Since the onset of the pandemic in Tennessee, Gov. Bill Lee has drawn on sweeping emergency powers granted under state law to issue 44 executive orders, including stay-at-home orders, business closures and limits on nursing home visitors.
On Thursday, state lawmakers met to consider whether those powers should be reigned in going forward.
“Does (the law) in a time of pandemic specifically go too far in allowing the executive branch to take steps that infringe on the individual liberties of our people even during a health crisis?,” asked Rep. Jason Zachary, R-Knoxville, who serves co-chair of the Ad Hoc Committee to Study Emergency Powers.
“Is it appropriate for a state of emergency to continue for months without the input of the legislative branch?” he said.
The 17-member group will not be reviewing individual executive orders issued by Lee over the past six months. Instead the group will make recommendations on whether the state’s 20-year-old Emergency Powers Act, enacted with natural disasters or terrorism in mind, goes too far in granting extraordinary powers to a sitting governor.
“My concern is for my grandchildren,” said Rep. Dan Howell, R-Georgetown.
“Moving forward, how do we maintain the balance of power in Tennessee even in the midst of a pandemic?” Howell said. “What COVID-19 has done, I think, is uncover some of the unintended consequences in the existing law, which has effectively removed the legislature from the process of decision-making.”
The Emergency Powers Act gives Tennessee governors broad authority over nearly all aspects of the state’s emergency response.
The Williamson Herald reported Wednesday that Rep. Glen Casada, R-Brentwood, plans to file legislation to limit the emergency powers granted to the governor to 30 days. Any extension of those powers would require legislative approval. Casada is not on the legislative committee reviewing those powers.