Gov. Bill Lee administration defends emergency powers used to combat COVID-19

Gov. Bill Lee gives his bi-weekly media briefing Aug. 18. (Photo: Tn.gov)
Gov. Bill Lee gives his bi-weekly media briefing Aug. 18. (Photo: Tn.gov)

Members of the administration of Gov. Bill Lee on Thursday provided testimony justifying the sweeping emergency powers adopted by the governor in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Since the onset of the pandemic in Tennessee, Lee has drawn on the state’s 20-year-old Emergency Powers Act to issue 44 executive orders that have had direct impact on Tennessean’s everyday lives, business operations, healthcare facilities and suspending some state regulations and inspections.

A 17-member legislative Ad Hoc Committee to Study Emergency Powers is weighing whether to rein in those executive powers going forward.

Clark Milner, deputy counsel to the governor, told lawmakers on the committee that Lee opposes any effort to limit powers giving him the ability to take “immediate and decisive action, flexibility and adaptability essential to combatting emergencies.”

“Substantive limitations in that flexibility will make it more difficult to provide the necessary relief to Tennesseans in response to figure emergencies, whether arising from natural disasters, pandemics or other circumstances which, if 2020 is any lesson, will contain dimensions and challenges beyond our current capacity to perceive or predict,” he said. 

Tennessee’s Emergency Powers Act is among the broadest in the nation. “The governor is responsible for addressing the dangers presented to this state and its people by emergencies,” the law says. “The governor may issue executive orders, proclamations, and rules and may amend or rescind them. Such executive orders, proclamations, and rules have the force and effect of law.”

State by state information compiled by the National Council of State Legislatures shows other states provide for specific checks on governors’ powers in emergencies that include specific oversight by the state’s legislature. 

In Alaska, a proclamation or state of emergency may not last longer than 30 days without legislative approval. Other states, such as Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island, specify in their laws the legislature may end states of emergency through joint resolutions. 

Lawmakers in Tennessee are weighing placing time limits on emergency powers, including a specific role for oversight by the legislature, among other measures. They are expected to propose law changes before the legislature reconvenes in January. 

Lee, asked at a Thursday press conference about their work, said he believes that the emergency “decisions that have been made  have fallen within the constitutional authority.”

“The Ad Hoc Committee is doing what they should do, which is review this unprecedented process to make sure that we’re all working together in the way that we should,” he said. “They, too, recognize, I think, that we’re in the middle of this and there’s much to be learned, but it’s an appropriate process.”