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Legislators In Some States Seek To Roll Back Governor's Powers Amid Pandemic


In extraordinary times, states allow governors to exercise extraordinary power, and the pandemic has presented us with extraordinary times indeed. So why are many state legislatures across the country trying to roll back emergency orders and declarations made by their governors? For that, we'll turn to reporters in three states where that's happening - Ben Giles of member station KJZZ in Phoenix, Ariz.

Hi, Ben.

BEN GILES, BYLINE: Good morning.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Abigail Censky of member station WKAR in Lansing, Mich.

Hi there.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: And lastly in Idaho, where James Dawson is with Boise State Public Radio.

Jimmy, hi to you as well.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right. This idea of sort of chafing at a governor's powers is not new. What is new is that lawmakers in most states are finally back together in the 2021 legislative session, and they're trying to look to balance out that power. So let's get into that. I'm going to start with you, Ben. What is it looking like where you are in Arizona?

GILES: The first step for legislative Republicans in Arizona is end the current public health emergency that a Republican governor, Doug Ducey, declared last March. There's two ways for that to happen. Ducey can say it's over - that's not going to happen any time soon - or the House and Senate can pass resolutions saying it's over. And the governor can't do anything to stop that. But the next step they're already talking about is making sure the governor can't declare another long-lasting emergency in the future. There's a few versions of this idea, but they all boil down to placing time limits on emergency orders.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Jimmy, how does that compare with what you're seeing in Idaho?

DAWSON: I would say it's pretty similar to what Ben's seeing in Arizona. Just recently, the House voted to lift some gathering restrictions. And tensions boiled over during that debate, including House Majority Leader Mike Moyle.


MIKE MOYLE: I didn't get elected to come down here and sit around and let the governor be king.

DAWSON: One Republican representative, Heather Scott, even during that debate, declared that the pandemic is over. Idaho cases have fallen, but ICU and hospital admission rates are still high. Per capita, we still have one of the highest rates of cases in the country, going back to January 2020. Now, we do have those bills to limit emergency declarations, and those are still working through the process.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: All right, Abigail, I'm going to bring you into this. Michigan is one state where we have seen a lot of challenges to Governor Gretchen Whitmer - she's a Democrat - over her COVID-19 restrictions. Some of her power has already been stripped away, right?

CENSKY: That's right. Back in October, our state Supreme Court ruled that one of the laws that the governor was using to issue executive orders was unconstitutional - so not the executive orders themselves, but the law. And Republicans in our state Legislature celebrated that as a huge win, but her administration has ultimately reissued a lot of those executive orders through the state health department. So now we're back in this situation of this ugly fight over how to disperse things like COVID aid and extend unemployment benefits - things that aren't public health orders. But our last pause worked, and cases have been declining steadily for 24 days.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What kind of efforts are you seeing by Republicans in the Legislature in Michigan?

CENSKY: So now Republicans are pushing bills that link 2 billion in federal funding for education to the governor's authority to close schools or dictate if high school sports can be played. They say they want to give that power to local officials, but they want to set the metrics of when local health officials can act. They've also rejected 18 of Whitmer's appointments to state boards and universities. Republican state Senator Ed McBroom said, basically, they did that because it was the last straw.


ED MCBROOM: There's nothing else. We get accused. Put some bills up. Show the governor your power. Great. Then she vetoes them. Boom. Where's the balance at the bargaining table? It's gone. It's been abrogated, emasculated, taken away.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But part of why these kinds of emergency powers exist is because of things like hurricanes, floods or even violent protests - you know, short-lived emergencies. And while the pandemic is definitely not under control, it has lasted a very long time. So I'm sort of curious to hear the reactions from governors. You know, Ben, let's get back to you. What has been the reaction from Arizona Republican Governor Doug Ducey?

GILES: So one of the key parts of Ducey's orders - and this is important to remember - is that they prevent cities and towns, they prevent local leaders, from adopting rules that are more restrictive than Ducey's own orders. In his State of the State address a month ago, Ducey warned lawmakers that they might not like the rules Arizona mayors would implement if Ducey's orders are ended.


DOUG DUCEY: I've been entrusted by the people of Arizona with this responsibility. I'm not going to hand over the keys to a small group of mayors who have expressed every intention of locking down their cities.

GILES: That was widely interpreted as a shot at more liberal mayors in cities like Phoenix and Tucson. It is worth mentioning Arizona is still one of the worst states in the country for the spread of the virus right now. So there is some fear that the mayor of Phoenix might decide there are more restrictive measures to put in place if Ducey's powers were to be eliminated.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Jimmy, what about Idaho?

DAWSON: The thing is that these emergency declarations let states have access to federal aid money. Idaho could lose about $20 million in federal funding that would go toward the vaccine rollout, veterans programs, food banks, stuff like that. You know, I guess earlier in the session in January, both the House and Senate wanted to dump this emergency declaration. And that's when Idaho Governor Brad Little held a scathing press conference denouncing the move.


BRAD LITTLE: They are playing politics. And unfortunately, the loser in this shameful game will be you, the citizens of Idaho.

DAWSON: And this is really out of character for a governor who likes to operate behind the scenes. He was a policy wonk in the state Senate several years ago, and he even recruited Congressman Mike Simpson - Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson - and another former speaker of the House to push back against lawmakers. They called it careless, reckless and endangering the lives of Idaho. And that seems to have worked for now. Lawmakers have kind of backed off, but there are also constitutional questions about it. The state attorney general's office said state laws allow lawmakers to lift an emergency declaration through a resolution that can't be vetoed. But the office couldn't find any authority like that in the Idaho Constitution, so if they were to do that, it would certainly have a court challenge.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, we are definitely going have to keep our eye on this. Ben Giles from member station KJZZ in Phoenix, Abigail Censky of member station WKAR in Lansing and James Dawson with Boise State Public Radio, thank you all.

CENSKY: Of course.

GILES: Thanks, Lulu.

DAWSON: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ben Giles
Abigail Censky is the Politics & Government reporter at WKAR. She started in December 2018.
James Dawson joined Boise State Public Radio as the organization's News Director in 2017. He oversees the station's award-winning news department. Most recently, he covered state politics and government for Delaware Public Media since the station first began broadcasting in 2012 as the country's newest NPR affiliate. Those reports spanned two governors, three sessions of the Delaware General Assembly, and three consequential elections. His work has been featured on All Things Considered and NPR's newscast division. An Idaho native from north of the time zone bridge, James previously served as the public affairs reporter and interim news director for the commercial radio network Inland Northwest Broadcasting. His reporting experience included state and local government, arts and culture, crime, and agriculture. He's a proud University of Idaho graduate with a bachelor's degree in Broadcasting and Digital Media. When he's not in the office, you can find James fly fishing, buffing up on his photography or watching the Seattle Mariners' latest rebuilding season.