Clash over governor’s emergency powers taking shape

By David Jacobs | The Center Square

The Louisiana House of Representatives will consider multiple instruments seeking to limit the governor’s authority to issue and maintain mandates meant to control the COVID-19 pandemic.

The proposals reflect Republicans’ frustration with Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards’ handling of the public health emergency, though party members disagree among themselves about what the next steps should be. Edwards, for his part, says there are no reasonable arguments that coronavirus mitigation methods should not remain in place.

A House committee on Thursday sent to the full House a proposal to create a legislative committee that would review a governor’s emergency declarations but would not have the authority to overturn those declarations. Though committee members approved Senate Bill 29, co-sponsored by Senate President Page Cortez, without objection, some Republicans said they consider the measure toothless.

The committee would have 10 members, including five from each chamber. If the governor wanted to extend an emergency order beyond 30 days, he would be compelled to explain the reasons why and the plan to resolve the crisis.

“Information is power,” said Sen. Patrick McMath, who is co-sponsoring the bill with Cortez.

Current law allows legislators to kill an emergency declaration by a majority vote of one chamber. Former lawmaker Woody Jenkins, who was a legislator when that law was written, said the bar purposely was set low. The thinking was that if you’re going to give the governor sweeping emergency power, you should have the support of both bodies.

Senate Bill 29 would require majority approval of both chambers. Cortez argued that allowing one house to act without the other was constitutionally dubious and might not hold up in court. The statute has not been used previously and therefore hasn’t been tested in court.

The committee advanced without objection House Concurrent Resolution 9 by Speaker Clay Schexnayder, which would suspend Gov. John Bel Edwards’ COVID-19 emergency declaration until 30 days after the current special session ends. Democrats expressed concerns about the resolution, which would need majority approval of both chambers but not the governor’s signature, but said they didn’t want to oppose their speaker’s bill.

Schexnayder described his resolution as an opportunity to “take a deep breath” and decide the next steps. He said the other pending measures purporting to make a more permanent fix to how the state handles emergencies are “all good options.”

“We just have to narrow it down,” he said.

As of Sept. 19, Louisiana’s unemployment rate stood at 10.8%, with more than 204,213 people receiving benefits in large part because of government restrictions on businesses.

Some lawmakers want to give the legislature the ability to extend or reject a governor’s emergency order after 30 days. Other measures advanced Thursday would allow legislators to choose which aspects of an emergency order to reject or leave in place, rather than the all-or-nothing proposition under current law. The latter route might also be legally questionable because it violates the constitutional separation of powers, some lawmakers argued.

Jim Waskom, who directs the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, said at least some of the measures could complicate the state’s efforts to draw down federal funds or even lead to clawbacks of money the state already has received.

“Why would you take that risk?” he said.

Edwards didn’t express support or opposition to any of the measures being considered, saying he makes those decisions when legislation reaches his desk. But he pushed back against criticisms that he hasn’t been communicating with the legislature about his COVID-19-related decisions, saying he keeps leadership in the loop.

“It is not a good idea to try to manage an emergency by committee,” Edwards said.

The state’s recent progress getting the pandemic under control are attributable to the mitigation mandates that have been put in place, but those gains are fragile, he said.

“There’s not a reasonable discussion to be had with people who believe right now in Louisiana that we shouldn’t have a public health emergency in place, or mitigation methods in place, or restrictions in place in order to slow the spread and protect public health,” he said.