Emergency powers debate is short-sighted and repetitive

January 26, 2024 7:00 am

Gov. Eric Holcomb gives a COVID-19 update from his office in May 2020. (Screenshot of video)

It was like 2021 all over again in the Senate Tuesday.

Senators made the same arguments about the emergency powers used by the executive branch during COVID-19. Again. And they passed a measure that was rejected by the General Assembly three years ago.

The residual resentment over those months in 2020 is as strong as ever in the Republican Senate, which approved a 30-day limit for future disaster declarations. There is one 30-day renewal to receive federal funding only.

After that, the full General Assembly would have to convene and make decisions.

It’s all about the disaster declaration Gov. Eric Holcomb issued in late March 2020. It started with a two-week stay-at-home order. Some businesses shut their doors and never opened them again. Thousands of people statewide were laid off. Schools closed down.

It was not an easy time for anyone.

But if we are going to look back, let’s do so with the proper perspective. It’s easy now to say it was all an overreaction. But I remember what it was like then, the fear of this new unknown virus that was killing our Hoosier neighbors.

We didn’t know what we didn’t know then.

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

The state gradually reopened starting May 1, allowing more businesses to operate with slowly increasing capacities. As cases rose and more people died, Holcomb issued a mask mandate in July. The restrictions fell away by the end of September.

During that time, lawmakers were not in session. Reporters repeatedly asked Holcomb and GOP legislative leaders if a special session was needed. They said no.

Sen. Chris Garten, R-Charlestown, wants to make sure an extended emergency can never happen again without legislative involvement.

The irony is that lawmakers went back into session in 2021 and 2022 and could have ended the lingering public health emergency provisions. Numerous resolutions that would have ended the emergency with just two votes languished and weren’t moved by the Republican supermajority.

Let me repeat that: they were in the building and could act but didn’t.

The declaration continued until March 2022 — allowing Indiana access to pandemic-related federal funds and other program flexibilities.

During that 2021 session, lawmakers angry over the mask mandate and closures pushed to curb executive power. In fact, the Senate considered a 60-day cap on such orders in then-Senate Bill 407 — and decided it was not the right path.

Many Hoosiers say Holcomb abused his power, but the fact is that he was using power expressly given to him in statute by legislators. I don’t have a problem with them deciding to create some limitations.

I could see, for instance, a 90-day maximum before legislative involvement. But 30 days is simply too short. And here is why.

This law impacts far more than public health emergencies like COVID-19. Here is a list of possible disasters the law covers:

  • Fire.
  • Flood.
  • Earthquake.
  • Windstorm.
  • Snowstorm.
  • Ice storm.
  • Tornado.
  • Wave action.
  • Oil spill.
  • Other water contamination requiring emergency action to avert danger or damage.
  • Air contamination.
  • Drought.
  • Explosion.
  • Technological emergency.
  • Utility failure.
  • Critical shortages of essential fuels or energy.
  • Major transportation accident.
  • Hazardous material or chemical incident.
  • Radiological incident.
  • Nuclear incident.
  • Biological incident.
  • Epidemic.
  • Public health emergency.
  • Animal disease event requiring emergency action.
  • Blight.
  • Infestation.
  • Riot.
  • Hostile military or paramilitary action.
  • Act of terrorism.

The fact is that there are situations in which getting 150 legislators to the state capitol hours from their homes might not be possible or advisable: terrorist attacks, war, nuclear meltdowns, riots to name a few.

Or, God forbid, a truly horrific bio-threat that doesn’t even exist yet.

And even if you can get them there and get a quorum, are they going to be able to coalesce around necessary moves that quickly? During COVID-19 there was clear dissension among Republicans and a special session could have just mired the state in inaction.

Some reduction in scope is due but let’s think through what a 30-day limitation truly means before acting on the fear and anger of the past.


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Niki Kelly
Niki Kelly

Niki has covered the Indiana Statehouse since 1999 – including five governors. She has been honored by the Society of Professional Journalists and Hoosier State Press Association for stories on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, criminal justice issues and more. She also is a regular on Indiana Week in Review, a weekly public television rundown of news. She shifts her career to helm a staff of three and ensure Hoosiers know what’s really happening on the state level.