Louisiana Republicans say they have enough signatures to suspend COVID-19 emergency order

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U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams, left, flanked by Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, speaks at a news conference at the Louisiana State Capitol on March 12, 2020. By David Jacobs | The Center Square

By David Jacobs

(The Center Square) – Republicans in the Louisiana House of Representatives say they have gathered enough signatures to suspend Gov. John Bel Edwards’ COVID-19 emergency declaration for seven days.

The statute giving either chamber of the Legislature the right to end an emergency order has not been tested in court, though that’s probably about to change.

The petition directs Edwards to issue a proclamation ending the emergency declaration. While the governor refused to say explicitly on Friday that he would not comply, noting that he hadn’t yet seen the petition, he left little doubt of his position.

“We have a public health emergency,” he said, suggesting that lifting the order would be “reckless, irresponsible and unconscionable.”

“The proclamation that I issued remains in full force and effect,” Edwards said. “I take my responsibility to the people of Louisiana very seriously, especially during this global pandemic.”

Rep. Alan Seabaugh, a Shreveport Republican who has been urging his colleagues to sign a similar petition for months, said he doesn’t expect Edwards to comply.

“He’s been, in my opinion, exceeding his legal authority since March [when the first set of COVID-19 restrictions were issued],” Seabaugh said. “I don’t think he’s all of a sudden going to start doing what he’s supposed to.”

Seabaugh said there is no doubt the relevant statute is constitutional. While the ability of one chamber to make such a major change without the other has drawn scrutiny, he pointed to other examples such as the Senate’s right to confirm or deny appointments.

The most likely scenario is that Edwards will not comply, and Attorney General Jeff Landry will file a writ of mandamus asking a court to order the governor to lift the restrictions. Landry says the law is constitutional and his office stands ready to defend it.

“I trust people to make the right decisions,” Seabaugh said, when asked if he had any public health concerns about lifting the order. People in north Louisiana already are not complying with the governor’s order to wear face coverings in public, he added.

Asked why the petition only calls for a seven-day suspension, Seabaugh said leadership would not support anything longer. House members tend to fall in line with the House speaker, especially when the speaker is a member of their party.

“Practically speaking,” he said, “I don’t think you can put the genie back in the bottle.” If Edwards tries to issue another order after seven days, getting another one passed won’t be difficult, he added.

“We can play emergency order whack-a-mole,” Seabaugh said.

Republicans have complained about the repeated renewals of orders imposing mandates meant to limit the spread of the new coronavirus, citing the economic and social costs and their lack of input into those decisions.

“When any emergency process lasts this long, the public deserves transparency,” House Republican Delegation Chairman Blake Miguez said. “The governor should be providing more information and data, not more mandates and restrictions.”

Edwards said he has always been transparent about the science and data behind his mandates, all of which are in line with the recommendations of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the White House Coronavirus Task Force.

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Sam Jenkins called the move “dangerous, reckless and short-sighted,” reminding his colleagues on the House floor Friday that “a petition is not a cure.”

“If this petition successfully ends Governor Edwards’ emergency order, 4.5 million Louisianans will needlessly face additional risk of catching COVID and experiencing dire consequences, including death,” he said. “If this petition is successful, Louisiana risks losing billions of dollars in federal funding, free community COVID testing, access to PPE, food banks and other crucial lifelines our people are depending on in the midst of this global pandemic and in the fallout of multiple severe hurricanes.”