combat COVID-19,” Schexnayder wrote. “In addition, the vice president said that both he and President Trump fully support and strongly urged us all to wear masks. They believe that wearing masks and limiting gatherings is the best thing we can do to avoid having an uncontrollable spike and having to go back into shutdown — which no one wants and our state and nation cannot afford.”
House GOP Delegation leader Blake Miguez of Vermilion Parish posted a photo on Facebook in June showing him signing the petition. On Friday, asked to respond to Schexnayder’s letter, Miguez replied in a statement: “When it comes to legal and constitutional issues, I think we should consult with the chief legal officer of the state, the attorney general.”
Landry has not publicly weighed in on the implications of the petition, but Seabaugh said Friday he’s asked for an attorney general’s opinion.
Louisiana announced another 2,179 cases of the coronavirus Friday and is averaging more than 2,000 new confirmed infections a day over the last week. Hospitalization numbers are surging, and the percentage of coronavirus tests returning positive has alarmed public health experts.
Nearly 3,400 Louisiana residents have died from the COVID-19 disease caused by the coronavirus, according to the state health department. For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms. For some, especially older adults and those with existing health problems, it can cause more severe or fatal illness.