State lawmakers begin debating bills that take aim at Gov. Edwards’ authority

State lawmakers make efforts to lessen Gov. Edwards' coronavirus restrictions
State Capitol building in Louisiana.
State Capitol building in Louisiana. (Source: WVUE)

NEW ORLEANS, La. (WVUE) - Inside the state capitol building the battle to water down Governor John Bel Edwards' sole authority to issue public health and disaster declarations began in earnest as a House committee spent hours discussing a slew of bills related to the issue.

Most of the bills take aim at Edwards' COVID-19 emergency proclamations and restrictions he has placed on businesses.

Rep. Jack McFarland, R-Jonesboro, sponsored two bills related to the governor’s authority.

One would create a “Council of State” made up of the governor, the state treasurer, attorney general, the Speaker of the House, and the President of the Senate. Under McFarland’s bill no public health emergency declaration could extend beyond 30 days unless approved by the proposed Council of State.

“For me, my constituents are telling me they feel like their rights are being violated, that we are over-reaching government today, that we have gone, our executive branch has gone beyond its intent,” said McFarland. “People have rights.”

Rep. Candace Newell, a Democrat from New Orleans, questioned why McFarland’s legislation does not call for the head of the Louisiana Department of Health, Dr. Courtney Phillips, to be on the panel he says is necessary.

“I believe that’s the person who should be in the room to help advise the governor as to what we do in a public health emergency,” Newell said.

Rep. Mark Wright, a Republican from Covington, said the COVID-19 restrictions have resulted in citizens taking action and demanding change.

“All of this has led to lawsuits, recall efforts, this special session,” Wright said.

The governor recently moved the state into a Phase 3 reopening of its economy and that allows most businesses along with churches to operate at 75 percent of their occupancy.

And last week White House Coronavirus Task Force member Dr. Deborah Birx was in Louisiana and she said restrictions the governor put in place amid the pandemic have saved lives. Edwards says he is following White House guidelines.

Rep. Malinda White, a Democrat from Bogalusa, said if the White House thinks Louisiana is taking the appropriate actions to fight the virus then there must be another reason some legislators want to challenge the governor’s authority.

“With us having the White House Corona team saying that we are doing, we should not backup on what we are doing and they are the professionals that our president put in place for us to follow and the guidelines, then I just really can’t understand it beyond political purposes because it’s really not about the health of the people,” White said.

Republican Rep. Barry Ivey raised constitutional questions about McFarland’s bill on the Council of State.

“You keep saying that you do not take away the executive powers, that you preserve them. The fact is you do not, and I believe it’s unconstitutional,” Ivey said. "Because what I don’t want to happen because this is a very high-profile conversation is for people to walk away thinking this was ever a viable solution for Louisiana.

Rep. Wright also has a bill that says no state of disaster whether an emergency or public health emergency would continue beyond 30 days unless it is renewed by the governor and approved by a majority of the members of the House and Senate.

“For me, this is not about just a public health emergency. This is for any emergency,” Wright said.

Some Democrats say the special session which has 70 items on the agenda could end sooner than 30 days but for the efforts to challenge the governor’s authority.

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