MADISON, Wis. — Republican-controlled legislatures are increasingly trying to strip Democratic governors of their executive authority to close businesses and schools, a power grab by lawmakers that channels frustration over the economic toll of the coronavirus pandemic but could come with long-term consequences for how their states fight disease.
The efforts to undermine Democratic governors who invoked stay-at-home orders are most pronounced in states such as Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, all three of which have divided government and are key to President Donald Trump’s path to reelection. Democratic governors there face lawsuits, legislation and other moves by Republicans trying to seize control of the response to the virus. All three states have also been hotbeds of right-wing protest pushing for a faster reopening.
The GOP lawmakers’ strategy echoes earlier attempts in some states to curb the powers of Democratic governors. But this round comes with added health and political risk. By pressing for a faster reopening and seeking to override their governors, Republicans are betting that Americans are ready to restart economic activity — even if that risks steady infection rates and death in the months leading to the November election.
The moves come despite a recent survey by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research that found a wide share of Americans say they are in favor of requiring people to stay at home, except for essential errands. But Republicans are mindful of other data, such as unemployment spiking toward 15 percent and higher — levels not seen since the Great Depression.
“A lot of people have this idea that we can just wait until it’s gone. … We’ve got to live with this thing and you can’t live on unemployment forever, you can’t live on federal stimulus forever,” said Pennsylvania Republican state Rep. Russ Diamond, who boasted on social media of shopping without a mask this past week.
In Wisconsin, Republicans who control the Legislature asked the conservative-controlled state Supreme Court to block Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ “safer at home” order which runs until May 26 and take authority away from his health secretary to issue extensions. In any future emergency, the secretary would have to work with the Legislature.
The Evers administration argued that limiting a governor’s ability to declare an emergency would prevent a quick response to any future epidemic. Attorney General Josh Kaul cited a 1905 U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the “paramount necessity that a community … protect itself against an epidemic of disease which threatens the safety of its members.”
“People will die if this order is enjoined with nothing to replace it,” Evers’ attorney Colin Roth argued before the state Supreme Court this past week.
Conservative justices voiced opposition to Evers’ order during oral arguments, with one likening the order to tyranny and Japanese internment camps during World War II. A ruling was expected any day.
In neighboring Michigan, the Republican-led Legislature sued Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and asked a judge to declare invalid and unenforceable her stay-at-home order and other measures issued to combat the pandemic.
In Pennsylvania, leaders of the Republican-controlled Legislature have used legislation, rather than lawsuits, to try to strip or curtail the state’s Democratic governor of the power to decide which businesses must close under the state’s sweeping disaster emergency and public health laws.
One of the bills would have forced Gov. Tom Wolf to adhere to federal guidance in determining which businesses must shut down, rather than adopt his own. The bill passed without a single Democrat voting for it and Wolf vetoed it.
Republicans say Wolf has made big decisions without consulting them and gone further than nearly every other state in shutting down business sectors, if temporarily, such as construction, real estate sales, car sales and golf courses.
The Democratic-majority Pennsylvania Supreme Court has turned away two lawsuits challenging Wolf’s authority. The GOP is on friendlier turf in Wisconsin, with a conservative-controlled court that regularly backs Republican leaders, most recently in refusing to halt in-person voting during the state’s April 7 presidential primary election.
The strategy is spreading beyond the Rust Belt. In Louisiana, Republican lawmakers are working multiple angles to undo Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards’ stay-at-home extension. The most far-reaching involves a petition that would allow Republicans to override Edwards’ emergency disaster declaration and reverse all orders stemming from it.
The petition, however, has drawn some GOP critics in a state that was one of the early hot spots. Such a move could jeopardize hundreds of millions of dollars in federal aid.
“There’s just too many unanswered questions for me to support that,” Republican Senate President Page Cortez said.
Edwards has called the idea “completely irresponsible.”
But lawmakers also are considering a Republican measure to eliminate Edwards’ authority to penalize businesses that reopen early.
“We’ve flattened the curve. Now it’s time to start looking at reopening the economy,” said House GOP leader Blake Miguez.
Louisiana isn’t the only state where Republicans are divided over how far and fast to take the take the push to reopen.
Similar intraparty fights have broken out in Utah and South Carolina. In Ohio, where GOP Gov. Mike DeWine has aggressively used his authority to limit the virus’ spread, Republican lawmakers in the GOP-controlled House voted Wednesday to limit the authority of the state’s health director.
The move seeks to restrict mandatory closure and stay-at-home orders issued by the health department to 14 days. After that, the orders would need approval from a legislative rule-making body.
DeWine blasted the move, saying his fellow Republicans should be focused on increasing coronavirus testing, dealing with a $775 million budget deficit and reopening the economy.
Associated Press writers David Eggert in Lansing, Michigan; Marc Levy in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; Andrew Welsh-Huggins in Columbus, Ohio; Melinda Deslatte in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Lindsay Whitehurst in Salt Lake City; Sean Murphy in Oklahoma City and Jeffrey Collins in Columbia, South Carolina, contributed to this report.