Louisiana House GOP move to throw out COVID restrictions — for a week

Republicans say they’re prepared to go to court if governor doesn’t relent

Clay Schexnayder
Louisiana House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, speaks on behalf of Republican leadership in September.

This story has been updated to include House Republicans’ threat of a lawsuit and a statement from Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry.

Louisiana House Republicans have collected enough signatures for a petition to direct Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, to remove all of the state’s COVID-19 restrictions for seven days, though they aren’t certain the petition process they are using is allowed by the state constitution.

The Edwards administration and lawmakers — even those who signed the petition — believe there is a good chance the petition won’t pass muster in court. A judge could throw it out, making the House Republican effort to halt the Democratic governor’s COVID-19 restrictions largely symbolic.  

Still, if it is successful, the petition could have an impact on the state’s COVID-19 infection rate. It could eliminate caps on restaurant capacity, football stadiums and bars as well as the statewide mask mandate for a week. Health officials said these limitations are part of what has kept Louisiana’s coronavirus outbreak manageable.

The restrictions would be eliminated at a time when many parts of the country are seeing a troubling surge in COVID-19 infection rates and hospitalizations. Louisiana has had the third most cases of COVID-19 per capita of any state in the country since the pandemic exploded in March.

House Republican leaders clarified that while the petition would get rid of statewide restrictions, local governments could still put in their own limits. Mayor LaToya Cantrell of New Orleans, for example, already imposes much more stringent restrictions than those put in place by the governor. The petition wouldn’t affect her efforts, they said.

But that didn’t seem to placate the governor, who was visibly angry Friday afternoon.

“They are acting as if the public health emergency is over,” Edwards said at a hastily-called press conference. “If I understand their intentions, I will tell you that it’s reckless and irresponsible and unconscionable.” 

“The virus doesn’t care that you’re tired of it. It doesn’t care that you don’t care. It just doesn’t work like that,” he said.  

Aside from the public health implications, Edwards said such a petition could threaten over a billion dollars in federal COVID-19 relief funding, even if it forces him to lift the order for a few days. 

“If you assume that the emergency gets terminated in some way, shape or form, I don’t think there’s any question — if you look at our agreement with FEMA — that the state would be at risk of being in breach of our agreement with FEMA,” said Matthew Block, the governor’s general counsel, in an interview. 

Still, almost all Republicans in the House are on board with the effort to throw out the COVID-19 rules. Sixty-five of 68 members of the GOP delegation had signed the petition by Friday afternoon, even as questions remained about whether it will stand up in court. 

As outlined in state law, the petition process allows a majority of either chamber of the Louisiana Legislature to tell the governor to throw out an emergency order.

But Edwards and legislative leaders — including Senate President Page Cortez, House Speaker Clay Schexnayder and House Speaker Pro Tempore Tanner Magee — have been skeptical that the petition process aligns with the separation of powers provision of the state constitution. 

“I don’t think it’s any secret that the governor has real concerns about the constitutionality of one body of the Legislature acting on behalf of the Legislature, which is apparently what this petition is doing,” Block said.

“I’m not sure the constitution allows one chamber to operate that way,” said Magee, an attorney who signed the petition in spite of his doubts. 

The relevant Louisiana law says that when a majority of one of the chambers presents a petition terminating a public health emergency, “[t]hereupon, the governor shall issue an executive order or proclamation ending the state of public health or emergency.”  Edwards has not issued such an order or proclamation.

Rep. Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport, released a recorded video statement Friday that says House Republicans are prepared to go to court to force Edwards to comply with their petition.

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, who has repeatedly clashed with the governor during the pandemic, issued a statement Saturday that says that the governor’s inaction doesn’t matter. “The termination process is effective immediately, unless provided otherwise in the petition, when a petition is signed by a majority of the surviving members within either body of the Legislature, the Senate or the House. The termination of emergency powers does not require any additional action other than the signed petition. Upon completion of the signed petition, the Governor is directed to issue a proclamation informing the public of the termination.”

The House has had several petition efforts circulating among its Republican members for months but has never been able to get the Senate on board with its efforts. Republicans control a majority of the Senate as well, but senators have been less interested in limiting Edwards’ power. 

Instead, Cortez said his chamber will be setting up a special Senate committee to investigate the state’s COVID-19 crisis. The committee will determine what, if anything, the Senate should do to try to change the current restrictions.

“The common comment, amongst senators, is that in order to manage a crisis, you have to have all the information. And for us to attempt to manage the crisis or restrict the management of the crisis, we would need to have more information,” Cortez said. 

In the House though, Magee said he and several other members felt like Edwards had offered them no options other than to throw out his order. He said Edwards hasn’t been willing to compromise with lawmakers, who are being pressured by constituents to get COVID-19 restrictions lifted. 

The legislature called a special session late last month, in part to wrestle some power over the COVID-19 response away from Edwards. Lawmakers sent the governor a bill earlier this week that would have allowed lawmakers to vote to remove just some of the governor’s COVID-19 restrictions — instead of using the petition process to throw out the emergency order entirely.

The governor has implied he will veto that legislation, which upset Republicans and brought new life to the petition efforts. Magee said it was the reason several lawmakers signed onto the petition Friday, just as the legislature was ending its special session.

“We’ve tried everything,” Magee said. “We’ve exhausted every other option but the petition.”

The governor has almost complete authority to suspend laws and enact new rules during a health crisis under the current law. He can impose restrictions on many aspects of life — including public gatherings, businesses and religious services. 

Magee worries about that unchecked gubernatorial power, especially when the COVID-19 crisis could drag on for several more months or possibly years. He said new laws — like the one sent to the governor’s desk — needed to be passed to insert the legislature more into the crisis management process. 

“I’m not saying John Bel has been acting as a dictator, but that really is a dictatorship,” Magee said. The governor ought “to consult the legislative body in some form or fashion at some point,” he said.  

Other lawmakers also have gripes about specific rules that the governor has put in place — specifically the restrictions on bars and attendance capacity at high school football games. 

“I think the biggest push was about high school football,” Cortez said Friday.

The governor tried to appease lawmakers by increasing the capacity at high school football games from 25 to 50 percent of stadium occupancy Thursday, but that might have been too little, too late.

House members have grumbled for months that Edwards doesn’t tell them what COVID-19 restrictions he is enacting and why. It has often been difficult for them to explain to their constituents why certain regulations have been put in place, they said.

Still, the Senate — at least at the leadership level — hasn’t had problems communicating with the governor’s office. Cortez said when he has asked Edwards to alter COVID-19 restrictions for bars, wedding halls and high school football games. In all three cases, the governor has been willing to relax the rules.

Edwards is only willing to do so much though. Some House members want the elimination of all restrictions, which the governor won’t entertain. He said that would lead to the state’s hospitals being overwhelmed with COVID-19 cases and lead to more deaths. 

“As of today, 5,614 Louisianans are dead from this disease. That’s more people that live in my hometown,” he said. “How many more does it require to get people’s attention and to get them to take this seriously?”

Editor Jarvis DeBerry contributed to this report.