Lawmakers seek long-term limit on governors’ emergency power
As governors loosen long-lasting coronavirus restrictions, state lawmakers across the U.S. are taking actions to significantly limit the power they could wield in future emergencies.
The legislative measures are aimed not simply at undoing mask mandates and capacity limits that have been common during the pandemic. Many proposals seek to fundamentally shift power away from governors and toward lawmakers the next time there is a virus outbreak, terrorist attack or natural disaster.
“The COVID pandemic has been an impetus for a re-examination of balancing of legislative power with executive powers,” said Pam Greenberg, a policy researcher at the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Lawmakers in 45 states have proposed more than 300 measures this year related to legislative oversight of executive actions during the COVID-19 pandemic or other emergencies, according to the NCSL.
About half those states are considering significant changes, such as tighter limits on how long governors’ emergency orders can last without legislative approval, according to the American Legislative Exchange Council, an association of conservative lawmakers and businesses. It wrote a model “Emergency Power Limitation Act” for lawmakers to follow.
Though the pushback is coming primarily from Republican lawmakers, it is not entirely partisan.
Republican lawmakers have sought to limit the power of Democratic governors in states such as Kansas, Kentucky and North Carolina. But they also have sought to rein in fellow Republican governors in such states as Arkansas, Idaho, Indiana and Ohio. Some Democratic lawmakers also have pushed back against governors of their own party, most notably limiting the ability of embattled New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo to issue new mandates.
When the pandemic hit a year ago, many governors and their top health officials temporarily ordered residents to remain home, limited public gatherings, prohibited in-person schooling and shut down dine-in restaurants, gyms and other businesses. Many governors have been repealing or relaxing restrictions after cases declined from a winter peak and as more people get vaccinated.
But the potential remains in many states for governors to again tighten restrictions if new variants of the coronavirus lead to another surge in cases.
Governors have been acting under the authority of emergency response laws that in some states date back decades and weren’t crafted with an indefinite health crisis in mind.
“A previous legislature back in the ’60s, fearing a nuclear holocaust, granted tremendous powers” to the governor, said Idaho state Rep. Jason Monks, a Republican and the chamber’s assistant majority leader.
“This was the first time I think that those laws were really stress-tested,” he said.
Like many governors, Idaho Gov. Brad Little has repeatedly extended his monthlong emergency order since originally issuing it last spring. A pair of bills nearing final approval would prohibit him from declaring an emergency for more than 60 days without legislative approval. The Republican governor also would be barred from suspending constitutional rights, restricting the ability of people to work, or altering state laws like he did by suspending in-person voting and holding a mail-only primary election last year.
A measure that recently passed New Hampshire’s Republican-led House also would prohibit governors from indefinitely renewing emergency declarations, as GOP Gov. Chris Sununu has done every 21 days for the past year. It would halt emergency orders after 30 days unless renewed by lawmakers.
Next month, Pennsylvania voters will decide a pair of constitutional amendments to limit disaster emergency declarations to three weeks, rather than three months, and require legislative approval to extend them. The Republican-led Legislature placed the measures on the ballot after repeatedly failing to reverse the policies Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf implemented to try to contain the pandemic.
In Indiana, the Republican-led Legislature and GOP governor are embroiled in a power struggle over executive powers.
The Legislature approved a bill this past week that would give lawmakers greater authority to intervene in gubernatorially declared emergencies by calling themselves into special session. The House Republican leader said the bill was not “anti-governor” but a response to a generational crisis.
Gov. Eric Holcomb, who has issued more than 60 executive orders during the pandemic, vetoed the bill Friday. He contends the legislature’s attempt to expand its power could violate the state Constitution. Legislative leaders said they intend to override the veto, potentially setting up a legal clash between the legislative and executive branches. Unlike Congress and most states, Indiana lawmakers can override a veto with a simple majority of both houses.
Several other governors also have vetoed bills limiting their emergency authority or increasing legislative powers.
In Michigan, where new variants are fueling a rise in COVID-19 cases, Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer vetoed GOP-backed legislation last month that would have ended state health department orders after 28 days unless lengthened by lawmakers.
