Senate calls for “seat at the table” for emergency declarations

By David Jacobs | The Center Square

The Louisiana Senate on Wednesday approved a bill that would make the governor consult with a legislative committee before extending an emergency declaration beyond 30 days.

The measure passed unanimously, though it is likely to face tougher sledding in the more conservative House of Representatives, where many members believe it doesn’t go far enough.

A number of Republican lawmakers want to rein in or eliminate Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards’ ability to impose restrictions on businesses and public gatherings meant to control the spread of COVID-19. They say they haven’t been able to get enough information to explain to constituents why the restrictions still are in place or what the plan is for getting back to normal.

Supporters say the change senators approved Wednesday would give legislators a “seat at the table” so they can understand the nature of the emergency and the plan to solve the problem. The bill by Senate President Page Cortez and Sen. Patrick McMath, both Republicans, also would require a majority vote of both houses of the Legislature to overturn an emergency declaration, rather than just one under current law.

But the change would not require legislative approval for an extension and likely will face pushback from conservative members of the House of Representatives who, after several months essentially watching from the sidelines, want more control over those decisions.

McMath acknowledged that some lawmakers want “an up-or-down vote” on any renewal. But he touted having the ability to question the governor and his staff and “drill down” on the information they’re using to make decisions.

“Oversight is extremely powerful,” he said, arguing that the bill would allow legislators to hold the governor accountable for his decisions while still respecting the constitutional separation of powers.

“The separation of powers is done for a reason,” said Sen. Troy Carter, a New Orleans Democrat. Carter said he would withdraw his support for the bill if it was amended to encroach on the governor’s constitutional authority.

The proposed Legislative Emergency Declaration Review Committee would include the speaker and speaker pro tempore of the House, the president and president pro tempore of the Senate, the chairs of the House and Senate spending and health committees, and two additional legislators whom leadership would appoint. The legislation also brings the Louisiana Supreme Court into the review process.

The House and Governmental Affairs Committee is scheduled to take up Cortez’ and McMath’s Senate Bill 29 on Thursday, along with several other measures that would give legislators more authority than the senators’ proposal.