Republicans in the Indiana General Assembly voted overwhelmingly Thursday to override Gov. Eric Holcomb’s veto of a bill that weakens the Republican chief executive’s emergency powers.
The Senate voted 36-8 to make the bill law over Holcomb’s objections, following the House’s 59-26 vote to also override the veto.
No Senate Republicans and only five House GOP members sided with Holcomb’s position that House Bill 1123 is unconstitutional because it gives the governor’s power to call the Legislature into special session to the lawmakers themselves.
The conflict likely will have to be settled in court, though the governor has not said whether he will ask for a judicial review of the new law.
Most of his fellow Republicans strongly defended the measure in the face of more than a year of emergency orders imposed by Holcomb amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“What we’re saying is the collective input of 150 members of the General Assembly is crucial to address the concerns of 6.7 million Hoosiers who have been under emergency orders for more than a year,” said Sen. Sue Glick, R-LaGrange, a Senate bill sponsor.
The measure sets up a new process for the General Assembly to call itself into an emergency session, even though the state constitution explicitly gives the governor that authority.
In a political twist, many Democrats were the most supportive of Holcomb and any governor’s executive authority to act in times of state emergencies.
“I find myself in the curious position of defending this governor,” said Sen. Timothy Lanane, D-Anderson. “I feel like I’m defending the idea of executive powers. I’’ll be the first to say, though, I didn’t think we were involved enough in being consulted during the emergency.”
He said he criticized the governor because he didn’t think he was strong enough in his orders at times. But he worries that the new law is an example of “Monday morning quarterbacking” and a reaction to a minority of people objecting to orders such as wearing masks.
Lanane said he believes allowing lawmakers to call themselves into a special session is unconstitutional. “I haven’t heard any credible, authoritative constitutional scholar to counter those arguments,” he said.
Several legislators were concerned about the ability of 150 lawmakers to quickly respond to emergencies such as the pandemic.
After the House vote, Rep. Chris Campbell, D-West Lafayette, said, “Having a body of 150 members with diverse perspectives and opinions trying to make fast-paced decisions is sure to end in disaster for our state and our communities. With one person at the helm, no time is wasted and our state can slow the progress of an oncoming emergency.”
Under the new law, 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.
Other provisions in the bill would give lawmakers more control over federal relief money that Indiana receives.
Holcomb’s fellow Republicans pushed the bill after months of criticism from some conservatives over COVID-19 restrictions he imposed by executive order during the statewide public health emergency over the past year. Holcomb vetoed the legislation Friday after it passed both chambers.
During debate Thursday, Glick stressed that citizens in Indiana have lived with emergency orders since March of 2020 and all of the problems caused by the pandemic. But she said lawmakers have not been part of the process to address citizen concerns other than an occasional – very occasional – contact between the governor and legislative leaders.
“We’re simply asking for a seat at the table,” Glick said.
House Speaker Todd Huston, R-Fishers, characterized the split as a “slight disagreement” this morning during a press briefing. “But that’s okay. We shouldn’t agree all the time.”
He added that Republicans recognize the importance of the governor taking action in times of emergencies. “The governor keeps the vast majority of his authority. If this situation happens again, and there are concerns about actions taken by the governor, the legislature would have the opportunity to engage in discussion about this during a session.”
Several Democratic lawmakers, as well as the governor, were concerned that actions taken during such a special session could be called into question as being unconstitutional.
“The challenge might come during the middle of a pandemic,” Lanane said. “If we had ended (Holcomb’s) executive orders, we might have had a constitutional crisis, too, because we would end up in court.”