Lawmakers lessen potential emergency power restrictions

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INDIANAPOLIS (Network Indiana): Senators have narrowed a bill revising Governor Eric Holcomb’s emergency powers, but a provision Holcomb contends is unconstitutional is still there.

A Senate committee approved the slimmed-down bill on a party-line vote, setting up a possible final Senate vote next week. Senators abandoned a two-month cap on emergency declarations. The revised bill also no longer blocks local limits from being stricter than the state’s limits and also no longer blocks restrictions on houses of worship. A separate bill already passed by the Senate says churches can’t face stricter limits than essential businesses.

But the bill still includes a House-passed provision allowing the 16-member Legislative Council to call a special session to review emergency declarations. Several legal experts have echoed Holcomb in warning that violates the constitution — former Indiana Supreme Court Justice Frank Sullivan testified last week it would cause “an unholy mess.”

Senate President Pro Tem Rod Bray (R-Martinsville) and House Speaker Todd Huston (R-Fishers) acknowledge a legal fight is likely over that provision, but say it’s a fight they’re willing to take on. Bray argues that while the constitution says the governor can call a special session, there’s nothing that says legislators can’t.

Bray says he’s trying to get the bill into a form the House can accept without further negotiation. Huston says he approves of the general thrust of the latest version but says he still needs to consult other House Republicans on whether they can back it without further changes.

Legislators are hoping to adjourn the session ahead of their April 29 deadline. And Huston hints he also wants to pass the bill with enough time to override a potential Holcomb veto, saying only, “The timing is important.”

Legislators have chafed at a lack of input on Holcomb’s pandemic restrictions last year. Indiana’s first COVID-19 death occurred five days after last year’s legislative session adjourned. A six-week lockdown began the following week as the pandemic accelerated, and legislators didn’t return to the statehouse for eight months.

But legislators so far have stopped short of trying to use their authority to terminate the emergency declaration. A House attempt to do so last month got just three votes. But 26 House Republicans have signed on to the latest resolution to end the emergency, and Huston, for the first time, isn’t ruling it out. He says he wants to hear what Holcomb says in a statewide address on the pandemic on Tuesday. Huston says it’s time to “move forward” from gathering limits and a mask mandate, and says he wants to keep legislators’ options open.

Bray remains skeptical. He says terminating the emergency would cut off the state from some emergency federal aid, including 50-million dollars a month in additional food-stamp money.

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