Republican lawmakers frustrated with continued business closures took the first step toward undercutting Gov. John Bel Edwards' stay-at-home order Wednesday, aiming to revoke the Democrat’s ability to enforce restrictions in place to stem the spread of the new coronavirus.

After a tense, hours-long hearing, the House and Governmental Affairs Committee approved a resolution by state Rep. Blake Miguez, the chair of the House Republican Delegation, to remove Edwards' ability to enforce restrictions on businesses and residents. Instead, it would “urge and request” local officials to institute federal guidance for reopening, which calls for a slow easing of restrictions, starting with allowing some businesses to open with strict social distancing in place.

“The intent of this is to take the teeth out of his executive order," Miguez said of his House Concurrent Resolution 58, adding he "strongly believes" certain parishes are ready to reopen.

The measure appeared aimed to force Edwards' hand to begin reopening businesses in mid-May, when the governor has said the first phase of reopening could begin. And it revealed more cracks in the relationship between the Democratic governor and deeply-Republican Legislature, as partisan divisions return to the State Capitol after a largely unified front at the beginning of the outbreak.

If Edwards begins reopening businesses in mid-May, Miguez indicated he may drop the effort. But in the meantime, Republicans set the effort in motion in case Edwards doesn’t lift restrictions to their liking. Miguez received legal advice on his legislation from Republican Attorney General Jeff Landry’s office.

The governor’s office blasted the measure, saying it risked hampering the governor’s efforts to respond to emergencies and enforce things like school closures. Matthew Block, Edwards’ executive counsel, noted local officials would not be required to institute any rules for reopening, meaning some places could let businesses return to normal operations, a prospect that is widely panned by public health experts.

“We know there’s going to be mass confusion and a hodgepodge response in the biggest public health disaster in probably 100 years,” Block said.

Jim Waskom, head of the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, said it would “bring chaos and confusion to an already chaotic and confusing situation.” 

The committee, which is stacked with Republicans, voted 9 to 7 to advance the resolution to the full House. It would also need approval in the Senate to become effective. While it was supported by several conservatives often at odds with Edwards, the administration has drawn the ire of a wide swath of Republicans for his handling of the stay-at-home order extension.

In particular, lawmakers have expressed frustration that they learned about Edwards’ extension just minutes before he announced it last Monday, even after the governor repeatedly indicated the state would likely start reopening May 1.

Speaker Pro Tem Tanner Magee, a Houma Republican, said he was concerned the Legislature was having a hard time getting information – like modeling data – from the administration, and he grilled Block on what he described as broken lines of communication. 

Several Republicans also advocated for a parish-by-parish approach to reopening, including Miguez. The governor cited regional data in justifying the continued stay-at-home order, but has rejected opening up the state by region so far.

Some Republicans also said Wednesday they were upset the governor and state Fire Marshal Butch Browning recently announced a website that gives businesses guidance on reopening and lets residents report businesses that are violating the stay-at-home order. Miguez called it a “tattle-tale” website, and Rep. Danny McCormick, a Republican from Oil City who organized the protest outside the governor’s mansion, likened it to “snitching.”

Before it passed, Miguez amended the measure to try to allay concerns that the resolution, which originally would have revoked the governor's ability to declare an emergency, would hamper his ability to respond to natural disasters. With the changes, the measure would instead block his ability to enforce his order.

Under the measure, local officials are "urged and requested" to issue proclamations and executive orders to institute restrictions outlined by the President Donald Trump's administration.

The resolution, HCR58, goes now to the full House, where it needs 53 votes in support before heading to the Senate.

Edwards has said he is following White House guidance for reopening, arguing the state did not meet thresholds for phase one at the beginning of May. Earlier this week, Edwards said it is his “hope and expectation” the state will start the reopening on May 16, and he is set to make an announcement Monday.

Miguez indicated his goal could be accomplished if that happens.

“I’m going to continue to bring this forward as long as we have a stay-at-home order in place,” Miguez said.

A group of conservative Republicans who often feud with the governor, led by state Rep. Alan Seabaugh, have also pushed a separate petition that would revoke the state's emergency declaration entirely. The governor's office warned such a move would put billions in federal aid at risk.

Still, some Republicans on the House and Governmental Affairs Committee told Miguez his measure didn’t go far enough, and that the Legislature should back the petition. Legislative leaders have backed away from the petition because of warnings about its impact on federal aid.

The state's stay-at-home order, which shutters bars, casinos, gyms and adds a host of other restrictions to businesses and residents, was set to expire April 30. But epidemiologists and public health experts recommended Edwards extend it, warning the state was not ready to reopen safely. Since the virus was discovered in Louisiana, in early March, the state has stayed near the top of the list in U.S. states for the number of cases per capita. The state also has an outsized death toll, something health officials are investigating.

If Louisiana moves to reopen on May 16, when restaurants could begin modified dine-in services and barbershops, salons and churches could open, all at 25% occupancy. Edwards has in recent days pointed to the state's ability to test and track more people.

Voting to report the resolution favorably to the full House (9): Reps. Beau Beaullieau IV, R-New Iberia, Les Farnum, R-Sulphur; Foy Bryan Gadberry, R-West Monroe; Charles Henry, R-Jefferson, Valarie Hodges, R-Denham Springs, Dodie Horton, R-Haughton; Barry Ivey, R-Central; Tanner Magee, R-Houma; and Rodney Schamerhorn, R-Hornbeck.

Voting against HCR58 (7): Reps Wilford Carter Sr., D-Lake Charles; Royce Duplessis, D-New Orleans; Sam Jenkins, D-Shreveport; Mike Johnson, R-Pineville; Jeremy LaCombe, D-Livonia; Candace Newell, D-New Orleans; and Malinda White, D-Bogalusa.


Email Sam Karlin at skarlin@theadvocate.com