Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb withstood criticism over his use of state emergency powers during the coronavirus pandemic, cruising to a resounding reelection victory.
Holcomb will likely face a similar debate again soon — this time from fellow Republicans when they return to the Statehouse for the upcoming legislative session.
Many conservatives across the state argue Holcomb infringed upon individual rights with a statewide mask mandate and executive orders forcing the closure of businesses deemed nonessential during the early weeks of the pandemic.
That has some Republican legislators looking to rein in the governor’s authority under the state’s emergency law, which was largely drafted in 2003 following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Republican Todd Rokita, who won election to become state attorney general starting in January, said he believed it was meant for temporary situations such as floods, tornadoes or terrorist actions, even though epidemics are included among the 29 situations specified in the law.
The 46 coronavirus-related executive orders that Holcomb has signed since first issuing a public health emergency in early March will likely be a target for many of the rural conservatives in the Republican-dominated Legislature. Some have suggested steps such as limiting any emergency action by the governor to 30 days without legislative support.
Republican House Speaker Todd Huston said the issue will certainly be debated but declined to outline any specific changes.
Huston praised Holcomb’s handling of the state’s COVID-19 response and said legislators would work with the governor on any revisions to his authority as lawmakers had not considered such a long-lasting emergency.
“It’s created a new lens of viewing the emergency powers act and I think we need to take a fresh look at it and find an appropriate balance,” Huston said. “If you aren’t evaluating everything after being in the midst a pandemic, that’d be a mistake.”
Indiana has seen steep increases in new COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths since Holcomb lifted nearly all coronavirus-related limits on businesses and crowd sizes in September.
Indiana’s seven-day moving average of COVID-19 deaths has tripled to about 30 since late September and hospitalizations have jumped more than 150%, according to the state health department. The state’s death toll has topped 4,500, including confirmed and presumed coronavirus infections, since the first coronavirus fatality in March.
Holcomb has resisted calls for reinstating coronavirus limits, saying the public needs to increase the use of face masks and other precautions to slow the virus spread.
Holcomb defends his actions as necessary during a pandemic and doesn’t show signs of wanting new limits placed on his emergency powers. He said Wednesday, the day after his reelection victory, that he “looked forward” to talking with lawmakers during the legislative session that starts in January.
“Not just the necessity for a mask mandate for the state, but for any other question that they might have or access to information that they might want while they are all here,” Holcomb said.
Holcomb’s reelection victory margin was among the largest in state history, but conservative critics flocked to support Libertarian candidate Donald Rainwater, who flatly rejected the face mask order and received about 11% of the statewide vote — about triple the typical support for Libertarian governor candidates in recent elections.
Rainwater also finished second in about a third of Indiana’s 92 counties, ahead of Democrat Woody Myers, who called for tougher coronavirus actions than Holcomb has taken.
Republicans, with their large majorities in the House and Senate, will likely drive whatever changes are considered to the governor’s authority.
But House Democratic Leader Phil GiaQuinta of Fort Wayne said legislators shouldn’t rush into imposing limits on the emergency powers.
“The governor, more so than individual legislators, has a better idea of where we’re going and how complicated these things can be and the Legislature is trying to micromanage a little bit too much,” GiaQuinta said. “I want to hear what the governor has to say with regard to the flexibility he needs, working with the Department of Health, to be able to make the case for doing the mask mandate and everything else.”