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Legislators seek limits on governor’s state of emergency powers

Representatives say the moves are designed to reinforce the balance of power between the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government.

A group of Delaware Republican lawmakers have introduced two bills designed to limit a governor’s power to continue a state of emergency beyond its initial declaration.

Rep. Richard G. Collins of Millsboro’s House Bill 330 would require the governor to get a simple majority from the General Assembly to continue any state of emergency beyond 30 days.

Rep. Jeffrey N. Spiegelman of Clayon’s House Bill 340 would change the state’s constitution to require the governor to send notice of any extensions or changes to a panel of four legislators, one from each of the Democrat and Republican caucuses in the House and Senate. The panel would be able to suggest changes, but wouldn’t be able to stop the extension or changes.

Both say the moves are designed to reinforce the balance of power between the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government.

“For months, the legislative branch was completely out of business,” Collins said, working himself up into a righteous fervor. He believes Gov. John Carney, who declared a state of emergency as of March 13 to try to slow the progress of the coronavirus, has been making law, threatening arrests and going beyond his emergency powers.

Rep. Richard G. Collins

Spiegelman says Carney’s administration has held sway since the state of emergency has been in effect.

“The executive branch has the preponderous amount of power during a state of emergency and the constitution is designed like that,” Spiegelman said. “Our founding fathers couldn’t have imagined a state of emergency such as this for this long a time. What I wanted to do is ensure that the people’s branch — the legislative branch — is at least providing advice.”

Their move follows a national trend of pointing fingers at governors for economic slowdowns and more. In Delaware, where Democrats control both house of the State Legislature and all elected state offices, all of Carney’s actions have have been viewed through partisan eyes. 

Neither Collins nor Spiegelman expect their bills to even make it to the floor for a vote in this legislative session, shortened by the COVID-19 shutdown and now largely limited to money matters. But both say they will refile their bills in January for a new session of the Assembly.

Carney spokesman John Starkey said he didn’t have any comment on the specific bills.

“But the governor is following the emergency management law that was passed by the General Assembly,” he said. That law requires the governor to renew his state of emergency every 30 days.

Another eight Republican senators and representatives are cosponsoring or supporting the bills.

Collins plans to make his bill even more stringent when he rewrites it in January. He believes the legislature has had no say in parts of the emergency declarations that closed schools and affected freedom of religion and assembly by shutting down churches as well as violated second amendment rights by closing gun stores. 

“The people’s rights must be restored and protected,” Collins said.

He chose a simple majority for his bill because he doesn’t believe anything stronger had any chance of passage.

Spiegelman says he’s not sure the legislature would have done anything differently, but he had hoped his bill would give Carney the idea that he’s gone too far in some areas.

Rep. Jeffrey N. Spiegelman

He said he was frustrated by having lobbyists ask him what he thought of a change in the emergency orders hours before the change was announced to the public — or the legislature.

He believes Carney’s state of emergency threw people out of work, increased stress on those with mental and emotional issues, and made it hard for people with chronic or acute illnesses such as heart disease, cancer, and diabetes to get routine medical care. It also stopped school children from getting the benefits of the $2 billion the state spends on education, he said.

Spiegelman said he didn’t write a bill that would override a governor’s ability to create and execute a state of emergency because of the nature of events that those declarations cover.

“Consent is a whole other discussion that perhaps we should have,” Spiegelman said, ”but while we’re having that discussion, I wanted to make sure we are at least doing the advice thing, even if we’re not doing the consent thing.”

He’s also curious to see what happens next year.

“At some point when all this COVID stuff is over, I think the whole world will be looking at what went right and what went wrong,” Spiegelman said. “I believe this bill is part of the discussion about what went wrong.”

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