Legislators go after governors to rein in COVID-19 powers

Legislators go after governors to rein in COVID-19 powers
© getty

Lawmakers in more than half the states are moving to curtail emergency powers their governors have used to combat the coronavirus pandemic in increasingly fraught clashes over the balance of power between legislatures and the executive.

More than 150 bills and resolutions limiting a governor’s authority have been introduced in 27 states, according to a tally maintained by Stateside, a lobbying firm that concentrates on legislatures.

Most of the measures to curb executive authority have been introduced by Republican legislators, sparking battles in states where those legislators hold power alongside a Democratic governor.


But anger is growing in red states, too, as Republican legislators seek to limit the authority of some of the most conservative governors in the country.

In Idaho, a growing feud between Gov. Brad Little (R) and legislative leaders who want to end his emergency declaration has frayed already delicate relations. Little’s own lieutenant governor, Janice McGeachin (R), has joined protests against state coronavirus-related restrictions.

“Our members are working on various forms of legislation to help the state on its road to the recovery that Idahoans have been demanding for months and we call on the governor to work with us in this process,” the state House Republican Conference said in a statement last week.

Little has said ending the declaration would jeopardize federal emergency management money that has been used to supply first responders with personal protective equipment. Business groups back Little, and the adjutant general of the state’s National Guard has said without the declaration they would be forced to stand down.

In Arizona, two leading state senators said this week they would consider five bills to limit Gov. Doug DuceyDoug DuceyThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by The AIDS Institute - Finger-pointing on Capitol riot; GOP balks at Biden relief plan On The Trail: The political perils of Snowmageddon 'Purple America' will set political direction in 2022 MORE’s (R) power, though Ducey has not taken the restrictive steps that neighboring states have used. The governor has resisted calls to implement a statewide mask mandate.


In a statement, state Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita (R), chair of the Senate Government Committee, said Senate Republicans “unanimously supported the concept of limiting the abuse of executive emergency powers.”

The state Republican Party this month censured Ducey over the executive actions he has taken. That rebuke came alongside resolutions censuring former Sen. Jeff FlakeJeffrey (Jeff) Lane FlakeFormer GOP lawmaker: Republican Party 'engulfed in lies and fear' Grassley to vote against Tanden nomination Klain on Manchin's objection to Neera Tanden: He 'doesn't answer to us at the White House' MORE (R) and Cindy McCain, the widow of the late Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainCindy McCain planning 'intimate memoir' of life with John McCain Trump-McConnell rift divides GOP donors Arkansas state senator says he's leaving Republican Party MORE (R-Ariz.), for their endorsements of President Biden before the November election.

On the other side of the country, New Hampshire Republicans have introduced 18 bills to curb Gov. Chris SununuChris SununuThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by The AIDS Institute - COVID-19 rescue bill a unity test for Dems On The Trail: Trump threatens a Tea Party redux Legislators go after governors to rein in COVID-19 powers MORE’s (R) emergency authority. Seventy percent of New Hampshire voters approve of the job Sununu has done handling the pandemic, but Republicans in the legislature heard testimony this week on legislation that would refund fines on businesses and remove criminal convictions of those charged with violating coronavirus restrictions.

In states where Democratic governors hold power alongside Republican legislatures, tensions over executive authority have been building for months.

Michigan Republicans have repeatedly clashed with Gov. Gretchen WhitmerGretchen Whitmer'SNL' envisions Fauci as game show host, giving winners vaccines Two men charged with making threatening calls to Michigan officials Biden sparks Twitter debate over pronunciation of Midwest supermarket chain MORE (D) over her executive orders. This week, state House Republicans unveiled a proposed recovery plan that would hold up billions of dollars in school funding unless Whitmer and the state Department of Health and Human Services relinquish their authority to suspend in-person school and sporting events.

Wisconsin’s GOP-controlled state Senate passed a measure to end Gov. Tony EversTony EversWisconsin bill would require playing of national anthem at taxpayer-funded venues Governors in hot water over their coronavirus response Ex-Trump chief of staff Priebus mulling Wisconsin governor bid MORE’s (D) statewide mask mandate in a vote along party lines. Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R) postponed a planned vote on the bill after the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that it could cost the state $50 million a month in federal aid for food stamps.

“We don’t want to rush into anything,” Vos told reporters.

Kentucky legislators have proposed legislation that would end Gov. Andy Beshear’s (D) emergency orders within 30 days, unless the legislature votes to extend them. Beshear has vetoed several measures that would have limited his power.

Republican legislators in Kansas, too, have taken aim at Gov. Laura Kelly’s (D) authority in the midst of the crisis.

The measures to limit a governor’s authority are not wholly reserved to Republicans. In Washington state, a Democratic state representative has introduced legislation that would end Gov. Jay InsleeJay Robert InsleeWashington state officials warn providers offering VIP vaccine access Legislators go after governors to rein in COVID-19 powers Inslee rebukes hospital over vaccine appointments for donors MORE’s (D) emergency orders after 30 days — though that measure is unlikely to advance in the heavily Democratic legislature.

Michael Behm, Stateside’s co-chief executive, said tensions have been rising in part because legislators want more oversight of federal relief money that has been allocated to the states.

“The legislators think that [governors] have taken it too far. Some of them admit they don’t have a solution, but they don’t feel like the governor has worked with us or collaborated with us,” he said. “They’re just angry about this.”

The moves to limit governors' authority are growing as the number of coronavirus cases diagnosed in the United States drops from an early January high. Health experts worry that, as in past months, the positive trajectory of the moment could give the public a false sense of security and a reason to drop their guard, just as new variants of the virus first discovered in the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil become more widespread in the U.S.

“We’ve seen over the past year how unpredictable this virus can be,” said Rich Besser, a former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who now heads the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “And how quickly it can turn from a positive picture to one that’s very concerning.”