(The Center Square) – A Louisiana state Senate committee on Tuesday advanced without objection a bill requiring the governor to consult with a legislative committee before extending an emergency declaration beyond 30 days, though the governor would not need the committee’s final approval.
Also on Tuesday, the speaker of the state House of Representatives filed a measure that would stop Gov. John Bel Edwards from extending the current COVID-19 emergency declaration.
Under current law, the majority of a single body can end a declared emergency. The bill by Senate President Page Cortez and Sen. Patrick McMath, both Republicans, would raise the bar, requiring the approval of both the state Senate and House of Representatives.
Cortez said the first draft of his bill called for committee approval before the governor could extend the emergency declaration, but he decided that would infringe on the executive branch’s constitutional role. In response to a legislator who said the proposal would water down the legislature’s authority, Cortez said he pointed out that petitions circulating in the House to end the current COVID-19 emergency declaration have failed to garner a majority.
The committee would have the ability to call witnesses and gather information and report back to their colleagues, who would then be able to make a better-informed decision about whether to overturn the declaration, he said.
“I don’t think it’s our job to tell the governor what to do,” Cortez said. “Nor is it his job to tell us what to do.”
The proposed Legislative Emergency Declaration Review Committee would include the speaker and speaker pro tempore of the House, the president and president pro tempore of the Senate, the chairs of the House and Senate spending and health committees, and two additional legislators whom leadership would appoint. The legislation also brings the Louisiana Supreme Court into the review process.
Republicans have become increasingly frustrated with the business restrictions Edwards, a Democrat, has imposed in the name of controlling the COVID-19 pandemic. Louisiana currently is in its version of Phase 3 of the White House-approved road map meant to balance public health and economic viability.
Republican House Speaker Clay Schexnayder has proposed a resolution that would temporarily suspend Edwards’ ability to extend the COVID-19 public health emergency. The concurrent resolution, which would need approval by both bodies but would not require the governor’s signature, would take effect upon adoption and expire 30 days after the end of the current special session, which must end by Oct. 27.
Schexnayder’s resolution says the business restrictions were necessary during the early stages of the pandemic. But now, the state’s health care capacity no longer is in danger of being overwhelmed, medical supplies are readily available, and the public is better informed about the disease. Meanwhile, the “drastic measures” still in place are “creating unnecessary and tragic business and societal hardships,” he argues.
As a result of the restrictions, hundreds of thousands of Louisianans have filed unemployment claims since the beginning of the pandemic in March.
Continued unemployment claims, those filing claims at least two weeks in a row, stood at 238,724 the week ending Sept. 19. By comparison, continued claims were at 14,515 for the week ending Sept. 21, 2019.
In a recent statement, Edwards pointed out that Louisiana remains first in the nation for COVID-19 cases per capita, and that his actions are in line with other states and the federal government’s recommendations.
“Put simply, the measures we have taken in Louisiana are working and we are making significant progress,” he said. “However, to abandon these efforts in defiance of the unanimous advice of the public health experts and the Trump administration would seriously jeopardize the lives of our people and the gains we have made.”
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.