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, contended that legislation allowing lawmakers to rescind his public health orders “jeopardizes the safety of every Ohioan.” But the Republican-led Legislature overrode his veto the next day.
“It’s time for us to stand up for the legislative branch,” sponsoring Sen. Rob McColley told his colleagues.
Kentucky’s GOP-led Legislature overrode Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear’s vetoes of bills limiting his emergency powers, but a judge temporarily blocked the laws from taking effect. The judge said they are “likely to undermine, or even cripple, the effectiveness of public health measures.”
In some states, governors have worked with lawmakers to pare back executive powers.
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, a Republican, signed a law last month giving the GOP-led Legislature greater say in determining whether to end his emergency orders. It was quickly put to the test by the Arkansas Legislative Council, which decided to let Hutchinson extend his emergency declaration another two months.
Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly, a Democrat, also enacted a law last month giving legislative leaders power to revoke her emergency orders. Top Republican lawmakers immediately used it to scuttle a Kelly order meant to encourage counties to keep mask mandates in place.
“The power of the executive has been emasculated when it comes to the Emergency Management Act,” Democratic state Rep. John Carmichael said. “That may have very dire consequences in other circumstances and other disasters.”
Kelly said it will be harder to persuade people to keep wearing masks without state or local mandates. She said her orders had relieved pressure on local leaders and businesses.
“Let me be the bad guy. Let me be the one who mandates so that they don’t have to make those kinds of decisions,” Kelly said.
Republican lawmakers insisted that their push to curb the governor’s power is not partisan. Lawmakers said they didn’t understand how broad the governor’s power was until she started issuing orders last spring to close K-12 schools, limit indoor worship services and regulate how businesses could reopen.
House Speaker Pro Tem Blaine Finch said he believes the changes in Kansas’ emergency management law will encourage future governors to “use that power sparingly” and collaborate with lawmakers.
“Our system is set up not to give one person of any party too much power over the lives of Kansans,” he said. “We’re supposed to have checks and balances.”
Iran enforces 10-day lockdown amid fourth wave of pandemic
TEHRAN, Iran — Iran on Saturday began a 10-day lockdown amid a fourth wave of coronavirus infections, state TV reported, a worrisome trend after more than a year of the country battling the Middle East’s worst outbreak.
Iran’s coronavirus task force, charged with determining virus restrictions, ordered most shops closed and offices restricted to one-third capacity in cities declared as “red-zones.”
The capital Tehran and 250 other cities and towns across the country have been declared red zones. They have the highest virus positivity rates and the most severe restrictions in place. Over 85% of the country now has either a red or orange infection status, authorities said.
The severe surge in infections follows a two-week public holiday for Nowruz, the Persian New Year. Millions traveled to the Caspian coast and other popular vacation spots, packed markets to shop for new clothes and toys and congregated in homes for parties in defiance of government health guidelines.
The new lockdown also affects all parks, restaurants, bakeries, beauty salons, malls and bookstores.
There appeared to be no respite in sight to the virus’s spread as Iran’s vaccine rollout lagged. Only some 200,000 doses have been administered in the country of 84 million, according to the World Health Organization.
COVAX, an international collaboration to deliver the vaccine equitably across the world, delivered its first shipment to Iran on Monday from the Netherlands containing 700,000 Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine doses.
The Health Ministry said there were more than 19,600 new infections on Saturday, including 193 deaths. The confirmed death toll since the beginning of the outbreak stood at more than 64,200.
Hadi Minaie, a shop owner at Tehran’s Grand Bazaar, said mismanagement was the reason for the new surge and the government should have prevented people’s movements during Nowruz – not at a time when people need to earn a living.
“Nobody can say the lockdown should not have been imposed. But better management would have been enforcing it during Nowruz holiday when everywhere was already closed not now that everyone wants to work and earn a living,” he said.
“Lockdowns are only effective to some extent but for how long should the people be paying the price,” said Alireza Ghadirian, a carpet seller at the bazaar. He said the government needed to do more to provide vaccines.
Authorities have done little to enforce lockdown restrictions and originally resisted a nationwide lockdown to salvage an economy already devastated by tough U.S. sanctions. A year into the pandemic, public fatigue and intransigence has deepened.
