Louisiana House backs proposals to undo COVID-19 restrictions

The House approves eight bills to remove the governor’s authority to handle emergencies

Louisiana Capitol Building
Photo by Julie O'Donoghue

The Louisiana House of Representatives made its intentions clear Friday when it passed seven bills that would limit the governor’s authority during emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic — and one extra piece of legislation that could throw out all of the state’s COVID-19 restrictions until the end of November.

None of the measures can go into effect unless the Senate also votes for them, but their overwhelming approval from the House sends a message that legislators are willing to force Gov. John Bel Edwards to consider major adjustments to his COVID-19 response. 

The votes took place hours after President Donald Trump announced that he and Melania Trump had tested positive for COVID-19. While the lawmakers offered public prayers for the president on Friday morning, his illness did not come up during the hours-long discussion about how to manage Louisiana’s pandemic.

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Republicans lawmakers, who control the Legislature, have complained for months that Edwards, a Democrat, is moving too slowly to reopen the economy and return to pre-pandemic activities. They had said they hear constant complaints about the limits on crowds at sporting events, bar restrictions and the statewide mask mandate – to name a few issues. 

“[Edwards] is keeping his boot on the throat of Louisiana’s businesses,” said Rep. Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport, during the floor debate Friday.  

In response to the governor, lawmakers are pushing several proposals to shift power over statewide emergencies from the governor to themselves. 

Currently, the governor has almost total authority over mitigation efforts during a state crisis like a hurricane or the COVID-19 pandemic.That control has allowed Edwards to unilaterally close schools, limit sports stadium capacity and close down bars for weeks at a time. Republican lawmakers are unhappy with those decisions and want to rewrite the laws that dictate emergency authority so they have a say over those matters moving forward.

“We have to have information and a seat at the table,” said Rep. Stephen Dwight, R-Lake Charles, during the House debate Friday. 

Yet so far, there doesn’t seem to be much agreement from Republican lawmakers on how much control they want. The seven measures the House approved Friday conflict with each other and don’t represent a cohesive strategy for taking power away from the governor.

The House-approved proposals include one that lets the House easily terminate a governor’s emergency order — which would likely threaten federal funding if done during COVID-19.

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Others give the Legislature the power to remove specific items from an emergency order that they don’t like. Still others completely shift responsibility for putting in emergency restrictions — like a mask mandate or schools closures — to the Legislature after 30 days. In some cases, they allow the leadership of just one chamber — the House or the Senate — to shape the policy.

House Democrats objected to the proposals and most voted against them Friday. But the Democrats don’t have enough seats in the House or the Senate to stop a measure from getting approved.

Earlier in the week, the Senate passed its own legislation to address the governor’s unilateral power, but it was a far gentler approach than the ones taken by the House. The bill, sponsored by Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, mostly demanded that the governor share information with Legislative leadership during an emergency situation. It did not transfer power from the governor to the lawmakers in any meaningful way.

The House also voted to approve the Cortez bill Friday, but only after rewriting it to reflect a larger shift in power from the governor to the legislative branches. 

Though the House overwhelmingly voted for bills to curb the governor’s power, the Republican leadership wasn’t able to get to 70 votes — the number needed to override a veto from Edwards — on any one of them. Republicans hold only 68 seats in the House. There are also two independents and 35 Democrats.

Still, the Republicans have an instrument to apply pressure to the governor. House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, has sponsored a resolution that would allow them to temporarily throw out the governor’s emergency order until the end of November. If the Senate approved it, that would mean every COVID-19 restriction — including the mask mandate, stadium restrictions and bar limitations — could be lifted for weeks.

Unlike a regular bill, Schexnayder’s resolution only needs a majority of the members of the House and the Senate to vote in favor of it. Edwards also can’t veto a resolution, which means the House doesn’t have to get to 70 votes for it to go into effect.

Schexnayder keeps referring to the resolution as a “tool” and it’s likely that he would use it for leverage in negotiations with Edwards to get longer-lasting changes — like a permanent reduction in the governor’s authority. 

But passing the legislation could have “unintended consequences”, said James Waskom, director of the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness. He said it could force the state to have to pay back some of the money it has received to combat COVID-19. It could also impact the ability of the state to distribute food through food banks across the state and to do community testing, he said.