Six state legislatures have now limited their governor’s emergency powers. These powers were wielded during the COVID-19 pandemic and the legislatures are arguing that the state’s top executives have overextended their authority.
By June of 2021, those who make the laws in 46 states introduced legislation that will strip governors of certain emergency powers, according to USA Today. The lawmakers justified their actions as necessary to restore a balance between the branches of state government. They point to examples of executive overreach and the centralization of power in the hands of governors.
And in these three states, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, Republican lawmakers have curtailed the emergency powers of Democrat governors. The changes in a governor’s emergency powers in New York, Ohio, and Idaho are not necessarily partisan.
The Republican-led legislature in Kentucky overrode Democrat Gov. Andy Beshear’s vetoes on three bills designed to limit his executive power. One of the bills prevented the closure of schools, businesses, and churches during the pandemic so long as they met certain requirements. Another limited Beshear’s executive orders that restrict the function of schools and businesses to no longer than 30 days. Any extensions must be granted by the legislature.
The Kentucky legislature also granted itself the power to cancel any of Beshear’s emergency orders. Though the bills were enacted, Beshear filed a lawsuit challenging their constitutionality.
“While we take this virus seriously, we will not be cover for his unilateral decision-making,” Republican state Rep. David Osborne said.
“We gladly look forward to having a seat at the table representing all corners of Kentucky in the decisions going forward,” Republican state Sen. Matt Castlen said in a press release.
Voters in Pennsylvania approved two amendments to the state’s constitution proposed by Republican lawmakers that aim to limit the executive power of Democrat Gov. Tom Wolf. The amendments permit the legislature to cancel a governor’s emergency declaration with a simple majority vote rather than the previous two-thirds vote. This will force the state’s governor to renew emergency declarations through the legislature every 21 days.
Governor Wolf had some of the more unusual policies and lockdown orders during the pandemic. They included a ban on alcohol sales over the Thanksgiving holiday. Citizens and business owners joined lawmakers in their criticism of Wolf. And he was also the subject of scrutiny from the Department of Justice (DOJ) over his handling of the pandemic after he ordered nursing homes to accept new residents who had contracted COVID-19.
“Last night, voters took the crown off Tom Wolf’s head. Now we can reopen our economy and get our kids back to school,” the Pennsylvania Republican Party tweeted following the vote.
In Michigan, Republican voters repealed the Emergency Powers Act of 1945. It was a law used by Democrat Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to issue widespread restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic without consulting the legislature. The Michigan Supreme Court had declared the law unconstitutional in October 2020. This basically stripped Whitmer of her emergency powers, but the legislature’s attempt to repeal the law entirely would prevent a reversal of the court’s decision from reinstating it.
Republicans criticized Whitmer’s COVID-19 response, and former President Donald Trump even suggested in October 2020 that she “wants to be a dictator” in an interview with Fox Business.
Whitmer issued hundreds of executive orders imposing restrictions on businesses and schools, including a 10:00 p.m. curfew for bars and restaurants.
Whitmer, like Wolf, was also the focus of DOJ scrutiny over her nursing home policies. The organization called “Unlock Michigan” believes “Whitmer’s crushing lockdown of life and business” is a “dangerous threat to our livelihoods and constitutional liberties.”
As in the cases of Kentucky and Pennsylvania, lawmakers cited executive overreach as justification for their decisions.
Rep. Doug Wozniak said, “Governor Whitmer failed Michiganders by refusing to open the state and shed her unilateral, overreaching powers.”