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Lawmakers look to reign in governors' emergency powers during public health emergencies

Rep. Larry Bagley (R-Stonewall), chairman of the House Health and Welfare Committee. April 13, 2022.
Alex Tirado
Rep. Larry Bagley (R-Stonewall), chairman of the House Health and Welfare Committee. April 13, 2022.

Louisiana lawmakers advanced legislation Wednesday that would limit the governor’s ability to maintain or enforce emergency declarations, including public health emergencies related to COVID-19.

Capitol Access reporter Paul Braun joined WWNO Host Karl Lengel below to discuss the legislation and the larger debate around public health policy at the state capitol.

Karl Lengel: What legislation was on the move today and how would it affect the Governor’s authority during public health emergencies?

Paul Braun: Well, earlier today, the House and Governmental Affairs Committee approved HB12, a bill that would set up a process for state lawmakers to eliminate portions of the governor’s emergency or end it outright with a simple majority vote of either chamber of the legislature.

This bill was pretty clearly inspired by Republican legislators’ frustration with Gov. John Bel Edwards’ public health emergency declaration and COVID-19 mitigation measures of the last two years.

One of the big political stories in Louisiana during the first year of the pandemic was the legislature’s repeated efforts to end the public health emergency and line-item veto certain COVID restrictions Edwards put in place.

The most notable attempt was through a legally dubious petition process that was ultimately shot down by the courts. This would shore up the legislature’s legal footing to do just that, and set up a clear process they could follow during future disaster declarations.

Rep. Larry Frieman, the bill’s sponsor seems to realize that this would be a tough sell for the governor, so he specified that this wouldn’t take effect until 2024, once Edwards would be leaving office.

It’s still likely to be vetoed. Edwards has been pretty consistent in advocating for his right and the rights of other governors to effectively respond to emergency situations.

The committee also advanced legislation that would prevent local COVID restrictions, or other elements of emergency orders, from being enforced in STATE buildings. This would prevent – for example – the city of New Orleans from enforcing its stricter COVID-19 policies in the Superdome.

KL: Paul, it seems that COVID-19 is a hot topic for debate even after case counts have fallen and restrictions have been lifted.

PB: Absolutely, though I would say that’s mostly among Republican state lawmakers.

In a lot of ways, Gov. Edwards has moved on from COVID. He opened the legislative session delivering his state of the state address without a mask and he told lawmakers that he was lifting the last of his covid mitigation measures and he was letting his public health emergency expire.

That’s a big shift from the last two years of the pandemic. But Republican lawmakers are still devoting a lot of time and energy to the issue. Yesterday the House Health and Welfare Committee heard a slew of COVID-related bills and the committee room was packed with people who wanted to make their voices heard.

KL: With that in mind, is there any other COVID legislation we should keep an eye on as the session continues?

PB: Yes, the House Health and Welfare Committee worked through a long list of COVID-related bills today and Tuesday.

Most of the more extreme measures failed, including a bill that would give hospital patients the right to bring in a private doctor to administer medication that the hospital won’t. Read that as Ivermectin – the livestock deworming agent that became the favorite alternative COVID treatment of anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists last year.

Another rejected bill would have allowed proof of COVID antibodies to be used as an alternative to proof of COVID-19 vaccination. Antibodies from natural infection provide some protection from the virus but not nearly as much as the vaccines.

But the committee did approve a couple of consequential measures, including one that would strip away the state’s COVID-19 vaccination requirement that’s supposed to take effect in public schools this fall.

Last year there was some uproar in the legislature after the state department of health quietly added the COVID-19 vaccine to its list of required immunizations for school kids once it won full federal approval. They did that through an administrative process that didn’t require the consent of the legislature and members of the House Health and Welfare Committee didn’t like that. They held a series of public hearings and invited members of the public to air their grievances. The meetings became a megaphone for COVID misinformation and anti-vaxers.

Now this session, the Chairman of that committee, Rep. Larry Bagley from Stonewall, is sponsoring a concurrent resolution that would strip the

That cleared committee on Tuesday and is headed to the full House. So is HB990 from Rep. Thomas Pressly, which would prohibit the state or local governments from issuing or enforcing COVID-19 vaccine mandates. Both are pieces of legislation we’ll be following closely through the rest of the session.

Paul Braun was WRKF's Capitol Access reporter, from 2019 through 2023.