Saeed Valizadeh, a motorcyclist who earns his living transporting passengers and light packages from the bazaar, said if the government paid a stipend to low-income citizens, then they could afford to stay at home.
“Those who are wealthy have no problem staying home but we can’t,” he said.
President Hassan Rouhani said several factors played a role in the rising number of cases but the prime culprit was the U.K. variant of the virus that entered Iran from Iraq.
Earlier this year, the country kicked off its coronavirus inoculation campaign, administering a limited number of Russian Sputnik V vaccine doses to medical workers.
Meanwhile, in neighboring Iraq, authorities introduced new measures to bolster vaccinations among citizens including restrictions on air travel.
The health ministry said it requested airlines to not sell tickets to travelers unless they show proof they were vaccinated. Workers at hospitals, restaurants, malls and shops would require a vaccination card as well.
The measures have been introduced amid a low demand in vaccinations among Iraqis, many of whom remain suspicious of the government’s inoculation plans.
Senate passes bill to prevent and fight wildfires
SPOKANE — The state Senate has unanimously passed a bill to create a dedicated fund to prevent and fight wildfires in Washington.
The bill, promoted by Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz, passed Friday in Olympia. House Bill 1168 now heads back to the House, which will accept or reject the changes made in the Senate. The 105-day legislative session is slated to adjourn April 25.
The bill is sponsored by state Rep. Larry Springer, D-Kirkland, and state Rep. Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda. It would provide $125 million every two years to boost wildfire response, accelerate forest restoration and support community resilience.
“Washington is on the brink of breaking the cycle of inaction that has created our wildfire crisis,” said Franz, who heads the Washington State Department of Natural Resources. “We are one step closer to protecting our communities, our forests and the air we breathe.”
The bill follows a destructive 2020 fire season in Washington, during which over 1,250 square miles (3,238 square kilometers) burned in more than 1,600 fires and 298 homes were destroyed, including the near total destruction of the town of Malden. For two of the past three years, Washington has experienced the worst air quality in the world due to wildfires.
“Lawmakers have agreed that Washington taxpayers can’t afford to keep losing $150 million each year to out-of-control wildfires,” Franz said, noting the annual cost of fighting wildfires.
The state’s trajectory for wildfire severity has worsened in recent years, climbing from 293,000 acres burned in 2016 to 438,000 acres in 2018 to over 812,000 acres burned in 2020.
The bill proposes spending $75 million every two years to hire and train more firefighters, buy more airplanes and helicopters, improve leadership and improve fire detection systems. Franz noted that some of the 10 helicopters in the state’s firefighting fleet date to the Vietnam War, and have the bullet holes to prove it.
Franz also wants to spend $37 million to restore 1.25 million acres of forest lands to make them more resistant to wildfires.
Finally, her plan calls for spending $12 million to reduce fuels and create firebreaks that would prevent communities like Malden from being wiped out by fast-moving flames.
Reports: Myanmar forces kill 82 in single day in city
YANGON — At least 82 people were killed in one day in a crackdown by Myanmar security forces on pro-democracy protesters, according to reports Saturday from independent local media and an organization that keeps track of casualties since the military’s February seizure of power.
Friday’s death toll in Bago was the biggest one-day total for a single city since March 14, when just over 100 people were killed in Yangon, the country’s biggest city. Bago is about 100 kilometers (60 miles) northeast of Yangon. The Associated Press is unable to independently verify the number of deaths.
The death toll of 82 was a preliminary one compiled by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, which issues daily counts of casualties and arrests from the crackdown in the aftermath of the Feb. 1 coup that ousted the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi.
Their tallies are widely accepted as highly credible because cases are not added to their totals until they have been confirmed, with the details published on their website.
In its Saturday report, the group said that it expected the number of dead in Bago to rise as more cases were verified.
The online news site Myanmar Now also reported that 82 people had been killed, citing an unnamed source involved with charity rescue work. Myanmar Now and other local media said the bodies had been collected by the military and dumped on the grounds of a Buddhist pagoda.
At least 701 protesters and bystanders have been killed by security forces since the army’s takeover, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.
