Virus response becomes power struggle in Louisiana
Six months into Louisiana’s coronavirus outbreak, disagreements over how the state should respond to the pandemic and who should make those decisions have reached a fever pitch, culminating in the centerpiece debate of a special legislative session that starts Monday.
Republican lawmakers feuding with Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards over continued restrictions on business, high school and college football games, nursing home visitation and other activities want to give themselves more authority in the rulemaking — or yank the governor’s emergency declaration entirely.
The dispute has been simmering for months in an outgrowth of larger philosophical and political clashes between a majority-Republican Legislature asserting its independence and a Democratic governor who won statewide reelection last year to his second term. GOP legislators say they are hearing louder complaints from Louisiana residents who are tiring of Edwards’ virus response and limitations on their daily lives.
Edwards says he’s balancing economic and public health interests to combat the COVID-19 disease caused by the coronavirus, which has killed more than 5,000 people in Louisiana. His decisions are backed by the White House coronavirus task force and other public health experts.
The arguments over science, executive power, legislative authority and personal freedom will come to a head in the 30-day special session.
Legislative leaders say they have other priorities for the special session, too, including efforts to try to shore up the state’s nearly bankrupt unemployment trust fund and response to the devastation of Hurricane Laura.
But the top three items on the petition convening the session and setting its agenda involve the scope of powers in a state emergency, and scattered throughout the 70-item agenda are specific areas of COVID-19 response that have rankled Republicans.
Clashes over the coronavirus are expected to be contentious and messy as GOP legislators — seeking to curb Edwards’ rules, give the Legislature more input and change the course of Louisiana’s response to COVID-19 — don’t seem to agree among themselves about the best approach to take.
“I want to see that the Legislature has more of a voice in making decisions that are going to economically and socially change the lives of Louisianians. The governor has to be able to make decisions immediately, and in no way do I want to take that ability away from him. But at some point, there has to be a conversation with us. I’m elected, too,” said Rep. Jack McFarland. “One branch of government is making all the decisions.”
McFarland, a Republican from Winnfield, is proposing one of several ideas for enacting new limits on a Louisiana governor’s emergency authority. His bill would create a council of elected officials to decide whether a statewide public health emergency called by a governor can continue for more than 30 days.
Other lawmakers simply want to revoke Edwards’ emergency order and reopen the state without restrictions.
The governor said some lawmakers “don’t see the emergency for what it is” and seem to want to ignore the broader risks of the virus’s spread in a state where large numbers of people have the underlying health conditions that make them more susceptible to severe effects from COVID-19. He said Louisiana has opened more of its activities and businesses than many other states.
“You cannot declare and respond to a public health emergency by committee,” Edwards said. “And the constitution isn’t set up that way either.”
While Republicans don’t agree on the approach to chipping away at the virus restrictions, Democrats seem to be rallying against any efforts to scale back the governor’s authority.
“If the whole idea (of the session) is to go back and to try to usurp the powers of the governor, I think that’s a bad idea,” said Shreveport Rep. Sam Jenkins, the leader of House Democrats. “If that is the linchpin reason for it, I think it is ill-conceived.”
A united Democratic front could be critical to defeating some of the ideas, particularly in the House where Republicans don’t have enough numbers to override an Edwards veto. Some GOP lawmakers also are looking for legislative maneuvers that wouldn’t give the governor a veto opportunity, though it’s unclear if those can get enough support.