INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The Indiana Senate voted Monday to approve a proposal that would curb the governor’s authority under the state emergency powers law following months of complaints from conservatives about Gov. Eric Holcomb’s coronavirus-related orders.
The bill would establish a new process for the General Assembly to call itself into a 40-day emergency session to consider legislative action in response to a gubernatorial declaration of a statewide emergency. That limits a governor’s authority to impose long-lasting emergency restrictions such as mask rules and business closures.
The proposal would additionally give lawmakers more control over federal economic stimulus funds Indiana receives, although the bill does not require legislator to appropriate any of the funds.
“The expenditure of billions of dollars of federal funds over a period in excess of one year demands the attention and action of the Indiana General Assembly,” said Republican Sen. Susan Glick of LaGrange. “Our forefathers never anticipated the unilateral actions of one person to spend billions of tax dollars.”
Senators contended they’ve been shut out of conversations about how to respond to emergency situations, and said the legislation wouldn’t impede how the state responds to emergencies, but instead would involve lawmakers in decision-making.
The Senate Rules Committee dialed back the plan earlier this month, removing provisions from the legislation that would have allowed local units of government to adopt less stringent public safety guidelines than those contained in the governor’s executive orders.
A total prohibition on emergency restrictions applying to religious worship was also deleted. That provision would have allowed churches to hold in-person services of any size, with no mandatory physical or material protections.
Republican Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray said Senate and House leaders had been working to reach agreement on the proposal so that once it is approved by the Senate the House could vote on its passage.
“I would expect and hope that they’ll be able to concur on the changes that we have and so we could see that moving off to the governor,” Bray said.
Holcomb and some legal experts have questioned whether the state constitution gives the General Assembly the authority to call itself into a special session after its regular annual session has ended for the year. The constitution states the governor has the power to do so, while giving the Legislature the authority to set the length and frequency of its sessions.
Holcomb would have seven days after a bill approved by both legislative chambers is submitted to his office to sign it or issue a veto — or it then become law without his signature. By approving the bill in the coming days, the Legislature could have time to override a potential veto by a simple majority of both houses before the current session ends in late April.
Bray said he has talked with Holcomb about the proposal but that he didn’t know whether he would veto it.
“That’s going to be the governor’s decision and I certainly respect that,” Bray said.
A House resolution that would immediately cancel the governor’s public health emergency order has 31 Republican sponsors, but it has not been advanced for action by legislative leaders.
Republican House Speaker Todd Huston said Holcomb’s announcement last week of rolling back the state’s COVID-19 restrictions as of April 6 “make it not necessary at this time.”
“I think the governor took appropriate action regarding the mask mandate and the capacity restrictions, giving flexibilities to the local level,” Huston said.
Republican legislative leaders praise Holcomb’s leadership during the pandemic, but the governor has faced conservative discontent over the more than 60 coronavirus-related executive orders he’s issued beginning with the public health emergency order signed last March 6 — the day Indiana’s first confirmed COVID-19 infection was announced.
Half a dozen officials in Holcomb’s administration have since defended his emergency powers in testimony at the Statehouse.
They maintained that the governor’s capacity to quickly address emergencies has been critical to the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, and said limitations to those powers could prohibit the state’s current progress and delay urgent reactions to future public health emergencies or natural disasters.
Casey Smith is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.