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Indiana lawmakers vote to boost their power over emergencies


INDIANAPOLIS (AP): Indiana legislators have voted to give themselves more authority to intervene during emergencies declared by the governor.

The votes in the Republican-dominated House and Senate will send the bill to GOP Gov. Eric Holcomb, who has said he doesn’t believe it is allowed under the state constitution and said last week he would veto it.

Holcomb has faced criticism from some conservatives over coronavirus restrictions he’s imposed by executive order over the past year. Republican legislative leaders praise the governor’s actions during the pandemic but say the bill is meant to allow the input of lawmakers during extended emergency situations.

The bill would establish a new process for the General Assembly to call itself into an emergency session when it isn’t meeting during its annual legislative session. Some legal experts question that process, however, since the state constitution gives the governor — not the Legislature — the authority for calling a special session.

Some lawmakers have chafed at the 60 executive orders related to the COVID-19 pandemic that Holcomb has issued under the public health emergency that he declared just days before the 2020 legislative session ended. The Legislature didn’t meet again until November, despite some lawmakers calling for a special session.

House Majority Leader Matt Lehman, a Republican from Berne, said the bill was not “anti-governor” but a response to a generational crisis.

“We’re creating something that needs to take place in the eyes of Hoosiers who are looking to us and saying, ‘You’re my voice, and I want you to have a seat at that table,’” Lehman said.

The House voted 64-33 in favor of the bill, with four Republicans joining all Democrats voting against it. The Senate approved the bill in a 37-10 party-line vote.

Lawmakers could potentially vote to override Holcomb’s veto by a simple majority of both houses before the current legislative session ends in late April.

Legislative leaders say they expect a court challenge to the emergency session plan. Republican House Speaker Todd Huston said he was grateful for how Holcomb has handled the coronavirus pandemic, which health officials say has killed more than 13,000 people in the state.

Huston said he told Holcomb last spring and summer that he didn’t believe a special legislative session was needed but that future Legislatures could believe they needed greater involvement during a long-lasting emergency.

“It’s just a disagreement we’ll let the courts decide and we’ll have an answer going forward,” Huston said.

Holcomb hasn’t said his office would file a lawsuit on the issue and it isn’t clear when that could happen.

“I cannot skirt my duty and do something that I believe is unconstitutional,” Holcomb said last week when stating that he would veto the bill. The governor’s office declined any additional comment Monday.

Holcomb has signed an order lifting the statewide mask mandate and other COVID-19 business restrictions as of Tuesday.

Other provisions in the bill would lawmakers more control over federal relieve money that Indiana receives, although the governor would only have to submit spending decisions to a legislative committee for review over federal money received when the Legislature is not in session.

Other bills advancing in the Legislature would give city and county elected officials more oversight of orders issued by local health officers and limit restrictions from health orders that could be placed on religious services.

Legislators are otherwise not limiting the broad authority that the governor has under the state’s emergency powers law. Republicans say that respects the need for the governor to react quickly to natural disasters or other emergencies.

Democrats, however, argued the 150 members of the Legislature should not be inserting themselves into the governor’s handling of emergencies.

“In a time of crisis, you really need one executive, one person to really make these make these decisions,” said House Minority Leader Phil GiaQuinta, a Fort Wayne Democrat.

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