Georgia reconsiders sweeping pandemic emergency powers

Top Georgia politicians are having second thoughts about the emergency powers granted to state governors during the global pandemic and future crises.

State legislators are pushing a range of proposals, some with bipartisan support, to limit how broadly Gov. Brian Kemp and future state leaders can wield far-reaching authority ahead of the next crisis.

A Republican legislator wants the General Assembly to approve any extension of those powers during a state of emergency. Another proposal would stop the state from shutting down businesses if they are following safety guidelines during another mass disaster. Top legislators are discussing other ways to rein in the powers.

Even Kemp has joined the act. He threatened on Monday to veto one proposal that would significantly roll back his powers. But he also endorsed separate legislation that would ensure governors can’t “limit the practice of any religion” during a crisis.

“This governor acted in good faith with his emergency powers, but that is not a guarantee at any point in the future,” said state Rep. David Dreyer, an Atlanta Democrat.

“When I came here that day to vote on the emergency powers, I realized it was one of the most important decisions I’d make as an elected official. And I didn’t feel good leaving,” Dreyer said. “I felt like I did the right thing, but I also felt like I abdicated some responsibility.”

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‘Broader issues’

The growing debate in Georgia echoes conversations taking place in other statehouses across the nation as legislators frustrated by the broad use of executive orders are trying to limit or strip the ability of governors and health officials to enact restrictions without legislative approval.

There are efforts underway in about a dozen states, including a concerted push in Pennsylvania to give lawmakers the authority to end a disaster declaration unilaterally. In New York, legislators are seeking to strip Gov. Andrew Cuomo of many of his emergency powers after he admitted he had intentionally withheld key pandemic data from the Legislature.

Like in other states, state lawmakers in Georgia took a lesser role during the pandemic after granting Kemp broad powers in March to suspend state laws, take “direct” control of civil staffers, restrict travel and limit public gatherings.

It was the first time in state history a governor has issued such an emergency declaration, and Kemp said it was essential to have “all available resources” to slow the growing outbreak.

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

While legislators took a three-month hiatus, Kemp and his top health officials announced a series of restrictions, including social-distancing requirements and orders that shuttered many businesses to stem the spread of the disease. Weeks later, he announced new guidelines to speed the reopening of those businesses.

State Rep. Ed Setzler, an Acworth Republican, is rallying support behind House Bill 358, which would put a 30-day cap on a governor’s emergency orders during a public crisis. After that, lawmakers would have to vote if they wanted to extend them, up to 90 days at a time, and they could also curtail the scope of his authority.

Setzler, the chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee, told lawmakers during a committee meeting that he didn’t bring the measure because of any specific action by Kemp, who is an ally. But he added that the Legislature should have a say when the extraordinary powers are invoked.

“The broader issue is what legislative oversight and what legislative involvement there is in the terms of the duration of an emergency power declaration,” Setzler said.

A rare veto threat

He’ll need to make changes to win Kemp’s support.

The governor said Monday that he has “serious concerns” about the proposal, particularly the logistics of summoning lawmakers to vote after 30 days during a global pandemic or another disaster, and then again every 90 days. Besides, lawmakers can bring themselves in for a special session with a three-fifths vote to curtail a governor’s order if they so choose.

“That particular piece of legislation, in its current form, I would actually veto,” he said.

But he wasn’t as critical over other proposals to limit the state from shutting down churches and businesses during a pandemic or other health emergency so long as they adhere to safety requirements issued by state or local governments.

The Republican sponsors walked a fine political line, saying Kemp handled the pandemic the right way but that the measures are aimed at future crises. State Rep. Kasey Carpenter framed House Bill 468 to Kemp’s advisers as a “2026 bill” — the governor’s last year in office if he wins re-election in 2022.

“These are extraordinary powers we’re talking about,” said Carpenter, a Dalton restaurateur whose businesses suffered during the pandemic. “And I’d think even the governor himself would acknowledge he’s concerned.”

Indeed, Kemp endorsed another measure, which he is calling the Faith Protection Act, that would ban him and future governors from restricting whether religious institutions can congregate during a time of statewide emergency, such as a pandemic or other crisis.

As the pandemic worsened early last year, Kemp publicly agonized about whether he should use his authority to shut down religious services, particularly since outbreaks in some of Georgia’s worst hot spots were linked to religious gatherings.

He opted instead to promote guidance from his office that strongly urged houses of worship to maintain social distancing or risk further restrictions. If they failed to comply, he said during a private call in April with more than 800 clergy members, the state could shut them down.

He never took that action and, more recently, talked of ways to ensure no future governor has to deal with the same prickly questions about limiting religious worship. He said when he signs his measure into law, it will make Georgia “a sanctuary state for people of faith.”