Divisions between Louisiana House and Senate Republicans over how much power they want to take over Gov. John Bel Edwards’ coronavirus restrictions – and whether to lift them entirely – revealed themselves Thursday as a House panel advanced a crop of bills targeting the rules.
The House and Governmental Affairs Committee passed legislation by House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, Senate President Page Cortez and others all aimed at the governor’s power to issue rules closing down businesses, requiring masks and taking other steps to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
But it’s still not clear what approach Republican lawmakers might take in the special session that must end in late October.
Cortez, R-Lafayette, whose bill won the support of all senators who voted Wednesday, favors giving lawmakers oversight over Edwards’ decisions. It would require the governor to give lawmakers advance notice and information about his executive orders. And it would require both the House and Senate – not just one chamber – to sign off on a petition to cancel the order entirely.
“I think if you put (legislative leadership) in front of the governor, he’s going to want to talk,” Cortez said, before his bill passed out of the committee without objection.
But some House Republicans have voiced concerns the bill doesn’t go far enough. Some conservatives want to lift all restrictions, while others at least want the ability to approve or reject future emergency declarations.
“I’ve been bombarded ever since this left the Senate floor that this has no teeth,” said state Rep. Dodie Horton, R-Haughton.
Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, passed a resolution through the committee Thursday that would lift all restrictions for a month. He called it a “tool in the toolbox,” and has indicated it’s a negotiating instrument.
Republican committee members approved Rep. Mark Wright’s House Bill 4, which would allow the top four legislative leaders to vote to send ballots to the Legislature to decide whether to reject Edwards’ orders. It passed 10-5 and now heads to the House floor. Several other bills, by Reps. Barry Ivey, R-Central; Larry Freiman, R-Abita Springs; Thomas Pressly, R-Shreveport; and Jerome Zeringue, R-Houma; also advanced.
The debate over Edwards’ emergency powers have taken center stage since the special session began Monday. The session is also aimed at tackling Hurricane Laura relief, the state’s nearly-bankrupt unemployment fund and other issues.
The governor, at a press conference Thursday, didn't commit one way or the other on the legislation, but said if the Legislature wants to "manage an emergency by committee," he will oppose it. There are not enough House Republicans to override a veto by Edwards without help from others.
He also challenged the idea that he hasn't communicated well enough with lawmakers. He said the issue is many Republican lawmakers don't believe there should be any coronavirus restrictions, and "there's not a reasonable discussion to be had" with those who think there shouldn't be any restrictions or emergency declarations in place.
"It is not a good idea to try to manage an emergency by committee," Edwards said. "I hope that is not what the Legislature is trying to do. The Legislature has always had the ability to provide oversight."
Jim Waskom, the head of Edwards’ emergency response agency, warned lawmakers that lifting the emergency declaration entirely – an idea floated by some conservative lawmakers – would jeopardize federal funding.
“Why would you take that risk?” he said.
Republicans are widely upset with Edwards for his restrictions. Some want to lift restrictions entirely, and dismiss the need for social distancing and mask requirements. Others are annoyed with what they say is a lack of communication by Edwards, months after the public health emergency began. Cortez’s bill would require the governor to submit information to the Legislature before issuing a new emergency declaration.
While Edwards has said he opposes efforts to give the Legislature authority over his decisions, all Senate Democrats present Wednesday voted in favor of Cortez’s bill, while saying they would oppose it if it was amended to go further.
The House is slated to take up the emergency powers bills on Friday.