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House, Senate diverge on curbing Louisiana governor's power

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BATON ROUGE (AP) — Louisiana House Republicans on Thursday started advancing multiple approaches to intervene in Gov. John Bel Edwards’ coronavirus decision-making, as disagreements emerge with the Senate on the best method of attack.

The House and Senate, in their first week of a monthlong special session, disagree over how far lawmakers should go and what’s within the limits of their constitutional authority.

Negotiations continue behind the scenes as lawmakers in the majority-Republican Legislature try to determine what can win support from both chambers — and what could get enough votes to either override Edwards’ veto or avoid the Democratic governor’s desk entirely.

The House and Governmental Affairs Committee backed bills that would require lawmakers to determine whether a governor can renew an emergency or disaster declaration after 30 days. The panel also approved a more immediate measure sponsored by House Speaker Clay Schexnayder that would jettison Edwards’ coronavirus orders for a month after the special session ends.

“It allows us to take a deep breath and see what direction we need to go in,” said Schexnayder, a Gonzales Republican.

The committee also advanced a proposal by Republican Senate President Page Cortez that received unanimous Senate support a day earlier, though some House Republicans suggested the measure does very little to address their complaints.

Cortez’s bill would require a governor to give legislative leaders advance notice and explanation when extending an emergency order — but doesn’t give lawmakers new avenues to revoke or stall the orders.

The proposals move to the full House, where Schexnayder scheduled them for debate Friday.

Little clarity has developed on what approach is gaining traction. Democrats oppose anything that would substantially chip away at Edwards’ authority.

“The governor has been well within his rights in declaring steps that we as a state need to take to protect one another,” said Rep. Candace Newell, a New Orleans Democrat.

Conservative Republicans angered by Edwards’ continued restrictions on businesses and activities want to scrap the governor’s coronavirus rules now.

“We believe in individual freedoms to wear a mask or not, to stay home or not, and the time has come. Seven months in, we feel it’s time to loosen up the reins,” said Rep. Dodie Horton, a Haughton Republican. She added later: “We want to be free again.”

Cortez and his bill cosponsor, Republican Sen. Patrick McMath of Covington, said going further than their proposal and trying to require legislative approval of a governor’s orders could violate the state constitution. They defended their measure against criticism that it’s window-dressing, not substance.

“Folks in my district aren’t going to love this. But it respects the separation of powers,” McMath said. “Oversight is incredibly powerful.”

Lawmakers complain they have been sidelined in the decision-making.

Edwards on Thursday dismissed criticism that he’s communicated too little with lawmakers, saying he regularly provides information and speaks with them.

“It’s not about the communication; it’s about the decisions that have been made,” the governor said. “And, quite frankly, there’s not a reasonable discussion to be had with people who believe right now in Louisiana that we shouldn’t have a public health emergency in place or mitigation measures in place or restrictions in place in order to slow the spread and protect public health.”

Edwards administration officials note the governor has loosened restrictions several times, most recently in mid-September. They say the rules are less restrictive than many other states with lower rates of virus infections and follow White House recommendations.

James Waskom, the governor’s homeland security director, cautioned that yanking the public health emergency declaration issued by Edwards would put at risk hundreds of millions of dollars in federal assistance for virus testing, protective equipment and other response work.

“Be careful of unintended consequences,” Waskom told the House committee. “You are introducing chaos and confusion to an already chaotic and confusing situation.”

A group of House Republicans have tried to override Edwards’ coronavirus restrictions through a little-used law that allows a majority of either the House or Senate to revoke an emergency order through a petition. Schexnayder has opposed the move, stymying efforts to gain signatures.

Cortez said senators don’t support the petition because of uncertainty surrounding its implications. He questioned whether the decision of one chamber would be upheld in court. His bill would require such a petition to win support from both the House and the Senate to remove an emergency declaration, drawing unhappiness from some House Republicans.


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