Louisiana legislative leaders diverge on how much power they want over COVID-19 response

Democratic governor’s unilateral power to respond to emergencies rankles Republican lawmakers

Gov. John Bel Edwards
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards gives updates on the state's COVID-19 pandemic during a press conference at the Governor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness on Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020. (Photo by Wes Muller/LA Illuminator).

The Louisiana Legislature’s two Republican leaders — Senate President Page Cortez and House Speaker Clay Schexnayder — have both said they want to curb the governor’s powers during emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic. But they have put forward radically different approaches toward doing so.

Cortez, of Lafayette, is sponsoring legislation that keeps the governor squarely in charge of disasters like hurricanes and the COVID-19 pandemic, but requires the executive branch to be more transparent about its decision-making.

Meanwhile, Schexnayer, of Gonzales, has proposed a bill in which the power to craft a disaster response — such as the state’s COVID-19 restrictions — would be shifted away from the governor and toward the leaders of the Legislature.

Both proposals are expected to be discussed at a House and Governmental Affairs meeting Thursday morning. The Senate passed Cortez’s bill with unanimous support Wednesday — spanning from Democrats to conservative Republicans. Schexnayder’s legislation hasn’t been heard by lawmakers yet because it was only filed Wednesday evening.

The Republican-dominated Legislature has grown weary of Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards COVID-19 restrictions on business, government and social life as the pandemic drags into its seventh month. They convened a month-long special session this week, in large part to try and change the law that allows the governor to unilaterally enact such regulations during a time of crisis. They said they are hearing complaints about crowd restrictions at high school games, the mask mandate and limitations on alcohol sales at bars and restaurants.

Yet there isn’t consensus on how far the lawmakers should go to wrestle power away from Edwards. At least 10 pieces of legislation to do so are scheduled for preliminary votes Thursday, but none appear to have a majority of support from legislators in both chambers yet.

Cortez and Schexnayder’s bills have the best chances of gaining some traction because they are the leaders of their respective chambers, but their proposals don’t share much common ground. At a press conference Monday, the House Speaker had said his bill would be similar to the one drafted by Cortez, but when it was released two days later, it didn’t resemble what the Senate President has been pushing.

Cortez’s bill requires the governor to explain why the governor has put emergency restrictions in place to the Louisiana Supreme Court chief justice and a 10-person legislative committee once the restrictions last longer than 30 days. But it still gives the governor all the power to manage and craft responses to natural disasters and health crises. That includes leaving all the authority to impose restrictions — such as the ones during the COVID-19 pandemic — with the governor.

In fact, Cortez’s bill would make it harder for the Legislature to throw out the governor’s COVID-19 restrictions that Republicans have been criticizing.

Currently, only the majority of either the House or the Senate has to sign a petition to terminate an emergency order. Cortez’s legislation would up the ante in terms of signatures. It would require the majority of both chambers to sign such a petition to end the governor’s emergency restrictions.

Clay Schexnayder
Louisiana House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales

Schexnayder’s legislation, meanwhile, largely takes the authority to manage a health crisis or emergency away from the governor.

His proposal would require that the governor get permission from the majority of a committee made up of the Senate President, House Speaker, Senate President Pro Tempore and House Speaker Pro Tempore to continue emergency restrictions and regulations longer than 30 days.

Under Schexnayer’s bill, this committee could modify or rewrite any of the emergency restrictions and regulations — and the governor would not be able to veto the changes they made. Republicans currently hold all four of the positions that make up the committee.

The legislation would also expand the Legislature’s ability to block an emergency order through a petition.

The House or Senate could gather a majority of its members signatures to terminate an emergency order put in place by the governor or the committee made up of its own leadership. The House or the Senate could also — after 30 days — block another petition from being issued based on the same circumstances as the one that they voted to terminate, under Schexnayder’s legislation.

Both Cortez and Schexnayder will face challenges getting their bills enacted. House conservatives have already said they can’t support Cortez’s proposal because it would make it harder for the House to terminate Edwards’ current COVID-19 restrictions. The House has several petitions circulating already to try and throw out the governor’s emergency order.

But Schexnayder’s legislation is unlikely to get support from Edwards in its current form. If the bill were to pass out of the Legislature, the governor would likely veto it and the House Republicans don’t have enough members to override Edwards’ veto. There are 68 House Republicans, 35 Democrats and two independents. They need 70 votes to overcome the governor.

Lawmakers insist the debate over the governor’s emergency powers has nothing to do with partisan politics, but the push for change is coming exclusively from Republicans and not members of Edwards’ own party. 

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