Bill would give lawmakers opportunity to weigh in on governor’s emergency order extensions

Nine months after Gov. Eric Holcomb first put Indiana under a public health emergency, a top Indiana House Republican has filed a bill that would require a special session before the governor could extend an emergency order beyond an initial 30 days.

House Bill 1123, authored by Rep. Matt Lehman of Berne, would allow the governor to continue extending a state of disaster emergency order every 30 days, but only if lawmakers are already in session or are called into a special session by the governor within 60 days. Only the governor can convene a special session.

If the Legislature is not in session during any part of the 60-day period that an emergency order is in effect, the state of emergency would be terminated.

Lehman, who is the House majority floor leader, said the intent of the bill is to allow lawmakers to object to extensions or raise concerns. However, he said he does not want to force all 150 members of the Legislature to come to Indianapolis if there are no objections. Therefore, he plans to work on the language to determine how that can be accomplished.

A two-day special session could cost an estimated $70,000.

“I don’t think we should come here to simply say ‘yes,’” Lehman said.

Under current law, the governor is allowed to continue the emergency order every 30 days without input from lawmakers. Holcomb first issued the public health emergency order for the COVID-19 pandemic in March and has continued it every 30 days since then.

Republican legislative leaders have praised Holcomb’s handling of the pandemic but also say lawmakers should be able to provide input in the decisions when an emergency continues for an extended period of time.

“Somewhere between day one and nine months, we do feel there should be a legislative check,” Lehman said.

On Organization Day, state Rep. Curt Nisly, R-Milford, filed a resolution calling for an immediate end to Holcomb’s emergency order, but it was not considered for a vote. Since then, it has been assigned to the House Rules and Legislative Procedures Committee.

On Tuesday, a small group led by former Libertarian gubernatorial candidate Donald Rainwater gathered at the Statehouse to rally in support of that resolution.

Lehman’s bill would not require lawmakers to agree to the extended order, but because they would be in session, it would allow them to pass legislation that could end the executive order.

“If we’re not here, we can’t do that,” Lehman said.

He said his legislation is meant to give lawmakers a mechanism to weigh in.

A majority of lawmakers would have to be present at the Statehouse if action were to be taken.

Lehman said he’s received a “mixed bag” of reactions so far from other lawmakers on the legislation.

“There are those who want to take everything away … and there are those who think it’s an overstep,” Lehman said. “I think it’s a logical and fair approach.”

Holcomb has not commented on the legislation.

This is not the first time there have been calls for a special session during the pandemic.

Outgoing Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill wrote in an advisory opinion that the governor should have called a special session before implementing a statewide mask mandate in July. Holcomb later rescinded the penalty associated with failing to wear a mask.

Additionally, Hill, also a Republican, penned a letter in August to Holcomb and legislative leaders calling for a special session to address COVID issues generally.

“Candidly,” Hill wrote, “while Hoosiers at first mostly obeyed the Governor’s emergency orders, as those orders have endured, overreached, mutated, or proven impracticable, many citizens have begun to lose respect for them.”

House Democrats also pushed for a special session over the summer to address policing reform following the death of George Floyd and the subsequent nationwide protests.

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