The attack on Bago was the third in the past week involving the massive use of force to try to crush the persistent opposition to the ruling junta.
Attacks were launched Wednesday on hardcore opponents of military rule who had set up strongholds in the towns of Kalay and Taze in the country’s north. In both places, at least 11 people — possibly including some bystanders — were reported killed.
The security forces were accused of using heavy weapons in their attacks, including rocket-propelled grenades and mortars, though such allegations could not be independently confirmed by The Associated Press. Photos posted on social media from Bago appeared to show fragments of mortar shells.
Most protests in cities and town around the country are carried out by nonviolent demonstrators who consider themselves part of a civil disobedience movement.
But as the police and military escalated the use of lethal force, a hardcore faction of protesters armed themselves with homemade weapons such as firebombs in the name of self-defense. In Kalay, activists dubbed themselves a “civil army” and some equipped themselves with rudimentary hunting rifles that are traditional in the remote area.
A Saturday report by Myanmar Now said residents of Tamu, a town in the same region as Kalay, used hunting rifles Saturday to ambush a military convoy, and claimed to kill three soldiers.
The junta has taken other measures as well to discourage resistance. It recently published a wanted list of 140 people active in the arts and journalism charged with spreading information that undermines the stability of the country and the rule of law. The penalty for the offense is up to three years’ imprisonment. Arrests of those on the list have been highly publicized in state media.
State television channel MRTV reported Friday night that a military court had sentenced to death 19 people — 17 in absentia — for allegedly killing an army officer in Yangon on March 27. The attack took place in an area of the city that is under martial law, and the court action appeared to be the first time the death sentence has been imposed under the junta’s rule.
The U.N. special envoy for Myanmar, Christine Schraner Burgener, arrived Friday in the Thai capital Bangkok on a regional mission to resolve the crisis in Myanmar. She intends to sound out several Southeast Asian governments for their ideas but has been denied permission to visit Myanmar.
Severe storm damages buildings in Florida Panhandle
PANAMA CITY, Fla. — A cluster of severe storms swept across Southern states early Saturday, leaving at least one dead in Louisiana, bringing down trees and power lines in Mississippi, dropping large hail on a coastal Alabama city and leveling buildings in the Florida Panhandle.
St. Landry Parish President Jessie Bellard confirmed a fatality related to an early morning tornado in Palmetto, Louisiana. Bellard tells KLFY-TV that Jose Antonio Higareda, 27, was killed when the tornado struck his home. In addition, he said, seven people were transported with injuries to local hospitals.
In Mississippi, a possible tornado ripped down power lines and trees in Rankin County, but no injuries were reported.
In Panama City Beach, Florida, a home and convenience store were leveled by a possible tornado, city officials said in a Facebook post . A resident’s photo posted by The Panama City News Herald shows the store’s roof and walls ripped away, but its counters, shelves and the merchandise they held appear untouched. There were no immediate reports of injuries.
The town is in Bay County, which was heavily damaged by Hurricane Michael in 2018.
“Many people were saying, ‘Hey, we know what to do. Sadly, we’ve been through it before’ and they pulled together as a community,” Panama City Mayor Mark Sheldon told the News Herald. “We were seeing neighbors come out and helping other neighbors and that’s what Panama City Beach is all about.”
In Pensacola, Florida, the roof of a downtown brewery was ripped off by the storm, local news reports show. The National Weather Service has not confirmed if that was caused by a tornado, but reported winds of up to 60 mph (95 kpm). The Pensacola News Journal reports that about 5 inches (13 centimeters) of rain fell.
“We are still learning about what exactly the damage is and what is going on,” Veronique Zayas, co-owner of Emerald Republic Brewing, told the paper. “But we know that the roof is a total loss. There is water damage throughout, and a lot of equipment has been damaged.”
She said it was fortunate no one was hurt.
“The brewers are normally here at 5 or 6 in the morning to start their brewing,” she said. “Luckily, no one was here.”
Images shared by news outlets showed car windshields shattered by hail about as large as baseballs in Orange Beach, Alabama.
Storms also brought heavy rain and strong winds to parts of Louisiana and Mississippi.
