Senate committee approves two House-backed measures to limit governor’s emergency powers

By David Jacobs | The Center Square

A Louisiana Senate judiciary committee on Tuesday advanced two measures that would limit the governor’s authority over declared emergencies.

Senators approved both instruments without objection. Members heard testimony on other measures with similar goals before setting them aside. While the committee chairman promised votes for other instruments at a future meeting, Tuesday’s action may have offered a preview of which of the various House of Representatives-approved limitations will be palatable to the less-conservative Senate.

House Concurrent Resolution 9 by House Speaker Clay Schexnayder would suspend Gov. John Bel Edwards’ ability to extend or renew his COVID-19 emergency declaration for 30 days. He said the goal is to allow state residents to get back to normal life, at least “for a little while.”

Concurrent resolutions need approval from the majority of both chambers to go into effect but do not need the governor’s signature.

Schexnayder also endorsed House Bill 4, which would maintain the governor’s ability to issue emergency executive orders but give legislators the ability to vote on subsequent extensions after 30 days. Two of the legislature’s top four elected officials would have to agree to call for a vote, and a majority of both houses would be needed to overturn or amend the order.

Currently, a majority of either chamber can cancel an emergency order, but it’s an all-or-nothing vote. Rep. Mark Wright, the Covington Republican who authored HB 4, said his proposal would give legislators more flexibility and allow for negotiation with the governor.

“The governor’s acting in his authority,” Wright said. “He’s doing what he thinks is best.”

But there’s room for disagreement, he said, naming concerns about property rights and religious freedom.

“It is encouraging to see our legislature working to foster a system that favors collaboration with other elected officials over unilateral power,” Daniel Erspamer, CEO of the Pelican Institute for Public Policy, said in a statement. “By adding these much-needed checks and balances to Louisiana’s emergency powers, we can be more responsive to the needs of the individuals, entrepreneurs, and families across our state.”

Committee Chairman Sen. Gary Smith, a Norco Democrat, raised concerns about whether allowing legislators to tweak an executive order violates the constitutional separation of powers. Senate President Page Cortez has called for creating a legislative committee that governors would be required to consult with but expressed concerns about giving legislators veto power over an executive order for the same constitutional reasons.

The committee voted down House Bill 15 by Rep. Larry Frieman, an Abita Springs Republican, that would have left the current petition system that allows a single chamber to end an emergency order in place but allowed them also to alter those orders. Sen. Joseph Bouie, a New Orleans Democrat, said he preferred measures that would ensure both chambers vote.

“We have so many instruments trying to do the same thing,” Bouie noted.

Edwards has not publicly expressed opposition to any of the measures pending in the current special session that would limit his emergency authority. But he has stated that managing an emergency by committee is not ideal, and points to the state’s stubbornly high COVID-19 infection rate to justify keeping mitigation mandates in place.

Though most businesses are able to open, capacity restrictions remain in place along with a requirement for employees and patrons to wear face coverings. Barrooms are closed for on-premise service, and alcohol service is cut off at 11 p.m.

The current COVID-19 executive order expires Friday. Edwards has announced that his renewal of that order will allow for alcohol sales at sporting events.

“Right now, Louisiana’s COVID hospitalization rate is the lowest it has been in nearly four months, and that’s because Louisianans are taking mitigation measures like wearing masks seriously,” Edwards says. “If we want to continue to come together as fans to celebrate, we must wear our face masks, wash our hands frequently and avoid going in public whenever we have symptoms.”