House panel backs limits on Georgia governor’s emergency powers

Several bills that would limit the governor’s emergency powers cleared a Georgia legislative panel Wednesday. BOB ANDRES  /BANDRES@AJC.COM
Several bills that would limit the governor’s emergency powers cleared a Georgia legislative panel Wednesday. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

Several bills that would limit the governor’s emergency powers cleared a Georgia legislative panel Wednesday.

The bills come amid a coronavirus pandemic that has seen Gov. Brian Kemp exercise broad authority to shutter schools and businesses, to limit the size of public gatherings and to impose other restrictions aimed at preventing the spread of the virus. It’s the first time a Georgia governor has issued such an emergency declaration and exercised the powers that go with it.

House Bill 358 would require the governor to seek legislative approval to extend a declared state of emergency beyond 30 days. Lawmakers could authorize a 90-day extension, and the governor could seek approval for additional 90-day extensions.

Kemp has threatened to veto the measure without revisions, citing the difficulty of convening the General Assembly on short notice. On Wednesday, a House Judiciary subcommittee amended HB 358 to make that easier. One amendment would provide flexibility on the timing of such a vote, while another would allow such votes to be conducted by teleconference.

The panel also approved House Bill 468, which would allow any business to continue operating during a public health emergency if it can comply with safety guidelines spelled out by the governor.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Kasey Carpenter, R-Dalton, said it would prevent the government from picking “winners and losers” during a public health emergency.

“In my community, restaurants were closed down” during the pandemic, Carpenter told the subcommittee. “Walmart, Kroger and Home Depot were allowed to stay open.”

The committee also approved House Bill 536, which would prohibit the governor from singling out religious practices for restrictions.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Dominic LaRiccia, R-Douglas, said churches and other religious institutions would still have to comply with social distancing and other health guidelines. But he said the governor could not impose measures so restrictive that they prohibit religious practices.

All three measures now go to the full House Judiciary Committee.

In Other News