General Assembly overrides veto, sets stage for court fight over governor’s emergency powers

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Editor’s note: This article has been updated.

Both chambers of the Indiana General Assembly on Thursday voted to override Gov. Eric Holcomb’s veto of a bill giving legislators more authority to intervene during emergencies declared by the governor. But some lawmakers and the governor himself raised the possibility of the law facing a constitutional court challenge.

The vote in the House on Thursday morning was 59-26, with 15 legislators excused because they were in committee hearings. Of the 26 who voted against overriding the veto, four were Republicans. They were Reps. John Jacob of Indianapolis, Jim Lucas of Seymour, Curt Nisly of Millford and Thomas Saunders of Lewisville.

All of those who agreed with the override were Holcomb’s fellow Republicans.

The Senate took up the measure during a Thursday afternoon session, voting 36-8 to override the veto of House Enrolled Act 1123. Each of the Senate votes against the override were cast by Democrats, while the three remaining Senate Democrats — Eddie Melton, Karen Tallian and Minority Leader Greg Taylor — did not vote because they were in conference committee meetings.

An override only needs to pass by a simple majority vote in each chamber in Indiana, rather than a two-thirds vote as in many other states.

On Friday, Holcomb vetoed the bill lawmakers approved over his objections. Holcomb said he had no choice but to veto the bill because he feels it’s unconstitutional to give a governor’s power to call a special legislative session to lawmakers themselves.

The House originally approved the bill 64-33, and the Senate’s vote was 37-10. The votes were primarily along party lines, with GOP members favoring the bill.

Holcomb’s fellow Republicans pushed the bill after months of criticism from some conservatives over COVID-19 restrictions he imposed by executive order during the statewide public health emergency over the past year.

The bill sets up a new process for the General Assembly to call itself into an emergency session when it isn’t meeting during its annual legislative session. The legality of that provision has been questioned by some legal experts because the Indiana Constitution gives the governor the sole authority for calling a special session.

Speaking with reporters Thursday morning after the House vote, Speaker Todd Huston, R-Fishers, said that while the bill made some “tweaks,” the governor “keeps the vast majority of authority.” He also insisted the bill is not “reflective” but rather is “a bill that looks forward.”

Senate President Pro Tem Rodric Bray, R-Martinsville, told reporters before the Senate vote that lawmakers “thought deeply” about the emergency powers issue and vetted the bill to arrive at a “landing spot” that he said is “good policy.” If the court strikes down the law, Bray said, then the Legislature would respond accordingly.

On the Senate floor, Sen. Sue Glick, R-LaGrange, presented the veto override. Like Huston, Glick said the move was not a statement that Holcomb had done something wrong — “which seems to be his concern,” she added.

“What we’re saying is that the collective input of 150 members of the General Assembly is crucial to address the concerns of 6.7 million Hoosiers who have been living under emergency orders for over a year,” Glick said.

Glick did not address the constitutional concerns raised by the governor, but Democratic Sens. Tim Lanane and Lonnie Randolph urged lawmakers to consider that consequence. Randolph also pointed to testimony from former Indiana Supreme Court Justice Frank Sullivan, who previously told lawmakers he believed the bill was unconstitutional.

“It’s a losing battle from the beginning,” Randolph said, “so why take the path?”

Holcomb had not responded to the override of his veto at IL deadline.

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