Lawmakers discuss reining in governor’s emergency powers

By David Jacobs | The Center Square

A state House of Representatives committee on Wednesday began the process of reviewing various measures seeking to rein in the governor’s authority over public health emergencies such as COVID-19.

The House and Governmental Affairs Committee heard several hours of testimony in anticipation of voting on the eight bills Thursday.

“I’m not criticizing our governor at all,” said Rep. Mike Johnson, a Pineville Republican. “The purpose is to include the voice of those who we represent.”

While the Republican elected officials who dominate Louisiana’s state government largely supported Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards’ efforts to control the spread of COVID-19 during the early stages of the pandemic, many have grown increasingly frustrated with the restrictions imposed on businesses and gatherings, citing the economic and social costs. Some say they’re still willing to support some of the restrictions but want to have input in how those decisions are made.

A Senate committee advanced a bill Tuesday that would force the governor to consult with a legislative committee before extending an emergency order past 30 days, but the governor still could extend the order over their objections. Measures debated Wednesday would give legislators more authority, allowing them to revoke or amend the executive order.

Current state law allows either body of the Legislature to terminate a governor’s emergency order, but it’s an all-or-nothing proposition. Some representatives have been hesitant to sign a petition to that effect because they would rather consider tweaking the order than trashing it entirely, while others object to allowing only one house of the Legislature make the decision.

Rep. Sam Jenkins, a Shreveport Democrat, questioned whether some of the measures would slow down the state’s ability to respond to an emergency by bringing more people into the decision-making process. He also suggested bickering among state officials about whether to declare an emergency or not could cost the state federal aid.

“I just see it getting really messy really quick,” said Rep. Malinda White, D-Bogalusa, adding that bringing more officials into the process would lead to “political drama.”

Rep. Barry Ivey, R-Baton Rouge, said some of the measures violate the constitutional separation of powers by infringing on the executive branch’s authority. At one point, he thanked Rep. Jack McFarland, R-Jonesboro, for bringing a measure that is “not as unconstitutional as the other one, but it’s still unconstitutional.”

The measures the House committee discussed Wednesday and plan to formally consider Thursday generally would still let the governor unilaterally declare an emergency but would require more input to renew the emergency order. They say lawmakers who wrote the current statute dealing with emergencies didn’t envision one that went on indefinitely.

Those measures include:

House Bill 3: Would create a Council of State made up of the governor, treasurer, attorney general, the speaker of the state House of Representatives and the president of the state Senate. After 30 days, a council majority could extend, end, or amend a governor’s emergency order, though nothing would stop the governor from issuing another one. Would apply only to public health emergencies and not to, for example, a natural disaster such as a hurricane.

House Bill 23: Would allow the legislature to modify an emergency declaration related to a public health emergency.

House Bill 4: A state of disaster or emergency could only be renewed after 30 days with the approval of a majority of both houses. During Wednesday’s hearing, legislators discussed amending the bill so that the bodies’ governmental affairs committees would take up the issue first.

House Bill 15: Would allow the legislature, with a majority of either body, to revoke all or part of an emergency or disaster declaration.

House Bill 32: Would require restaurants and bars to have the same regulations when mitigation methods are put in place for a public health emergency. Legislators discussed amending the bill to include breweries and wineries. Some lawmakers say it is unfair to treat bars and restaurants differently, though public health officials say the risks associated with bars are greater when dealing with a disease that spreads through social contact.

House Bill 11: Specifies that legislative termination of an emergency declaration does not affect the governor’s ability to declare a state of disaster or emergency or public health emergency based on other circumstances and that such termination does not nullify other declarations.

House Bill 17: Would require the legislature’s approval to extend a public health emergency after 30 days if it affects more than half of the state’s population. In the form discussed Wednesday, the legislation does not explain how the 50 percent threshold would be defined.