Bellard said search and rescue crews are out in Louisiana in the wake of the storm.
“My thoughts and prayers are with the families affected by this storm,” he said. “We’re doing everything we can for those families.”
Bellard reported that SLEMCO, St. Landry Public Works, Animal Control and the Sheriff’s Department were on the scene and working on debris clearance and restoring power to the area.
The National Weather Service has said the tornado that hit the area was ranked an EF3 tornado, with wind speeds between 130 and 140 mph (between 209 and 225 kph).
Some flooding was reported. Thousands of customers in the region lost power, according to utility tracking website poweroutage.us.
Iran says nuke program testing newest advanced centrifuge
TEHRAN, Iran — Iran said Saturday it has begun mechanical tests on its newest advanced nuclear centrifuge, even as the five world powers that remain in a foundering 2015 nuclear deal with Iran attempt to bring the U.S. back into the agreement.
Iran’s IR-9 centrifuge, when operational, would have the ability to separate uranium isotopes more quickly than the current centrifuges being used, thereby enriching uranium at a faster pace. The announcement carried on state TV came on Iran’s 15th annual “Nuclear Day.”
The IR-9’s output is 50 times quicker than the first Iranian centrifuge, the IR-1. The country also announced it had launched a chain of 164 IR-6 centrifuges on Saturday, and is also developing IR-8 centrifuges.
Since January, Iran has begun enriching uranium at up to 20% purity, a technical step away from weapons-grade levels, though Iran’s leadership insists the country has no desire to develop a nuclear weapon.
Former U.S. President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the nuclear accord in 2018, accusing Iran of failing to live up to the agreement, opting for what he called a maximum-pressure campaign of stepped-up U.S. sanctions and other tough actions.
Iran responded by intensifying its enrichment of uranium and building centrifuges in plain violation of the accord, while insisting that its nuclear development is for civilian not military purposes.
Israel maintains Iran still maintains the ambition of developing nuclear weapons, pointing to Tehran’s ballistic missile program and research into other technologies. Tehran denies it is pursuing nuclear weapons, and says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.
Iran also announced that it has finished repairs on an advanced centrifuge assembly plant that was destroyed by a mysterious explosion in July, state-run IRNA news agency reported.
Iran has blamed Israel for a recent series of attacks, including the explosion at the Natanz nuclear facility as well as another one in November that killed top scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. He had founded the Islamic Republic’s military nuclear program two decades ago.
Iran’s stockpile of 20% enriched uranium has reached 55 kilograms (121 pounds), moving its nuclear program closer to weapons-grade enrichment levels. The amount of the material was 17 kilograms in January.
Iran has installed 1,000 IR2 centrifuge machines and one cascade of 164 IR4 machines. Both are in operation and have more speed than the IR1 machines.
Since late February, Iran has ceased abiding by a confidential agreement with the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog reached as part of the landmark 2015 nuclear deal. The International Atomic Energy Agency has additional protocols with several countries it monitors.
Under the protocol with Iran, the IAEA “collects and analyzes hundreds of thousands of images captured daily by its sophisticated surveillance cameras,” the agency said in 2017. The agency also said then that it had placed “2,000 tamper-proof seals on nuclear material and equipment.”
However, Iran’s parliament passed a bill in December requiring the government to limit its cooperation with the IAEA and push its nuclear program beyond the limits of the 2015 nuclear deal. After the bill became law, Iran then began enriching uranium up to 20% purity and spinning advanced centrifuges – both barred by the deal.
Iran argues that the U.S.’s departure from the nuclear deal was the first violation of the deal by either county and therefore the U.S. must make the first move and remove sanctions before Iran returns to compliance.
President Joe Biden came into office saying that getting back into the accord and getting Iran’s nuclear program back under international restrictions was a priority. But Iran and the United States have disagreed over Iran’s demands that sanctions be lifted first. That deadlock has threatened to become an early foreign policy setback for the new U.S. president.
Talks in Vienna aimed at bringing the U.S. back into the deal with Iran broke Friday without any immediate signs of progress on issues dividing Washington and Tehran.
However, delegates spoke of a constructive atmosphere and resolved to continue the discussions.
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