Legislature’s approval of emergency session bill puts it on collision course with governor

Gov. Eric Holcomb will now get the chance to follow through on his pledge to veto a bill that would give state lawmakers the power to call themselves into session during public emergencies.

Both the Indiana House and Senate this afternoon gave their final approval to the measure that ultimately may end up in court.

Holcomb said Wednesday that he would have no choice but to veto House Bill 1123 because he believes it is unconstitutional to give a governor’s power to call a special session to the legislature. His press secretary Rachel Hoffmeyer said today Holcomb didn’t have any further comment, but his position has not changed.

The House approved the bill 64-33, and the Senate’s vote was 37-10. The votes were primarily along party lines, with GOP members favoring the bill over their Republican governor’s objections.

This issue has come to the forefront due to the COVID-19 pandemic and emergency steps Holcomb has taken that some legislators feel should also be in their purview.

Holcomb first issued a public health emergency order for the pandemic in March and has renewed it every 30 days since then. He announced in late March he would extend that order again, but he would lift all restrictions, including the statewide mask mandate, on Tuesday. Local governments, though, still have the ability to impose stricter requirements.

Under the bill, 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.

Emergency sessions would be limited to 40 days and would be required to end within 10 days of the end of the state of emergency. The bill also gives the legislature more oversight over federal stimulus dollars by creating an economic stimulus fund where the state would deposit those federal dollars. The Legislature would be responsible for appropriating the funds if lawmakers are in session. If not, state agencies can decide how to spend the funds, but their decisions would be subject to review by the State Budget Committee.

Rep. Vernon G. Smith, D-Gary, said he believes the constitution is clear on who has the power to deal with public emergencies—the governor.

“When you get an emergency like the pandemic, there is no time to call for a special session,” Smtih said during floor debate.

He credited the governor for taking the necessary steps, such as mandating masks and other restrictions, even though not everyone was pleased with them.

“I think it’s a grab for power,” Smith said of the bill.

But Rep. Matt Lehman, a Berne Republican and the bill’s author, argued the bill’s provisions are on “solid constitutional grounds.” He said the measure is not trying to take responsibilities away from the governor to handle emergencies, but to bring in other opinions.

“At some point, the people’s voices must be heard and that’s us,” Lehman said. He Indiana citizens will want their representatives to have “a seat at the table” to help deal with public emergencies.

GOP legislative leaders are expecting the governor’s veto before the end of the session, giving them a quick opportunity to override Holcomb’s action.

“We will have the time to consider the override,” House Speaker Todd Huston, R-Fishers, said Friday. “(The governor) knows the strong likelihood of us overriding the veto.”

The Indiana General Assembly can override the governor’s veto with a simple majority vote in both chambers. Most other states require a two-thirds supermajority.

Huston said Republican legislative leaders have a great working relationship with the governor and that this bill is not about Holcomb’s actions during the pandemic. “He’s done a really, really, really good job of getting this state through the pandemic and all that’s taken place in the last year,” he said.

Huston explained the bill is an effort to make policy prospectively, not reflectively. “We talked to folks that are confident of the constitutionality of it , and we believe that to be the case,” Huston said. “We feel like the constitution is silent on that issue.”

He called the split with the governor’s position “just a disagreement. We’ll let the courts decide and we’ll have the answer and move forward.”

Holcomb has not said whether his administration would challenge the legislation if it is approved over his veto.

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7 thoughts on “Legislature’s approval of emergency session bill puts it on collision course with governor

  1. Here’s what the constitution says:

    “ The sessions of the General Assembly shall be held at the
    capitol of the State, commencing on the Tuesday next after the second
    Monday in January of each year in which the General Assembly meets
    unless a different day or place shall have been appointed by law. But
    if, in the opinion of the Governor, the public welfare shall require it, he
    may, at any time by proclamation, call a special session. The length and
    frequency of the sessions of the General Assembly shall be fixed by
    law”.

    Silent, indeed. Can’t wait to see our tax dollars wasted.

    1. I assume if the governor wants to have the state Supreme Court rule on the constitutionality of the legislators’ measure, the state attorney general would represent…who? Rokita’s political inclinations are less aligned with Holcomb and more aligned with the rebel legislators. So what does he do? Can’t wait to see how that plays out.

  2. Let me provide a real life example of why executive power needs to be checked. I needed to book a client lunch. Tried to book at a restaurant in Marion County, but can’t because you aren’t allowed to have a group over 6. Guess what? I’m booking lunch in Hamilton County instead. When the mayor whines about tax revenue leaving his county, it is self-inflicted. Power hungry individuals making arbitrary decisions. Wouldn’t let these people watch my dog much less run my life!

    1. Arbitrary decisions? They are made in consultation with the Marion County Public Health Department, and are consistent with CDC recommendations where infectious cases are still high. I have received both my vaccination shots and am considered “innoculated,”, but choose to still wear a mask where and avoid businesses where social distancing is not feasible or required.

    2. The governor of the state of Indiana offered to call legislators back into special session to address this issue. They declined his offer. Legislators had the power the entirety of this legislative session to end the mask mandate at any time. They did not do so, but they did find time to pass a bill making popcorn the official state snack.

      Voters had the opportunity in November to vote for a candidate (Don Rainwater) who would’ve ended the mask mandate his first day in office. He got 11% of the vote. 89% of the vote went to people who are either happy with the current state or who wanted more restrictive mask mandates.

      The issue is the virus, not the restrictions or the scientists or Eric Holcomb. This should be the stage where we hold fast on restrictions until mid-May and then lift them for good; instead, we’re going to have another wave of cases.

    3. A better metaphor would be that you need to book lunch with a client, but a committee of eight who won’t be there and will still be employed even if they end up blowing up the lunch with the client, would need to approve the client, the location, the menu items you might order and a maximum spending allowance.

  3. Thanks, Joe B. Well said.
    If this bill is unconstitutional, as it appears to be, I’m sure Hoosiers would prefer their tax dollars to be spent on state parks, safe bridges or quality education rather than litigation.

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