GOP lawmakers advanced a measure that would terminate the emergency declaration Gov. Doug Ducey issued last year as the COVID-19 pandemic ramped up, and gave preliminary approval to a slew of other legislation that would curb future governors’ ability to use their emergency powers.
On a 5-3 party-line vote, Republicans members of the Senate Government Committee approved SCR1001, which would end Ducey’s emergency declaration. State law gives the legislature the power to rescind such declarations by a simple majority vote, without the governor’s signature. The measure now moves to the full Senate.
Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, the committee’s chairwoman and the measure’s sponsor, said emergency declarations are supposed to be short-term situations. But Ducey’s declaration has been in force for 10 months and there’s no end in sight, the Scottsdale Republican said. Long-term problems like the pandemic need to be managed with the legislature having a seat at the table rather than the governor simply acting unilaterally, she said.
And the debate on the other four measures the committee approved followed similar lines.
“This is a dictatorship, unfortunately. This is one person making the decisions. That’s not what we do in the United States of America,” Ugenti-Rita said of the continuing emergency declaration.
Ducey issued his emergency declaration on March 11, 2020, and later issued dozens of other executive orders under its auspices, such as eviction moratoriums and restrictions on businesses like bars, restaurants and gyms.
The first vote on Ugenti-Rita’s measure comes as Arizona struggles through its most perilous point of the coronavirus outbreak. Over the past month, Arizona has set new records for case totals, deaths, total hospitalizations and other metrics.
Though Republicans unanimously supported SCR1001, it may not have as easy a path in the full Senate, or in the House of Representatives, where the GOP holds slim majorities and can’t afford to lose a single vote if Democrats are unanimous in their opposition.
Sen. J.D. Mesnard, a Chandler Republican who serves on the Senate Government Committee, said he would vote for the measure. But Mesnard, who has been critical of some of the restrictions Ducey has imposed in response to the pandemic, had other concerns he wants to see addressed, such as what happens to the numerous executive orders Ducey has issued under the emergency declaration.
“I consider this a resolution that advances a conversation. I think there’s a practical impact to it as it moves through, if it moves through, that we’ll have to take a closer look at,” Mesnard said.
Ugenti-Rita’s seatmate, Rep. John Kavanagh, has expressed similar concerns. Earlier this month, Kavanagh told the Arizona Mirror that he would be hesitant to terminate the emergency declaration if it would allow local governments to issue their own restrictions in its stead, or if other executive orders Ducey issued in relation to the pandemic would be rescinded, as well.
Those concerns, and whether they’re addressed, could decide the fate of Ugenti-Rita’s proposal and Ducey’s executive order. Republicans have majorities of 16-14 in the Senate and 31-29 in the House of Representatives, meaning they must win every Republican’s approval.
Democratic members of the Government Committee were far less keen on the idea of curbing the governor’s emergency powers, either for COVID-19 or for future situations. While many Republican lawmakers have chafed under Ducey’s unilateral authority and want to exercise the checks and balances the legislature normally has on his actions, Democrats questioned their GOP colleagues’ commitment to doing what’s needed to combat the pandemic.
“We have an executive in our government that issues these orders and I think if we add 90 legislators, that is really chaotic,” said Sen. Jamescita Peshlakai, D-Window Rock. “We’re asking for more trouble than we have already. A lot of our members can’t even keep their mask on their face. And if that’s who we’re going to put in charge of our states of emergency, things will get worse and worse.”
And Democrats argued that, as the minority party, they’re unlikely to get a seat at the table, even if the legislature asserts its authority as a co-equal branch with the governor in managing the pandemic or future emergencies.
The committee also advanced three similar proposals that would limit the length of future emergency declarations. Those proposals would all go to the 2022 ballot and would require voter approval before going into effect. They don’t need the governor’s signature to advance to the ballot.
Ugenti-Rita’s SCR1014 would ask voters to limit emergency declarations to 21 days. Governors would be prohibited from enacting new declarations “based on the same or substantially similar facts and circumstances” without legislative approval. Other Republican members of the committee, however, raised concerns that the measure wouldn’t leave the governor enough flexibility to manage similar types of emergencies.
Another measure that the committee passed, SCR1003, would limit emergency declarations to 30 days unless the legislature agreed to extend it. If voters were to approve the measure, sponsored by Sen. Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert, the limits on gubernatorial power would be enshrined in the Arizona Constitution.
And Sen. Kelly Townsend’s SCR1010 would ask voters to amend the state constitution so that the governor was required to call the legislature into a special session if he declares a state of emergency. That special session would last until the emergency ended.
The committee also approved Ugenti-Rita’s Senate Bill 1084, which would limit states of emergency to 21 days without legislative authorization to extend them.
Unlike the other four measures, SB1084 would require Ducey’s signature to go into effect, making it unlikely that it will become law, even if it does pass out of both chambers. The governor’s office declined to comment on any of the bills, citing Ducey’s long-standing policy of not commenting on pending legislation.
But a spokesman did point to a comment he made in his State of the State address earlier this month rejecting calls for an end to the emergency declaration: “Some have asked, why not end the public health emergency? It’s simple: because we are in a public health emergency. I’ve been entrusted by the people of Arizona with this responsibility.”