State Lawmakers Pass Bill To Limit Governor’s Emergency Powers, But Edwards Remains Skeptical

Oct 21, 2020

Republican state lawmakers narrowly passed a bill Tuesday that would rein in Gov. John Bel Edwards’ emergency powers, accomplishing the top item on their to- do list for this special session.

But lawmakers’ efforts may be rendered moot by the Democratic governor’s veto pen.

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.

If they find that the governor exceeded his authority or that his mitigation measures “are not narrowly tailored to address the disaster,” leadership could initiate proceedings that would allow the legislature to nullify all or part of the order with a mailed ballot.

That would allow the legislature to decide which of Edwards’ restrictions would remain in place. During this special session, various lawmakers have attempted to chip away at the coronavirus restrictions the governor has placed on bars and nursing homes and would strip crowd-size limitations for worship services and high school football games.

Under current state law, the House or Senate can repeal the governor’s disaster declaration and all of the restrictions that accompany it if a simple majority of either chamber signs a petition to do so. Rep. Blake Miguez, who presented the amended bill on the House floor for an absent Wright, said he was careful to ensure the legislature would retain that power if this bill becomes law.

And that’s a big if.

Edwards has veto authority, and while he and administration officials have not said whether he will exercise that authority to kill this legislation, Edwards has consistently voiced his opposition to bills that would hinder his ability to quickly react to the coronavirus.

“I’m not going to surrender any authority that I have to other people whose approach is entirely unreasonable,” Edwards said Wednesday on his monthly radio show. “They think we should have everything open without restrictions and no mitigation measures in place. That’s just not a reasonable conversation to have and I’m not looking for an opportunity to invite those people into the decision making process.”

Recent data released by the White House Coronavirus Task Force shows that Louisiana is faring better than other southern states that have fewer coronavirus restrictions in place.

Edwards said he will not make a final decision about the bill until he has had a chance to discuss it with House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, Senate President Page Cortez and Wright, who authored the legislation but was absent when the final changes were made. But if the legislation functions as state lawmakers have described, it seems unlikely to survive Edwards' veto pen.

“If this bill takes tools out of the toolbox that I believe are essential to properly managing a public health emergency, it’s not going to meet with my approval,” Edwards said.

House Republicans are two seats shy of the two-thirds majority they would need to override a potential veto. And while Senate Republicans have the numbers to execute a veto-override vote, they appear to lack the political will to do so.

Republican Senators Ronnie Johns of Lake Charles and Louis Bernard of Natchitoches voted against the final version of HB4 on Tuesday.

Democrats in both chambers were unified in their opposition to the bill.

Sen. Jay Luneau (D-Alexandria) opposed the measure. He said that while he too was eager to return to the same level of economic activity the state enjoyed pre-coronavirus, state lawmakers should not remove Edwards’ restrictions prematurely to score political points with their frustrated constituents.

“We don’t need to put ourselves in a position where we’re stepping over a lot of dead bodies to do that,” Luneau said. “We need to be reasonable and we need to listen to the science.”

Luneau, echoing Edwards’ constant refrain, noted that the governor’s current coronavirus restrictions are consistent with recommendations of the White House Coronavirus Task Force and are saving lives.

Rep. Ted James (D-Baton Rouge) bristled at the bills’ proponents characterizing it as a compromise, noting that Democrats were not included in the revision process.