Governor vetoes bill to give legislators power over COVID-19 restrictions

Edwards says emergencies can’t ‘managed by a committee’

Gov. John Bel Edwards
Gov. John Bel Edwards (Photo by Wesley Muller)

Gov. John Bel Edwards vetoed legislation Tuesday that gives legislators the power to rescind COVID-19 restrictions and weakens his authority over emergencies overall. 

“I have said repeatedly that an emergency cannot be managed by committee and that is exactly what this bill would allow,” wrote the governor in his veto explanation to the legislature.

Edwards went on to describe the lawmakers’ proposal as not “a serious approach” because it would allow lawmakers to throw out individual health restrictions — or possibly an entire emergency order — electronically and remotely. Legislators wouldn’t necessarily have to convene in Baton Rouge to remove health regulations under the legislation.

Edwards’ veto wasn’t a surprise. The governor, a Democrat, had indicated in recent days that he wasn’t planning to sign the bill backed by the Republican majority in the legislature. 

Nevertheless, the partisan feud between the governor and lawmakers, particularly in the House, is escalating. 

The Republicans said Edwards’ unwillingness to consider this bill led almost all of the GOP House members to sign a petition to throw out the state’s COVID-19 restrictions entirely for seven days.

The governor is challenging the validity of that petition in court. He claims the petition process — outlined in state law — is unconstitutional. He also argues that lawmakers didn’t follow the rules for a successful petition, which requires them to consult with the state health department before taking such action.

Still, the petition and the governor’s subsequent lawsuit have created some confusion. Attorney General Jeff Landry and conservative lawmakers have insisted that Louisiana’s COVID-19 restrictions — such as restaurant occupancy caps and the mask mandate — were removed Friday after the petition was filed.

Edwards said the restrictions are still in place until a judge says otherwise, and the state government enforcement agencies — which Edwards oversees — are operating as if nothing has changed. 

Under the current law, the governor has almost complete authority to suspend laws and enact new rules during a health crisis. 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.

Republicans believe it isn’t appropriate for the governor to have such broad authority for months on end if an emergency order is in place. At some point, lawmakers should get a say over what happens during a health crisis, they said. 

The GOP lawmakers also say their constituents are upset about several of the current COVID-19 limitations. 

Specifically, legislators have focused their complaints on bar restrictions and attendance caps at high school football games. 

They 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.

Legislators convened a special session for almost a month, in part to try and loosen the governor’s grip over the COVID-19 response. They were largely unsuccessful. They passed just one bill to weaken the governor’s authority — the one he vetoed Tuesday.

Lawmakers could try to overrule the governor by convening in Baton Rouge and voting for a veto override, but it’s not clear they have enough votes to do so successfully. There are only 68 Republicans in the Louisiana House and it would require 70 votes.