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Senate panel takes first step to curb Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards' COVID-19 restrictions

Greg Hilburn
Monroe News-Star
Senate Judiciary B Chairman Gary Smith, D-Norco, listens as Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette (back to camera), testifies about his bill to curtail a governor's executive power during an emergency.

BATON ROUGE — A Louisiana Senate committee Tuesday approved the first bill designed to roll back Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards' executive authority during a declared emergency as Republicans' impatience with Edwards' COVID-19 restrictions continues to grow.

Most Republicans, who dominate the Louisiana Legislature with near super majorities in the Senate and House, believe Edwards' restrictions have been too deep and continued for too long since he declared a health emergency in March.

Senate President Page Cortez's Senate Bill 29 would require Edwards and any future governor to consult with a 10-member legislative committee before extending an emergency beyond 30 days.

"Executive powers are expanded under emergencies," Cortez said. "Legislative powers of oversight are limited, so what can we do to respond to our constituents? All we can do is rely on the executive branch for answers, and if we don't get those answers there's little we can do."

Cortez and other legislative leaders have complained Edwards hasn't kept them informed during the seven-month pandemic health emergency declared by Edwards, who has argued that an emergency can't be managed "by committee."

But Cortez' bill doesn't give the legislative committee the power to overturn a governor's emergency. That would require petitions with a majority of members in both the House and the Senate in Cortez' bill.

Current law allows a governor's order to be overturned by a majority of members agreeing to a petition in either the House or the Senate.

Multiple petitions have been circulated in the House for months seeking a majority of members — 53 — to overturn Edwards' order, but it hasn't been supported by Republican House Speaker Clay Schexnayder because the action could disqualify Louisiana for billions in federal aid.

Louisiana Senate President Page Cortez, R-Lafayette, front, and House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, rear, conduct a press conference Sept. 28 to discuss the Special Session.

Cortez said Louisiana is the only state that doesn't require a joint resolution from both chambers to overturn a governor's emergency declaration.

Schexnayder said he will file a bill that mirrors Cortez' measure in the House, but other individual House members have filed bills that could block the governor from extending an emergency declaration beyond 30 days.

Cortez said he doesn't believe the Louisiana Constitution would support such a mandate.

"I don't think it's our job to tell the governor what to do, nor is it his job to tell us what to do," he said. "We can't tell him what to do. But we can go back and ask our members to sign a petition (to overturn the order if the oversight committee isn't satisfied)."

Schexnayder said the various bills seek to address what he believes is an "imbalance of power" tilted toward the executive branch.

Greg Hilburn covers state politics for the USA TODAY Network of Louisiana. Follow him on Twitter @GregHilburn1.