It’s time for the Louisiana Legislature to snuff out any attempt by Democrat Gov. John Bel Edwards to use the Wuhan coronavirus pandemic as an excuse to make an end run around the people.
The coming of the virus brought understandably drastic measures to limit gatherings that attenuated commerce. A series of Edwards proclamations has closed many businesses and swaths of state and local government activities, on the theory that reducing human physical interactions would slow the spread of disease.
Never mind that decisions made by Edwards created the least effective, most painful solution. Even with a growing amount of evidence that Carnival created a supercharged environment for transmission (all too apparent now to members of the famous New Orleans Krewe of Zulu), Edwards failed to urge the state laboratory and hospitals – some of which receive billions of dollars a year from the state as designated charity hospitals – to develop testing capacity to implement a rapid check and quarantine system before any cases developed in the state, as did some other states.
Nor did he adopt a strategy of immediate and intense lockdown in areas with suspected cases, while leaving other areas unaffected, following an approach by other states. Instead, he gradually and indiscriminately put the clamps on the entire state. This served to drag out the acquisition of immunity and needlessly lengthen the period of nontrivial infection compared to the other approaches.
Note how this jibed with his political agenda. Facing a legislature at or near supermajority Republican leadership, not only did his preferred issue preferences have no chance of enaction, but he would have had a hard time preventing GOP priorities such as tort reform and tax reduction from steaming through. Only parts of his fiscal agenda, such as more spent on early childhood education and resisting cuts to the size of government, stood a chance of success.
So, with carving a whole month-and-a-half out of the Legislature’s session, he has considerably limited its ability to pursue initiatives contrary to his liking as well as removed it as an obstacle to keep government outsized. It will become forced to limit itself to addressing a budget picture now projected to put the state $670 million in the red for this fiscal year (although all but $161 million comes from pushing income taxes due into the next fiscal year).
Even that’s not so bad from his perspective, for Edwards can try to foist onto the state more tax increases as a result, crying emergency, and hoping to make these stick awhile. And the longer he can keep the crisis going, the more leverage he gains on the Legislature as the clock ticks to the Jun. 1 session end and Jun. 30 fiscal year end.
Thus, it comes as no surprise that Edwards expresses interest in extending his bans through May even though nationwide the pandemic seems to diminish in strength – even in hard-hit Louisiana in the past week the rolling seven-day average increase of new cases has fallen from 21 to 5 percent and deaths from 18 to 10 percent – and policy-makers elsewhere increasingly talk of lifting restrictions. Edwards makes mistakes to intensify a crisis, then uses that to strengthen his agenda’s chances of success by sidelining the Legislature.
However, the Legislature doesn’t have to cooperate. Multiple members have called for removing the emergency orders by May 1, and the same law that gives Edwards emergency powers gives it the means to curtail those. Majorities in both chambers can through petition overturn those and limit their future use.
Therefore, chamber leaders should circulate a petition that declares the state of emergency over starting May 1 and that the governor cannot issue any orders applying to the current crisis until Jun. 1. (In the unlikely event that things take a turn for the worse in May, it quickly can rescind that restriction.) Alternatively, it can leave a loophole for Edwards to make emergency directives in the hardest-hit parishes throughout that period. Having a majority of signatures by Apr. 30 makes that an accomplished fate, stripping Edwards of the power to prolong unnecessarily autocratic rule.
Last fall, the people elected a legislature with an agenda markedly different from Edwards. He shouldn’t use a crisis to subvert their will, and if he persists, the people’s representatives must start now to correct him.