Partisan warfare over pandemic lockdowns and mask wearing is waning in Washington: A bitter presidential election has been ruled, coronavirus cases are dropping nationwide, and vaccines are rolling out slowly but steadily.
Yet in the state capitals, politicized fighting is overflowing.
State lawmakers across the country, mostly Republicans, are moving aggressively to strip the powers of governors, often Democrats, who have assumed extraordinary authority to limit the spread of the virus for nearly a year.
In a kind of rearguard action, the legislatures of more than 30 states are trying to restrict the power of governors to act unilaterally in protracted emergencies that have traditionally been declared in short bursts after floods, tornadoes or similar disasters. Republicans seek to exploit the widespread fatigue many Americans have over closed schools, rally limits and masked mandates as a political stick to wield against Democrats.
Lawmakers define the issue as one of the checks and balances, arguing that governors have acquired too much authority over too many aspects of people’s lives. These lawmakers demand a say in the duration of an emergency and insist that they be consulted on large-scale orders such as the closure of schools and businesses.
But the governors respond that a pandemic cannot be fought by a committee. They say the same Republicans who politicized the science of the pandemic last year, following former President Donald J. Trump in fighting a new battle in Culture Wars, shouldn’t trust public health .
“Governors have done the right things in difficult times and circumstances, and their will and courage to do so is exactly why their authority must stay with them,” said Gov. Andy Beshear of Kentucky, a Democrat who fights with Republicans in the Legislature.
Mr Beshear went to court this month to block bills from GOP lawmakers – one that would end a governor’s emergency order after 30 days, and one that would effectively render the mandate of inapplicable Mr. Beshear’s state mask. Republicans in the legislature overturned his vetoes on the bills before he continued.
“The bills introduced in Kentucky would eliminate every rule or regulation that we have put in place that has been proven to be effective in protecting the lives of Kentuckians,” said Mr. Beshear.
State Senator Damon Thayer, the majority leader, rejected the idea that Republicans were moving against the governor because he is a Democrat. He said the once-in-a-century pandemic revealed a constitutional imbalance.
“This pandemic has revealed the awareness of state governance which gives a person inordinate power,” he said, adding that the governor had been authoritarian in closing bars, restaurants, schools and churches.
The legislature is weighing a petition calling for the governor’s impeachment for violating individual rights with his coronavirus restrictions. The state Supreme Court ruled last year that Mr. Beshear had the power to impose the restrictions.
The coronavirus isn’t the first time Republican lawmakers have pushed back Democratic governors in recent years. After Gov. Roy Cooper of North Carolina was first elected in 2016 and Gov. Tony Evers won an election in Wisconsin in 2018, Republicans passed legislation stripping them of some of their powers, actions widely criticized as efforts to undermine the will of voters.
On the flip side, it’s not just Republican lawmakers looking to strip the powers of Democratic governors. In New York, Democratic leaders in the state Senate are set to cut some emergency powers granted to Governor Andrew M. Cuomo last year, after the governor admitted to withholding data on deaths in the nursing homes – a remarkable rebuke of the three terms. governor by the members of his party.
Majority Republican lawmakers in Ohio and Idaho have also decided to reduce emergency powers wielded by Republican governors in those states. In some cases, lawmakers have echoed misinformation about the coronavirus. Last week, YouTube removed video footage of opening testimony for a bill at the Ohio House that would limit the powers of the governor, after lawmakers ruled baselessly that no Ohioian under 19 years old had died of Covid-19.
Gov. Brad Little of Idaho fended off the misinformation: “Drop the myth that the declaration of emergency ends Idaho,” he said in a video statement last month. “Let go of the myth that the declaration of emergency somehow infringes on your rights.”
Last April, when the governors of the 50 states declared disaster emergencies for the first time in the country’s history, support for their initial stay-at-home orders to slow the spread of the virus was generally bipartisan.
But that quickly evaporated when Mr Trump, obsessed with the economy in an election year, played down the virus. Supporters echoed his dismissal from health experts and challenged governors who have filled the federal leadership vacuum to handle the pandemic – especially the Democratic governors the president has taken to insult, shouting to “release” states like Michigan.
In Wisconsin, the Republican-dominated state Supreme Court ruled in May at the request of GOP lawmakers to end Mr. Evers’ stay-at-home order. The state-wide governor’s mask mandate is now also in court, after Republicans in the legislature voted this month to abolish it. A Republican Senator tweeted that the governor was a “dictator”.
“The loudest people around the state appear to be people who are strong supporters of former President Trump and who are anti-mask, dismissive of the Covid threat,” said Gordon Hintz, the Democratic Minority Leader at the State Assembly of Wisconsin.
Across the country, lawmakers in 37 states have introduced more than 200 bills or resolutions this year to cut governors’ emergency powers, according to the lobbying firm Stateside, which focuses on state governments.
“This is a large enough legislative volume for any single political trend,” said Michael J. Behm, CEO of Stateside. “Most of this concerns legislatures trying to reassert their authority after being pushed into the shadows by governors for the past 10-11 months during this terrible pandemic.
A number of states would limit a governor’s power to unilaterally declare emergencies to 30 days, after which lawmakers would approve any extensions. The 30-day window is in model legislation drafted by the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, an influential conservative group funded by business.
Most bills will die in committee or be vetoed by governors. Only two states, Kentucky and Pennsylvania, have so far passed significant legislation.
Pennsylvania Republicans have ended the possibility of a veto of Democratic Governor Tom Wolf by placing a measure on the statewide ballot in May to change the state constitution. If passed by voters, a governor’s ability to declare a state of emergency will expire after 21 days unless the legislature agrees to extend it.
The measure follows a year in which many Republican lawmakers raged against Mr Wolf’s handling of the pandemic – including some who questioned the scientific consensus on masks, the protests headlined “Reopen Pennsylvania ”and defied federal and state guidelines on crowds to appear at Trump campaign rallies.
But Jake Corman, the interim president of the state Senate, said the constitutional amendment was not about political clawback.
“At the end of the day, it’s about not allowing anyone – as well-meaning as I’m sure the governor was – the power to manage all of these decisions unilaterally,” he said. “No one ever envisioned the governors of a party having so much power in an emergency.”
Mike Brunelle, the governor’s chief of staff, warned that if the constitutional amendment had been in place last year, the health outcomes would have been worse in Pennsylvania.
“We know their response to the pandemic and their priorities,” he said of Republicans. “Everything would have been opened at a very critical time when we needed people to stay at home. It would have resulted in more deaths and our hospitals would have been overwhelmed.