State Watch

Legislatures move to limit governor powers after pandemic

For two years, Washington state Republicans have chafed at Gov. Jay Inslee’s (D) emergency orders meant to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, irate over government control they see as going too far.

But as the legislature convened in Olympia, a new push to rein in Inslee’s authority won some unexpected support — from members of Inslee’s own party.

Washington state Sen. Emily Randall (D) has introduced a measure that would give legislative leaders the authority to terminate a state of emergency declared when the legislature is not in session. Another bill backed chiefly by Republicans in the state House, along with state Rep. Mike Chapman (D), would give legislators the right to terminate a state of emergency lasting longer than 60 days.

“I have a feeling that the theme of this year’s session is going to be seeking balance,” state House Speaker Laurie Jinkins (D) said at an event previewing the legislature’s annual meeting.

Across the nation, legislators are moving to limit the authority of governors who have issued unprecedented orders in the face of a deadly pandemic. Legislators in at least 28 states have introduced bills this year to alter a governor’s authority, or to give themselves more oversight of declared emergencies, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Many of those bills come from Republicans, even in red states.

In Indiana, legislators have advanced a bill making a governor’s executive orders obsolete after 180 days unless the legislature itself approves an extension. Gov. Eric Holcomb (R) said he opposes the bill, which he worries could have impacts beyond the pandemic. Georgia legislators have introduced four bills to limit Gov. Brian Kemp’s (R) authority. In New Hampshire, Gov. Chris Sununu (R) faces eight bills that would limit his power, at least two of which have passed one chamber.

But a growing number of Democrats are signing on, signaling a new interest in rebalancing powers after an emergency that tilted authority toward executives.

In New Mexico, a bipartisan pair of legislators have proposed a constitutional amendment limiting Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s (D) emergency declarations to 90 days. New Jersey legislators declined to allow an extension of Gov. Phil Murphy’s (D) emergency orders.

“The pandemic made it clear — to my neighbors and to Washingtonians in every corner of our state — that our current system of government gives a lot of power to one person in the executive branch in times of emergency,” Randall said when she introduced her bill. “Emergencies affect whole communities, and, in the case of this pandemic, this emergency has affected our entire state. We will recover better together, more equitably and more quickly when a body of duly elected legislators acting in direct service of our communities can be a part of that recovery.”

Legislators have been working to rein in emergency orders since the earliest days of the pandemic. In 2020, even before the rollout of a vaccine against the coronavirus, 10 states — including Democratic-controlled Colorado and Hawaii — passed measures clarifying a governor’s authority. In 2021, every state except South Dakota, Iowa and Vermont considered similar proposals.

Many of those same bills are back this year, either as rollovers from previous sessions or new efforts by legislators tired of being steamrolled from the top.

In Washington, state Sen. Kevin Van De Wege (D) said early coronavirus lockdowns had taken a hard toll on his rural district on the Olympic Peninsula, long before the virus began spreading widely there.

“While the governor needs emergency powers to keep our state safe, we need the ability to be able to make sure any emergency orders reflect the conditions and needs of our community and not others’,” Van De Wege said.

State Watch