INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Indiana legislators would gain the authority to immediately overrule any public health emergency orders issued by the governor under a proposal advanced Thursday by lawmakers.
The move to give the Republican-dominated Legislature greater oversight of those orders comes amid conservative discontent about the 55 coronavirus-related executive orders that GOP Gov. Eric Holcomb has issued in the past 11 months — during which time lawmakers had been out of session until early January.
The proposal endorsed 7-2 by an Indiana House committee would allow a 16-member group of legislative leaders to call lawmakers back to Indianapolis for a special session at any time after the governor has issued any statewide emergency order, including for epidemics or other situations, if the Legislature isn’t currently meeting.
A previous version of the bill sponsored by House Majority Leader Matt Lehman would have require the General Assembly to be called into session for an extension of a governor’s emergency order beyond 60 days.
Lehman said that under his current proposal, legislative leaders would not be required to call lawmakers back to the Statehouse if they didn’t have objections to the governor’s orders that could still be extended 30 days at a time or take any action to confirm those orders.
“It’s just at any time during those extensions, the legislative body may say, ‘OK, the third extension we need to come back and at least have a discussion,’” said Lehman, a Republican from Berne.
The House and Senate are considering various proposals to limit the reach of state and local public health orders amid complaints about the treatment of small businesses and intrusions on personal liberty and during the COVID-19 pandemic that the state health department says has killed more than 11,000 people in Indiana. Legislators, however, have taken no action toward overturning any of Holcomb's current public health orders.
Governors across the country are facing similar pushbacks and Holcomb has said he doesn’t want to give up the authority to act quickly.
Lehman’s proposal would largely leave in place the governor’s authority under the state’s emergency powers law, which was largely drafted in 2003 following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But many legislators want greater say since they believe the law was meant for temporary situations such as floods, tornadoes or terrorist actions, even though epidemics are included among the 29 situations specified in the law.
Provisions in the bill, however, would prohibit any state or local emergency orders from placing any restrictions on religious services, including on crowd sizes.
Holcomb placed attendance limits on religious services, including funerals and weddings, during the early weeks of the pandemic but lifted those restrictions in May.
The bill, which now goes to the full House for consideration, would also require local health officials imposing tougher restrictions than ordered by the governor to first obtain approval from county commissioners or a city council. Lehman said that provision would apply only to new restrictions sought after the law would take effect.
Democrats on the House Rules Committee questioned whether such steps wrongly injected politics into public health decisions.