Republican lawmakers in Idaho have been trying to wrest power away from Gov. Brad Little, also a Republican, in order to end the public health emergency he declared when COVID-19 first emerged last year.
So far, though, they’ve run into one obstacle after another in their efforts to do so.
Experts warned that rescinding the emergency declaration could jeopardize federal funds. Then came an opinion from the state attorney general that undermined the legislative strategy for overturning the orders. The legislature, the office concluded, could not end the emergency simply by passing a concurrent resolution, which doesn’t require the governor’s approval. Instead, the legislature would have to pass a bill; if Little vetoed it, the legislature would have to override that veto.
And then there’s the governor himself. The “ordinarily mild” Little (as one columnist described
him) pushed back hard against the move to abruptly end the state of emergency. The governor gave a 10-minute speech
on a Friday briefing going point-by-point
over lawmakers’ objections.
It is one of several clashes between the executive branches and legislative branches of state governments over COVID policies that have already popped up during the early days of this year’s annual session. Many lawmakers are discovering, like their counterparts in Idaho, that limiting governors’ powers is not as simple to do as it sounds.
Bills to restrict gubernatorial powers are pending
in the legislative chambers of at least 31 states, Guam and the Virgin Islands, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
, has seen another showdown between its Democratic governor and its Republican-led legislature. In this most recent chapter of the long-running saga, GOP lawmakers want to repeal the popular mask mandate put in place by Gov. Tony Evers.
That effort hit a snag when legislators discovered that the action could cut off $49 million in federal food stamp money tied to the underlying emergency declaration.
Now, Republicans in the legislature think they have found a way to avoid the loss of federal funds. As Patrick Marley at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel wrote
: “In short, Republicans plan to end the state’s ability to collect large sums of federal funding and then try to force Evers to sign legislation he opposes to attempt to reclaim the federal money.”
But, as Marley points out, it’s unclear whether lawmakers can really force Evers’ hand, because the governor could just issue another emergency order in the meantime.
In Kentucky, partisan differences are also fueling the fight between Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear and the Republicans who control the legislature. The governor has already vetoed seven bills that lawmakers have sent him this year, and legislative leaders say they will try to override those vetoes soon. Republicans have more than enough votes to do so, if their lawmakers stick together.
Among the bills are a measure that would limit public health emergencies to 30 days unless the legislature extends them; a proposal to let businesses and other organizations stay open more easily; and other narrowing of the governor’s powers during an emergency.
The new restrictions would make “necessary changes to ensure that the commonwealth has checks and balances moving forward,” said
Sen. Matt Castlen, a Republican sponsor of one of the bills, during an early January debate. “In the past there has never been this many consecutive states of emergencies placed in a year’s time, giving total control to one part of a three-legged stool [the three branches of government].”
Beshear said he tried to work with legislative leaders to find a compromise, but they wouldn’t budge.
“If their comment is, ‘we are going to override your vetoes no matter what and maybe we can talk later,’ I guess mine is ‘we are going to see you in court.’ I cannot and will not let the health and lives of the people of Kentucky be put in this danger when we are so close to getting out of it,” the governor said.
“This would mean Kentucky would have the least ability of any state in the United States to respond to this crisis and save lives,” he added.
Republicans in Pennsylvania are escalating a long-running feud with Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf over Wolf’s restrictions on businesses during the pandemic.
The GOP lawmakers are pushing a constitutional amendment that would require governors to get legislative approval for any emergency orders that lasted longer than 21 days. The amendment would also grant the legislature the power to end emergency declarations at any time.
“This is not political at all. You can laugh all you want, but this is practical,” Rep. Russ Diamond said in backing the changes. “This is in response to the businesses we’ve heard from all year who are now bankrupt and closed.”
The amendment is expected to go before voters this May.
In Idaho, the Republican governor clashed with members of his own party over the extent of executive powers in an emergency.
Little noted during his speech that every other state was operating under a state of emergency, and that President Donald Trump had issued two COVID-related emergency declarations that are still in effect.
“Let me be clear – undeniably, COVID-19 is an emergency,” Little said. “Hundreds of Idahoans have died and many more have been horribly sick. Many Idahoans still face that same terrible risk. The COVID-19 emergency declaration was requested by Idaho communities and it is critical in order for Idaho to receive federal assistance – your taxpayer dollars – to manage this crisis.”
“These are facts,” the governor continued. “Here is the myth: the emergency declaration somehow shuts down Idaho or takes away your rights. That is patently false.”
“Amazingly, some in the Idaho Legislature are perpetuating that myth and actively seeking to end Idaho’s COVID-19 emergency declaration. What does that mean for you, the citizens of Idaho? It means less vaccine. More taxes. And more red tape,” he added.
He warned that Idaho rescinding its emergency declaration would keep the National Guard on the sidelines, instead of helping out at food banks, testing sites and vaccine distribution centers. He said it would mean that the federal taxes that Idaho residents pay would end up going to “California, New York and other states.”
“The seriousness of this situation demands that I speak up,” said Little, who served in the Idaho Senate for eight years. “I believe in my heart that what the Idaho Legislature is doing is harmful to our people and wrong for Idaho. I urge my partners in the Legislature to stop the political games and do what is right for the people of Idaho.”
The governor urged members of the public to contact their lawmakers to stop the efforts to repeal the state of emergency.
Then, he turned over the microphone to the state adjutant general, who commands the Idaho National Guard. Major General Michael J. Garshak, clad in a dress uniform, pressed home the governor’s arguments. The general noted that the Guard needed an emergency declaration to respond more than 72 hours after an emergency occurred.
“This is not the time to stand down,” Garshak said, noting that 200 Guardsmen were about to be deployed to distribute COVID-19 vaccines. “Canceling Idaho’s emergency order would do just that.”
The show of force did not seem to intimidate any of Little’s antagonists at the Capitol.
“The inflammatory comments from the governor’s office do nothing but complicate the process,” House Republicans said in a statement
shortly after the speech.
Republicans in the Idaho Senate said Little’s argument “categorically maligns legislative efforts as the Senate works diligently to address the much-needed rebalancing of power.”
“The Senate,” they insisted, “has not advanced any legislation that would jeopardize federal funding.”
One House member even floated the idea of impeachment
, but ultimately withdrew the idea when it didn’t get traction.