The state of Louisiana has already suffered through a pair of devastating surges during the coronavirus pandemic. But as Republicans prepare for a special legislative session next week, there is concern they are preparing to take a “kamikaze” approach, as one Democrat put it, that could send the state’s fortunes tumbling.
Democrats in the conservative state of Louisiana are bracing for Republicans to attempt to drain Gov. John Bel Edwards’ emergency powers during a special legislative session set to start Monday night, as the executive authority of statewide leaders in a time of crisis continues to be a point of friction across party lines.
To Senate Minority Leader Troy Carter “there’s a potential for a kamikaze flight,” where some lawmakers are “willing to explode and blow the whole state up for frivolous politics.”
“I mean, anytime you’re willing to make a statement that is so grand that you’re willing to impact the state constitution, dilute the governor’s authority as it relates to declarations of emergencies and risk federal dollars, that’s tantamount to a pilot flying a kamikaze plane,” Carter, a Democrat, told The Daily Beast. “You’re going to crash and burn, and you’re going to kill a bunch of people that you were sworn to fight for.”
The coronavirus pandemic has forced governors across the country to utilize their emergency powers as they try to protect their states, with efforts ranging from statewide shutdowns to the mask mandates that have become a key aspect of containing the virus in recent months.
Those decisions have been met with varying degrees of opposition, from litigation to legislation, that look to undercut the often broad executive powers that governors have wielded to help control the virus. Republican state lawmakers in places like Louisiana have cried foul about the governor not working with the legislature as emergency orders get extended and more time passes.
Rep. Blake Miguez, the Louisiana House Republican delegation chairman, dismissed Carter’s words as “fearmongering,” and emphasized that Republicans in both chambers are in agreement they want to reopen the state and “it’s just a matter of discussing exactly how we’re going to achieve that goal.”
“We’re definitely challenging the governor’s emergency powers and we’re definitely looking to cut into them and take some of that power back into the legislature and have a voice and a seat at the table again,” Miguez said. “I mean, it’s been seven months. We can understand the first 30 days, but looking back seven months later, we just don’t feel that any one person should have that much power.”
The heads of the GOP-controlled House and Senate made clear in news releases earlier this week that COVID-19 would be a major concern of the special session, along with dealing with the fallout from Hurricane Laura, and Louisiana’s unemployment trust fund.
“A significant number of House members have also asked to address the continued proclamations issued by the Governor during the pandemic and what many see as an imbalance of power,” Republican House Speaker Clay Schexnayder said in a statement about the upcoming session. “This special session will not end without a solution to this problem.”
The resistance Edwards is continuing to face is similar to the challenges thrown at other Democratic governors throughout the pandemic. President Donald Trump roared with approval on social media at news earlier this month over a federal judge throwing out several of Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s coronavirus measures as unconstitutional, including gathering restrictions, and measures like the (currently suspended) stay at home order.
“There’s no sense debating a ruling that will be appealed,” Wolf said in a statement last week. “Two of three federal judges upheld what we did.”
Other orders in the state remain in place, a spokesperson from the governor’s office said in an email, including the state’s mask mandate.
In the fellow pivotal swing state of Wisconsin, Democratic Gov. Tony Evers was dealt a blow back in May when a Republican-led court challenge resulted in the state Supreme Court finding his administration’s safer-at-home order “unlawful, invalid, and unenforceable.” He was able to later put in place a statewide mask order.
“This can have a political valence but it doesn’t exclusively have a political valence,” said Meryl Chertoff, executive director of the Georgetown Project on State and Local Government Policy and Law. “But it is troubling that in so many of these cases it is Republican legislators who are conflicting with Democratic governors and where it appears that part of this has to do with the presidential election, or with statewide elections going on, and not so much to do with the best interests of people in their state, because we’re seeing second waves.”
In other cases efforts to undermine executive authority have been less successful, while issues in some states are still pending. Facing a steep challenge in unseating incumbent Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper, North Carolina’s GOP lieutenant governor Dan Forest sued Cooper’s administration over his measures. But he later abandoned the effort after losing in court and he’s continued to struggle to gain traction against his better funded opponent.
In Michigan, Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s use of emergency authority in her state continues to face legal challenges according to The Detroit Free Press. And in Kentucky, Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear’s administration is continuing to feud with state Attorney General Daniel Cameron as the GOP official challenges the governor’s executive orders in the commonwealth’s supreme court. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine has also received vocal rebukes from some fellow Republicans for the public health actions he’s taken during the pandemic.
But in Louisiana, some Republicans have been very clear about what they’d like to see happen. State Rep. Danny McCormick tweeted earlier this week, “I am in favor of a complete and unconditional reopening of our state and will continue pushing for it.”
In an interview with The Daily Beast, the Republican legislator talked about potential legislation that could “go in and take away specific powers of some sort.” McCormick has also signed on to a petition effort that he said would need 53 signatures in the House to “do away with the governor’s state of emergency,” for a certain period of time with the latest being for 14 days before another one could be made. The Hail Mary effort which he dubbed “a bargaining tool” has gone through different variations and failed to attract the support it needs.
“We’ve got one man in Baton Rouge making the decision for the whole state,” McCormick said. “I think we’re a constitutional Republic and I believe we should trust the people. I’m a liberty-minded person. I trust the people to make the decisions where they should go and if they should wear a mask or not when they go.”
Interviews this week with GOP lawmakers showed little consensus on what exactly Republicans plan to try and push through during the special session, which could go until Oct. 27, when it came to the governor’s orders and authority. But the governor’s veto power and the Republican majority in either chamber suggest a difficult road ahead in Louisiana.
In an interview Tuesday, Republican House Speaker Tempore Tanner Magee argued that legislators will be more directed at “specific executive orders,” rather than the governor’s authority as a whole. The majority view, the high ranking House Republican said, is to make moves “with the public’s health in mind,” that does not cause a third spike in the state.
But he said there’s also concern from the GOP tied to messages from the business community in the state “that they’re struggling, they’re not going to make it any further and they feel like they’re being treated unfairly.”
“I think there will definitely be legislators who are pushing against the governor’s executive authority, there’s no doubt in my mind about that,” Magee said. “Will we end up there completely by the end? I’m not certain about that outcome.”
When a reporter asked Edwards earlier this week during a press conference if he was worried about the legislature moving to hamper his authority on public health measures and tie the hands of the state’s response, the governor downplayed the chances of that happening.
“If they were to be successful in doing that, I would be concerned,” Edwards said. “I don’t stand here concerned because I don’t think that they're going to be successful in doing that and I’m not sure that that even represents a majority of either body’s wishes on that subject matter.”
The governor also received a show of public support from Dr. Deborah Birx, the coordinator of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, who championed the state’s response to the pandemic recently as its situation has improved from the dire issues it faced roughly two and a half months ago. During an appearance in Louisiana on Wednesday, she said the state “made changes that saved people’s lives,” and that its improving fortunes, which include a mask mandate, show that “masks work.”
Even as one of Edwards GOP critics during the public health crisis, McCormick didn’t show much optimism this week about the legislature’s ability to override a veto from the governor on legislation dealing with emergency authority saying “we won’t override a veto, that won’t happen.”
But Carter, the senate Democratic leader, pointed to questions of constitutionality and predicted “the governor’s not going to just roll over and let his authority be taken away.”
Still, the potential harm of limiting the governor’s authority on emergency orders or using legislative action to lift some of the governor’s restrictions wasn’t lost on State Rep. Sam Jenkins, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus.
“It's a domino effect that has some very catastrophic consequences in my opinion,” Jenkins said. “And it’s not worth the risk of what some of my Republican friends are trying to do.”