As Hurricane Delta bears down on Louisiana, debate over governor’s authority continues

Clay Schexnayder
Louisiana House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales

As Louisiana prepares for Hurricane Delta to make landfall later this week, the Louisiana Legislature is still pursuing measures to strip the governor of his authority to manage such disasters over the long term.

Lawmakers continued to move proposals that would shift power over emergencies from the governor to the legislature Tuesday, though they have pared down their options for doing so.

There’s still a number of issues to be worked out before they take final votes — the House and Senate don’t agree on how much authority they should get — but they’re moving closer to a final decision.

The measures are born out of Republican lawmakers’ frustration with Gov. John Bel Edwards’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but some could apply to a much wider swath of crises.

Edwards, a Democrat, has unilaterally imposed dozens of restrictions — such as bar closures, school shutdowns and a mask mandate — to combat the pandemic over the last seven months. 

Republicans, who control the legislature, haven’t agreed with some of the ongoing limitations, particularly those on high school sporting events and bars. 

The Republicans question whether the governor should be given such wide authority to impose such restrictions without input from the legislature.

Under current law, either chamber of the legislature can terminate a governor’s emergency order by a majority vote. But in the case of COVID-19, that would put significant federal funding at risk. Several lawmakers are also only interested in removing some of the governor’s COVID-19 rules, but not his entire emergency declaration.

So the House Republican leadership has gotten behind a bill by Rep. Mark Wright, a Republican from Covington. Wright’s legislation would allow the House or the Senate to strike out just some parts of a governor’s emergency order by a majority vote in either chamber after 30 days. They wouldn’t have to throw out the whole thing entirely. It would apply in all emergency situations, including pandemics and hurricanes. 

It’s not clear that the Senate would be willing to accept Wright’s proposal though. 

The Senate Judiciary B Committee moved Wright’s bill to the Senate floor Tuesday, but warned that it would likely “need some work” before the Senate would be willing to approve it. Later in the day, the Senate also unanimously rejected a Senate bill that had been amended to look more like Wright’s legislation. 

Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, said he still has concerns about proposals that would allow the Legislature to remove only portions of a governor’s executive order. He said that raises concerns about the separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches.

Cortez said he also wants both chambers — not just one — to have to vote to undo a governor’s executive order entirely. Current law allows just one chamber to vote to terminate it.

Another House proposal that would throw out Edwards’ entire COVID-19 emergency order until the end of November — including the state mask mandate, bar restrictions and stadium capacity caps — also took another step toward passing. The Senate Judiciary B Committee moved it to the Senate floor, where it would need to get a final vote before going into effect.

The sponsor of the legislation, Republican House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, said he is primarily moving the bill as a negotiating tool. It gives him and other Republicans some leverage over Edwards to get the governor to agree to some other provisions. Unlike most other bills, Edwards cannot veto Schexnayder’s legislation because it is a temporary suspension of a law, rather than a permanent change.

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