Legislature votes to give itself more power over emergencies such as COVID-19

Lawmakers want to weaken governor’s authority

By: - October 21, 2020 12:20 am
Louisiana Capitol Building

The Louisiana Legislature ended its regular session Thursday. (Photo by Julie O’Donoghue)

The Louisiana Legislature voted Tuesday to give itself more authority over state emergency orders and restrictions, including those that have been in place for months because of COVID-19. 

The approved legislation could give lawmakers an opening to throw out Louisiana’s coronavirus rules, though Gov. John Bel Edwards may be able to block it from becoming law with a veto. Lawmakers did not pass the proposal with a veto-proof majority.

The Legislature called itself into a special session primarily to weaken Edwards’ grip over COVID-19 restrictions. Republican lawmakers say their constituents are upset about several of the limitations.

Specifically, legislators have focused their complaints on bar restrictions and attendance caps at high school football games. Some more conservative Republicans are also angry about the statewide mask mandate and restrictions on nursing home visitation. 

They also grumble that the governor doesn’t communicate about what pandemic regulations he is enacting before they go into place. Lawmakers said it leaves them unable to answer basic questions from constituents about what the state is doing and why. 

The governor, a Democrat, has almost complete authority to suspend laws and enact new rules during a health crisis under the current law. Republicans control almost every other aspect of state government and have been frustrated by their inability to push back on his power, especially as the pandemic drags into its eighth month.

“One of the reasons we came here is to fix the emergency powers process,” said GOP Caucus chairman Blake Miguez, R-Erath. 

Under the current law, lawmakers can try to stop emergency order restrictions if the majority of either the House or the Senate signs a petition to throw out the order entirely. But they cannot pick and choose aspects of the order — like the mask mandate for example — that they want to strike down. They must get rid of the whole thing.

That makes terminating orders difficult. Several House members have circulated petitions to end Edwards’ emergency declaration — with no success. 

Many lawmakers believe tossing the order entirely would jeopardize over $1 billion in federal coronavirus relief funding and are therefore reluctant to support those efforts. Others don’t want to get rid of all of the governor’s pandemic restrictions, even if they have problems with a few of the rules. Still others argue that the petition process, as currently outlined in state law, is unconstitutional and might be overturned in court. 

But the legislation passed Tuesday gives lawmakers a new avenue for pushing back on Edwards. It creates an alternative process for the Legislature to repeal all of — or just  parts of — a governor’s emergency order, including the pandemic restrictions in place now.

Under this legislation, two of the four legislative leadership officers — the Senate President, Senate President Pro Tempore, House Speaker and House Speaker Pro Tempore — could ask that all or part of an emergency order be struck down through a vote of the majority of each chamber in the legislature.

Lawmakers would be able to vote for these changes remotely. It would not require legislators to return to Baton Rouge to cast a ballot.

If enacted, this legislation would allow the legislature to remove, for example, the caps on seating at sports stadiums, bar restrictions or the mask mandate if such measures gained the support of the majority of lawmakers. Edwards would not be able to veto such a move if this bill becomes law. 

Though a week remains in the legislative session, conservative lawmakers pushed this bill through the chambers in a rush Tuesday. Negotiations on the proposal appeared to come together quickly. Several lawmakers were caught off guard when they were asked to vote on a gubernatorial powers measure. 

“A lot of us have questions about what this exactly does,” said Rep. Valarie Hodges, R-Denham Springs, before the vote on the legislation.

The Senate approved a set of amendments to the bill early on Tuesday afternoon — only to repeal many of those changes 30 minutes later. In the House, conservative lawmakers who are attorneys huddled privately with those who aren’t to explain,  before the body voted,  what was contained in the rewritten legislation.

The sponsor of the bill, Rep. Mark Wright, R-Covington, wasn’t even at the Capitol for the deliberations. Typically, the sponsors of legislation are  intimately involved in negotiations over their own bills.

The legislative leadership had hoped to pass a measure to curb the governor’s authority far earlier in the session. They were hoping to get the legislation to the governor’s desk with enough time to try to override a veto while they were still meeting in Baton Rouge.

But with adjournment in just six days, they’ve missed that window. The governor now has time to veto the bill after the session has ended. And it’s much harder to get lawmakers to agree to come back to Baton Rouge for a veto override once they have gone home. 

Lawmakers could try to pressure the governor into signing this legislation by threatening to pass another proposal that would suspend the current COVID-19 restrictions entirely until the end of December. 

That proposal is a type of legislation that can’t be vetoed by the governor. If it were enacted, all of the current COVID-19 restrictions — including limits on restaurants, stadium capacities and the mask mandate — would be struck down for at least two months. 

A version of that measure has already passed the House, but hasn’t come up for a full Senate vote so far.

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Julie O'Donoghue
Julie O'Donoghue

Julie O’Donoghue is a senior reporter for the Louisiana Illuminator and producer of the Louisiana Illuminator podcast. She’s received awards from the Virginia Press Association and Louisiana-Mississippi Associated Press. Julie covered state government and politics for NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune for six years. She’s also covered government and politics in Missouri, Virginia and Washington D.C. Julie is a proud D.C. native and Washington Capitals hockey fan. She and her partner, Jed, live in Baton Rouge. She has two stepchildren, Quinn and Steven.