House Committee Advances Measure To Limit Fire Marshal’s Enforcement Of Coronavirus Restrictions

Oct 5, 2020

Another measure aimed at limiting Gov. John Bel Edwards’ authority to impose and enforce coronavirus restrictions advanced in the Louisiana Legislature on Monday.

The House Commerce Committee approved HCR13 by Rep. Blake Miguez (R-Erath), which would suspend until the middle of next year the state fire marshal's ability to enforce business restrictions aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus.

The Republican-controlled committee approved the resolution with a 12-5 vote along party lines. The concurrent resolution still has to win the approval of the full House and Senate, but would not need the governor’s signature to take effect.

Miguez argued that Edwards’ limited authority to impose coronavirus restrictions is derived from laws created by the legislature, and those laws do not allow the governor to delegate his regulatory powers to other state agencies.

“I think it is very important for this body to make it clear exactly what’s expected of the businesses,” Miguez said. “And if you look at the executive order, it is very vague, and we had to go to the fire marshal to determine how we keep your business open.”

Representatives from Republican Attorney General Jeff Landry’s office testified in favor of the legislation.

The resolution would take away the “teeth” of an agency that has not exactly clamped down on the Louisiana businesses that have violated the governor’s coronavirus rules.

State Fire Marshal Butch Browning has been the public face of the state’s enforcement effort and his agency has conducted thousands of inspections and issued warnings for non-compliance. But in the rare cases where business owners repeatedly refused to comply with coronavirus regulations, it was the state’s Office of Alcohol and Tobacco Control and the Office of Public Health that issued sanctions, suspending bars’ licenses to sell alcohol and revoking food permits for restaurants.

The outnumbered Democratic state lawmakers on the panel questioned Miguez’s interpretation of the law.

“We’ve been at this for seven months now,” Rep. Royce Duplessis (D-New Orleans) said. “I’d like to know which courts support your statement that the governor’s actions are illegal.”

Judges in federal and state district courts have ruled that Edwards’ coronavirus restrictions are constitutional, but Miguez and the attorney general are pinning their hopes on a federal appeals court, which is expected to issue a ruling in a lawsuit brought by Louisiana bar owners challenging the regulations early next month.

Rep. Candace Newell (D-New Orleans) questioned the necessity of Miguez’s effort, noting that the state has entered Phase 3 of reopening and barrooms in much of the state are now allowed to reopen for on-premises consumption.

While Miguez’s argument on Monday was based on the arcane details of the state’s constitution and statutes governing emergency declarations, it is clear that his broader opposition to Edwards’ management of the public health emergency is rooted in deep philosophical differences.

Miguez, like many members of his party, says the state should remove all coronavirus restrictions and “trust its citizens to exercise personal responsibility” to avoid spreading the coronavirus.

The GOP has made reining in Gov. Edwards’ executive power during times of emergency its No. 1 priority for this 30-day special session. On Friday, the House advanced a series of bills and resolutions aimed at doing just that.