(The Center Square) – Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards is filing a lawsuit to defend his COVID-19 mandates from a Republican attack, and he plans to veto two of the most high-profile bills the GOP majority passed during the special session that ended Friday.
Most of the Republicans in the state House of Representatives signed a petition to suspend for seven days the governor’s executive order establishing the COVID-19 state of emergency and associated rules and restrictions. Under a statute that has not been tested in court, a majority of either chamber in the Legislature can end an emergency order.
Edwards, along with some legislators, argues the statute is unconstitutional because it allows one chamber to overturn the order without the other. Legislators also failed to “meaningfully consult” with state public health authorities as the law requires, the lawsuit states.
Edwards also argues he is constitutionally required to keep the order in place as long as the emergency exists. If Louisiana becomes the only state in the nation without a COVID-19 emergency, it could lose federal funding through the Stafford Act, he said.
“There’s nobody at the Office of Public Health that believes we’re not currently in a public health emergency,” he said. “The House of Representatives is not the Legislature. The Legislature is a co-equal and independent branch to the governor, but not the House.”
Attorney General Jeff Landry issued a statement arguing the COVID-19 mandates effectively already are suspended. Landry said Edwards was acting within the governor’s emergency powers back in March when the first set of restrictions was issued, but says Edwards now is exceeding his authority. Many legislators that initially were supportive of the emergency orders feel the rules no longer are needed and have been frustrated by the repeated extensions over several months and their lack of input into the decision-making process.
Louisiana currently is under its version of Phase 3 of the White House guidelines to control the spread of the new coronavirus. Barrooms in many parishes remain closed, crowd sizes and indoor business capacities are limited, and face coverings are supposed to be worn in public.
“The termination of emergency powers does not require any additional action other than the signed petition,” Landry says. “Upon completion of the signed petition, the Governor is directed to issue a proclamation informing the public of the termination.”
Rep. Alan Seabaugh, a Shreveport Republican who has urged his colleagues to sign a similar petition for months, said there is no doubt the statute is constitutional. There are other situations in which one body acts without the other, such as when the Senate confirms a governor’s appointments.
On Monday, Edwards announced that he would veto House Bill 4, which would have given the Legislature, through a vote of both chambers, the right to cancel or amend specific portions of a governor’s emergency order. The bill did not touch the statute purporting to give one chamber the right to direct a governor to cancel an emergency proclamation.
Of the many bills and resolutions filed to end the governor’s order or limit its scope, HB 4 is the only that passed, falling well short of a veto-proof two-thirds majority. Republican legislators say that, as elected officials who are closer to the people than the governor, they should have a voice in the decisions. Edwards says emergencies are not best managed by committee.
Edwards also announced that he had vetoed House Bill 51 by Rep. Blake Miguez, the Erath Republican who chairs the GOP caucus in the House, which would have banned local officials from taking private grants to pay for election expenses.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and wife Priscilla Chan offered millions in grants to local election officials around the country to ensure “every eligible voter can participate in a safe and timely way and have their vote counted.” Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin initially urged local clerks of court to apply and many considered doing so, hoping to defray expenses related to holding an election during the COVID-19 pandemic.
But Landry said taking the donations might be illegal. Democratic legislators have argued that it doesn’t make sense to turn down free money while simultaneously spending more taxpayer dollars on this year’s elections.
Miguez said his bill would clarify state law and protect the integrity of Louisiana’s elections. Landry sued to block the grants but lost in court and reportedly plans to appeal.
David Jacobs, Staff Reporter for the Center Square, is a Baton Rouge-based award-winning journalist who has written about government, politics, business and culture in Louisiana for almost 15 years. He joined The Center Square in 2018.