INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Officials in Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb’s administration on Thursday defended his use of emergency powers during the COVID-19 pandemic as lawmakers continued to push bills that would limit the governor’s executive orders authority.
A half dozen top Holcomb staffers told a state Senate committee the governor’s capacity to quickly address emergencies has been critical to the state's response, arguing that limitations to those powers could hinder the state's current progress and delay urgent reactions to future public health emergencies or natural disasters.
Their testimony came as a response to bills advanced by the House and Senate that would curb a governor’s authority to impose emergency restrictions such as mask rules and business closures. The differing proposals would set up ways to either force the governor to call lawmakers into a special session during a long-lasting emergency or give legislative leaders new authority to take such action.
Senators contended they've been shut out of conversations about how to respond to emergency situations, however. They said the proposed legislation wouldn’t impede how the state responds to emergencies, but instead would involve lawmakers in decision-making.
“I find it interesting that so many members of the administration find it threating that legislators want a seat at the table," said Republican Sen. Susan Glick of LaGrange. “We are part of the Constitution, we are a branch of this government. For a year now, we’ve been very patient. But we’ve been simply ignored on many occasions. We have attempted to deal with the governor’s office... and state government, and we have repeatedly, like our constituents, been stymied.”
Indiana State Health Commissioner Dr. Kristina Box said the governor's emergency orders allowed the state health department to “quickly and directly” work with hospitals to address statewide shortages of staff and equipment early in the pandemic. An order issued last fall suspending non-emergency procedures at hospitals also ensured a swift solution to patient surges, she said.
“Our ability to respond efficiently and effectively to this once-in-a-lifetime emergency has been tied to the governor’s executive orders,” Box said. “This was especially crucial in those first several months when we had to deal with issues as they arose and address them immediately.”
The executive orders have additionally streamlined the state’s access to federal funding and allowed health and safety agencies to expedite the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines, said Indiana Homeland Security Executive Director Steve Cox.
Lapses in emergency declarations could “jeopardize” those resources, Cox said, and “potentially affect our ability to save lives.”
“If this continues to move forward, introducing a new layer of approvals and analysis into decisions that need to be made with extreme urgency could drastically change the way Indiana responds to emergencies in the future,” Cox said. “Currently, we’re in the middle of this pandemic ... this response still. We have many lessons to be learned, and I think it would be very good for us to make sure that we go through that process before we make substantive changes.”
The debate arrives as the state reaches a full year under a public health emergency from the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed some 12,800 people in Indiana, according to the state health department.
Action to stem the coronavirus spread occurred quickly after Indiana lawmakers ended their 2020 session last March, with Holcomb issuing a stay-at-home order that closed businesses deemed nonessential two weeks later. The Legislature didn’t meet again until November, despite some lawmakers calling for a special session.
Holcomb and others have questioned whether the proposals written by Republican lawmakers are allowed under the state constitution, however, since the state constitution gives the governor — not the Legislature — the authority for calling a special session.
“There’s a difference of opinion on that constitutionality, frankly, and that may not be something that is able to be resolved," said Republican Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray of Martinsville. "But we’re going to try and do something and obviously if we do, we are going to vet it and make sure that it feels constitutional to us.”
The Senate Rules Committee is expected to make additional revisions to the bill before taking a vote on the measure next week.
Casey Smith is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.