This story has been updated.
Nearly every Republican member of the Louisiana House of Representatives signed a petition Friday that would force Gov. John Bel Edwards to temporarily end the COVID-19 public health emergency and revoke all of his coronavirus restrictions.
Those representatives are throwing their support behind a measure that until recently was viewed by all but the most conservative state lawmakers as a “nuclear option,” justified by an obscure, never-before-used portion of state law. Edwards and other critics have said that the effort is likely unconstitutional and could jeopardize the state’s claim to federal emergency relief dollars.
Republicans say the governor is bound by law to follow the petition. But Edwards said the Phase 3 coronavirus restrictions “remain in full force and effect.”
The dispute will likely be settled in court.
Edwards excoriated the petitioners during his Friday afternoon press conference, saying their intentions were “reckless and irresponsible and unconscionable.”
“Burying heads in the sand and just pretending that COVID isn’t a problem isn’t going to help,” Edwards said. “The virus doesn’t care that you’re tired of it.”
A total of 65 state representatives signed the petition, which would force Edwards’ to issue a proclamation ending the public health emergency and prohibit him from declaring another for a period of seven days.
Rep. Blake Miguez (R-Erath), leader of the House Republican Delegation and one of the most vocal advocates for removing coronavirus restrictions, said representatives who previously opposed the petition effort signed on after Edwards extended his coronavirus restrictions for another 30 days without making changes requested by Republican legislative leaders.
Miguez said those recommendations included ending the statewide mask mandate and further loosening restrictions on businesses. Instead Edwards announced Thursday that the only change to his Phase 3 restrictions would be to allow slightly larger crowds at high school football games in some parishes.
“The members realized that session was ending and they were left with no other options,” Miguez said. “After seven months of having one person making all the decisions — and what we view as overreach and unconstitutional restrictions on our constituents — we decided to end that.”
House Speaker Clay Schexnayder and Speaker Pro Tempore Tanner Magee were among the signees. Reps. Barbara Reich Freiberg of Baton Rouge, Stephanie Hilferty of New Orleans and Joseph Stagni of Kenner were the only Republican state representatives who did not sign.
The move comes at the conclusion of a one-month special session Republican legislative leaders convened to address what they described as an “imbalance of power” exposed by Edwards’ response to the coronavirus.
After filing more than two dozen bills and resolutions aimed at curtailing Edwards’ emergency powers, they successfully passed only one bill that would do so.
HB4 by Rep. Mark Wright would give legislative leaders the ability to review the renewal of any public health emergency that lasts longer than 30 days and initiate proceedings in which the legislature could nullify all or part of the order — essentially giving state lawmakers the power to line-item veto specific mitigation measures they dislike.
At various times during this month’s special session, state lawmakers have attempted to strike down Edwards restrictions on bars, high school football games and church services.
While Edwards has not explicitly said he will veto the bill, the second-term Democrat has consistently said he will reject any measure that hinders his ability to quickly and effectively respond to the pandemic that has killed more than 5,400 Louisianans since March.
“The House has exhausted every available legislative remedy and has been left with no other option but to exercise its legislative right to terminate the Governor’s emergency order,” Schexnayder said in a statement issued Friday evening. “... We are sent here to be a voice for the people and we will be heard.”
That “legislative right” is derived from a statute passed in 2003 at the height of international concern about SARS. It says “a petition signed by a majority of the surviving members of either house, may terminate a state of public health emergency at any time.”
But Edwards administration lawyers and even some state lawmakers question the constitutionality of allowing one chamber to speak for the entire legislative branch.
The Senate has taken a much more moderate approach in attempting to limit Edwards’ executive powers. The upper chamber refused to act on several aggressive measures that originated in the House.
House Democrats slammed their Republican colleagues' decision to support the petition.
“Dangerous, reckless and short-sighted don't begin to describe the decision made by the group of Republican Representatives that signed this petition,” Democratic Caucus Chairman Sam Jenkins (D-Shreveport) said in a press release. “If this petition successfully ends Governor Edwards’ emergency order, 4.5 million Louisianans will needlessly face additional risk of catching COVID and experiencing dire consequences, including death.”
The Republican Party of Louisiana heaped praise on the legislators who signed the petition.
“We are immensely proud of the combined efforts of our House members for their support on the recent petition to put an end to Governor Edwards’ never-ending emergency powers,” LAGOP Chairman Louis Gurvich said in a press release.
Edwards said he was disappointed that a response rooted in science had become the target of partisan political attacks.
“It is sad,” Edwards said. “If there was ever a time to rise above partisan politics it is during a public health emergency… I happen to think that’s what the people of Louisiana expect. I damn well know it’s what they deserve.”
He noted that his coronavirus restrictions are backed by public health experts and consistent with the recommendations issued by President Donald Trump’s White House Coronavirus Task Force.
Dr. Joseph Kanter, who has served as the public face of the Louisiana Department of Health’s response since last month, said removing all coronavirus restrictions would unnecessarily handicap the state in its fight against the virus.
“It would be the state shooting itself in both kneecaps for absolutely no reason,” Kanter said.