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Bills to curb health emergency powers advance in Louisiana

April 13, 2022 GMT

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — The state Legislature could end public health emergency declarations by future governors under legislation approved Wednesday by a House committee in Baton Rouge.

A 6-5 vote by the House and Governmental Affairs Committee sent the bill by Republican state Rep. Lawrence Frieman of Abita Springs to the full House.

The bill comes after two years of periodic conflicts between some lawmakers and Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards over now-expired emergencies declared during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Frieman’s bill, as amended by the committee, would enable the Legislature to end an emergency declaration — or remove some provisions of one — by a petition signed by a majority of the House and of the Senate. It tweaks state law allowing either chamber by itself to end an emergency declaration, which was challenged and blocked in state court.

The bill applies to declared states of disaster or emergency. In the case of public health emergencies, it requires lawmakers to consult with a public health specialist before petitioning to end or alter the emergency declaration.

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Debate centered on the advisability of putting the 105-member House and 39-member Senate in the position of making decisions now in the hands of the executive branch.

“We expect them to be able to make executive decisions,” said Rep. Royce Duplessis, a New Orleans Democrat. “Our job is to legislate and I think that this bill puts us in the posture of being an executive agency. I just don’t think that we’re equipped to do that in an emergency. Because in emergencies you need to the ability to act swiftly.”

Frieman said his bill is a needed check on executive power and stressed that it gives lawmakers the option of eliminating parts of an executive emergency declaration without ending it.

Another measure approved by the committee during Wednesday’s livestreamed meeting would exempt state-owned buildings — such as the Superdome in New Orleans — from local government emergency provisions. Rep. Stephanie Hilferty, a Metairie Republican, is the bill’s sponsor.

Duplessis was among the opponents, questioning whether the state should allow public gatherings in buildings in a locality where officials have decided strict public gathering limits are needed.

“Are you of the belief ... that local knows best?” Duplessis asked Hilferty.

“I think in many instances local knows best,” Hilferty said. “I think in some instances there’s been overreach.”