Republican lawmakers advance new attempt to limit Indiana governor’s executive powers

The bill would restrict a disaster emergency to just 30 days, unless lawmakers reconvene and approve additional time.

By: - January 24, 2024 7:00 am

Sen. Chris Garten, R-Charlestown, defends a bill limiting governor-called states of emergency during session on Monday, Jan. 22, 2024. (Leslie Bonilla Muñiz/Indiana Capital Chronicle)

Still reeling over a slew of executive orders issued by Gov. Eric Holcomb during the pandemic, Senate Republicans advanced a bill Tuesday that seeks to limit the governor’s emergency powers. 

The clapback legislation, Senate Bill 234, removes a Hoosier governor’s ability to extend a state of disaster emergency after 30 days — or declare a new emergency — unless it is “wholly unrelated” to the first one. A longer disaster declaration would require approval from the General Assembly. 

Critics worry it could delay responses in emergencies, while supporters argue it’s about representation.

The measure advanced from the Senate 38-10, with all Democrats and one Republican, Sen. Greg Walker, voting in opposition. The bill now heads to the House.

“If we hit an emergency disaster declaration when we’re not in session, Hoosiers’ voices cannot be represented by its elected body here today. That’s what this bill does,” said Sen. Chris Garten, R-Charlestown, lead author of the proposal.

“Supporting this bill ensures that every constituent in your district, Democrat or Republican, that elected you — or maybe didn’t — has their voice be heard during an emergency disaster,” he continued. “That may be the most critical time for a constituent’s voice to be heard by its elected representative body.”

If we hit an emergency disaster declaration when we're not in session, Hoosiers’ voices cannot be represented by its elected body here today

– Sen. Chris Garten, R-Charlestown

It’s not the first time state lawmakers have gone after the governor’s powers, however.

Most notably, legislators approved a law in 2021 following criticism from conservatives over Indiana’s statewide mask mandate and other COVID-19 restrictions that Holcomb imposed by executive order. 

The measure sought to give the Republican-dominated legislature the power to call themselves into special session after the governor has declared an emergency. Holcomb vetoed, claiming it went against the Indiana Constitution, but the General Assembly overrode his veto. 

Ultimately, Holcomb prevailed before the Indiana Supreme Court.

Garten maintained Tuesday that the bill “is not a shot at Gov. Holcomb” or “any administration.”

“The Supreme Court clarified a law that we passed, and they ruled it unconstitutional. That showed us a pathway, as a general assembly, to make sure that our constituents can be represented during a declared disaster emergency,” he said. “That’s what this bill does.”

Speaking to reporters last week, the governor held that disaster responses should happen in partnership with the legislature. He vowed to work with lawmakers in the coming weeks “to try to find the right spot, ultimately, that addresses both of our concerns.”

“There’s always going to be, understandably, a little tension between the legislative approach to an emergency — understanding that the policies affect their districts, and their citizens, of which I share their concerns — and the executive approach,” Holcomb said.

GOP lawmakers want more say

Garten’s bill was amended Monday to allow the governor to issue a one-time renewal of a state disaster emergency for an additional 30 days — for a total of 60 days under an executive order. 

The renewal must be for the purpose of ensuring Indiana can receive federal relief funds, though.

Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb talks to reporters on Friday, Jan. 19, 2024, at the Indiana State Fairgrounds. (Whitney Downard/Indiana Capital Chronicle)

Holcomb issued nearly 70 executive orders around public health in the year and a half after the pandemic broke out. But the governor has the ability to issue disaster orders in other instances, too, including in the wake of tornadoes and floods.

Still, Garten emphasized that “we do not have to be in an emergency disaster to receive federal funding.” 

He pointed to an executive order issued by Holcomb in February 2018 following severe storms tore through southern Indiana. The disaster order lasted 30 days and was not renewed or extended. 

Two months later, Holcomb sent a letter to former President Donald Trump, requesting federal aid for Hoosiers affected by “catastrophic” and “historic flooding.”

The ask was granted, even though Indiana was no longer under the governor’s disaster order.

“You do not have to be in the absolute middle of the emergency disaster that is declared,” Garten reiterated.

30 days is ‘too short’

Even so, Sen. Shelli Yoder, D-Bloomington, said the bill would delay federal dollars when they’re needed most. She rebuked Garten’s example and called the bill “an added layer of bureaucracy” for times when Hoosiers “are facing, perhaps, the worst days of their lives.”

“I think it is dangerous that we pass legislation based on one example. That is not data. That is one example,” she said. “We have had multiple natural disasters and state of emergencies declared in the state of Indiana. Using one example, as the foundation upon which we would be able to respond to the need of Hoosiers, is quite frankly irresponsible.”

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Democrats have repeatedly called out the attempts to curb executive authority, and said the latest legislative push could prove “dangerous” and “deadly” in the aftermath of a disaster.

“I don’t think anybody understands that the 30 days is really a very short amount of time to understand the impact, hear from experts, hear what are the best options, and then try to get people together,” said Sen. Rodney Pol, D-Chesterton. “There are a number of emergencies that we’ve seen across the country that are non-COVID related that have gone on for a lot longer than 30 days. … I think that there’s going to be a lot of unforeseen circumstances that we’re not really prepared for.”

Minority leader Sen. Greg Taylor, D-Indianapolis, additionally noted that it’s still up to the governor to call the General Assembly into a special session.

“What if the politics are not in your favor? What if you don’t have 40 members of the Indiana General Assembly who are Republican, and a governor who’s Republican?” Taylor asked. “I think that we need to be conscious of what we do in these scenarios, because you don’t know what’s going to happen down the line. Please don’t play around with people’s lives and their livelihoods.”

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Casey Smith
Casey Smith

A lifelong Hoosier, Casey Smith previously reported on the Indiana Legislature for The Associated Press. Internationally, she has reported on water quality across South America. She holds a master’s degree in investigative reporting and narrative science writing from the University of California/Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. She previously earned degrees in journalism, anthropology and Spanish from Ball State University, where she now serves as an instructor of journalism.

Indiana Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, the nation’s largest state-focused nonprofit news organization.

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