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Governor’s emergency powers at issue again

Lawmakers are back to debating the appropriate duration of the governor’s emergency powers, and delegates are advancing a bill that would give legislators more say-so.

How long an emergency declaration by the governor should remain in effect has been a running debate among lawmakers for years now. That’s because the emergency declaration that Gov. Jim Justice established in 2020 over the COVID-19 pandemic lasted until he finally proclaimed it would end at the beginning of this year.

The Senate and House of Delegates addressed emergency powers in 2021 with two different approaches. Senators and delegates couldn’t reach agreement in conference committee, so no changes were made.

Now similar differences seem to be shaping up.

On day one of this year’s regular legislative session, senators passed a bill, 33-0, clarifying that a gubernatorial emergency proclamation would expire after 60 days unless written notice is provided to the Legislature that it should continue.

The House Government Organization on Wednesday afternoon passed a bill that goes a step further.

As amended by the House committee, a declared state of emergency would last no longer than 60 days unless the Legislature would extend it through a concurrent resolution.

So, instead of just receiving a written renewal from the governor, this variation would require the Legislature to actively take part in decisions to extend or not extend.

“It could be extended indefinitely as long as there’s legislative action on it — not just notification of the Legislature,” said House Government Organization Chair Chris Phillips, R-Barbour.

“In the House we had a strong feeling that was required so we didn’t have any future states of emergency that lasted indefinitely. Hopefully we won’t be in this situation again for another 100 years, but we thought appropriate constitutional guardrails needed to be put in place to make sure the people’s voice was heard on this.”

Phillips added, “We’re certainly not trying to hamstring the executive in responding to any emergency they might have, but on the other hand we feel there does need to be some legislative involvement directly in approving an extension beyond that.”

No one voiced objections to the bill during Wednesday afternoon’s committee meeting. The committee’s vice chair, Delegate Pat McGeehan, R-Hancock, spoke in support of it.

Without the legislative involvement defined by the bill, McGeehan said, “this body erodes and potentially abdicates its authority of creation of the law, which can, in some sense, establish a dangerous precedent.”

Delegate Chris Pritt, R-Kanawha, said the bill would enhance governmental checks and balances.

“It provides for the liberty interest of all West Virginians. That’s what this bill does,” Pritt said. “This is not about singling out any individual or any group of individuals. It’s about protecting the freedom and liberty interests of all West Virginians.”