Legislature’s approval of emergency session bill puts it on collision course with governor

Gov. Eric Holcomb will now get the chance to follow through on his pledge to veto a bill that would give state lawmakers the power to call themselves into session during public emergencies.

Both the Indiana House and Senate on Monday gave their final approval to the measure that ultimately may end up in court.

Holcomb said Wednesday that he would have no choice but to veto House Bill 1123 because he believes it is unconstitutional to give a governor’s power to call a special session to the Legislature. His press secretary, Rachel Hoffmeyer, said Tuesday Holcomb didn’t have any further comment, but his position has not changed.

The House 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 over their Republican governor’s objections.

This issue has come to the forefront due to the COVID-19 pandemic and emergency steps Holcomb has taken that some legislators feel should also be in their purview.

Holcomb first issued a public health emergency order for the pandemic in March and has renewed it every 30 days since. He announced in late March he would extend that order again, but he would lift all restrictions, including the statewide mask mandate, on Tuesday. Local governments, though, still have the ability to impose stricter requirements.

Under the bill, the Legislative Council, comprised of eight House and eight Senate lawmakers, would have to pass a resolution to convene an emergency session, declaring why it is necessary, setting the agenda for the session and determining the time, date and place it would occur. Only bills related to that agenda would be considered during the session.

Emergency sessions would be limited to 40 days and would be required to end within 10 days of the end of the state of emergency. The bill also gives the Legislature more oversight over federal stimulus dollars by creating an economic stimulus fund where the state would deposit those federal dollars. The Legislature would be responsible for appropriating the funds if lawmakers are in session. If not, state agencies can decide how to spend the funds, but their decisions would be subject to review by the State Budget Committee.

Rep. Vernon G. Smith, D-Gary, said he believes the Indiana Constitution is clear on who has the power to deal with public emergencies — the governor.

“When you get an emergency like the pandemic, there is no time to call for a special session,” Smtih said during floor debate.

He credited the governor for taking the necessary steps, such as mandating masks and other restrictions, even though not everyone was pleased with them.

“I think it’s a grab for power,” Smith said of the bill.

But Rep. Matt Lehman, a Berne Republican and the bill’s author, argued the bill’s provisions are on “solid constitutional grounds.” He said the measure is not trying to take responsibilities away from the governor to handle emergencies, but to bring in other opinions.

“At some point, the people’s voices must be heard and that’s us,” Lehman said. He said Indiana citizens will want their representatives to have “a seat at the table” to help deal with public emergencies.

GOP legislative leaders are expecting the governor’s veto before the end of the session, giving them a quick opportunity to override Holcomb’s action.

“We will have the time to consider the override,” House Speaker Todd Huston, R-Fishers, said Friday. “(The governor) knows the strong likelihood of us overriding the veto.”

The Indiana General Assembly can override the governor’s veto with a simple majority vote in both chambers. Most other states require a two-thirds supermajority.

Huston said Republican legislative leaders have a great working relationship with the governor and that this bill is not about Holcomb’s actions during the pandemic. “He’s done a really, really, really good job of getting this state through the pandemic and all that’s taken place in the last year,” he said.

Huston explained the bill is an effort to make policy prospectively, not reflectively. “We talked to folks that are confident of the constitutionality of it, and we believe that to be the case,” Huston said. “We feel like the constitution is silent on that issue.”

He called the split with the governor’s position “just a disagreement. We’ll let the courts decide and we’ll have the answer and move forward.”

Holcomb has not said whether his administration would challenge the legislation if it is approved over his veto.

Please enable JavaScript to view this content.

{{ articles_remaining }}
Free {{ article_text }} Remaining
{{ articles_remaining }}
Free {{ article_text }} Remaining Article limit resets on
{{ count_down }}