Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb says legislature didn’t pressure him to end mask mandate. But there’s tension.
INDIANAPOLIS – By the time Gov. Eric Holcomb had announced his decision to end the mask mandate and business restrictions Tuesday night, he already had been facing pressure from the legislative branch for months.
While the governor attributed his decision to data on the spread of the pandemic during his statewide address, it’s clear Republican legislators have been pressuring him intensely, pushing for a number of pieces of legislation that would curb his emergency powers.Some have been bottled up, but others have advanced.
Chad Kinsella, a Ball State political science professor, indicated Holcomb was in a bind. In Indiana, the General Assembly arguably has more power than the governor, especially when it’s in session. And lawmakers surely were watching the leaders in other red states lift mask mandates and other restrictions.
“I’m sure that he’s feeling that pressure,” Kinsella said. “I’m sure that he is very aware that if he ignores the state legislature or gets them a little too angry at him, that they can act and that could be a political embarrassment.”
Holcombhas brushed aside the idea he was pressured. He argues Indiana now has the resources to care for anyone who gets COVID-19, and that’s why Indiana is emerging from its restrictions. Hospitals, in other words, have space for patients.
“We’ve proven over the last year that we’ll let data drive our decisions,” Holcomb said in response to a reporter question during a press conference Wednesday. “I’m not pressured, I think was your word, by pundits or politics whatsoever.”
Emergency powers fight
Even before the legislative session started, legislative leaders said they were going to take a look at Holcomb’s emergency powers. The key piece of legislation moving forward, House Bill 1123, would allow legislative leaders to make the call on whether to bring lawmakers back for a special session if Holcomb declares an emergency.
Under current law, the governor makes that call.
It’s a bill that lawyers have warned would be unconstitutional, and that seven officials from Holcomb’s administration testified against in committee.
Holcomb could veto the legislation, but lawmakers could overturn that with a simple majority vote, proof of the legislature’s comparative power in this state over the governor. Some states require a two-third majority to overturn vetoes.
“I’m sure it’s probably very frustrating for Gov. Holcomb,” Kinsella said.
For a clear picture of what could have happened in Indiana — and still could — Hoosiers just need to look next door at Ohio.
Ohio lawmakers passed a bill allowing them to reject or modify any state health order and let the legislative branch end states of emergencies. Gov. Mike DeWine vetoed the bill but lawmakers overrode it on Wednesday.
Mike Murphy, a former Republican lawmaker, thinks Indiana lawmakers were playing some gamesmanship.
He speculated lawmakers planned all along to remove the potentially unconstitutional language from the legislation, but had kept it in there to pressure Holcomb. He thinks they likely negotiated to get the mask mandate dropped.”
Murphy compared the relationship between Indiana lawmakers and Holcomb to two people about to box.
“They flex their muscles, they stare at each other, they get the meanest look on the face,” Murphy said. “In the end, none of the posturing matters. What matters is who knocks out who or is it a draw?”
Laura Merrifield Wilson, a political science professor at the University of Indianapolis, pointed out there’s obvious tension between Holcomb and the legislature, but that Holcomb’s decision likely also was fueled by the rate of Indiana’s vaccinations.
“While we can never know all of the factors that influence a particular decision, the timing of the governor’s announcement to end the statewide mask mandate obviously coincided with increasing pressure fell the legislature to curb his executive authority,” Merrifield Wilson said. “There has been a lot of tension between the general assembly and Holcomb over the question of his power.”
Lawmakers lining up against him
Lawmakers had also filed resolutions to end Holcomb’s emergency declaration. One had the support of 27 Republican House lawmakers, or more than a third of that caucus, by the time Holcomb gave his speech.
“We have more members signing on each day it seems,” said resolution author Rep. J.D. Prescott, R-Union City, prior to Holcomb’s announcement. “If Gov. Holcomb does not end this, I believe the General Assembly will need to do so.”
At the very least, he argued, Holcomb needed to end the statewide mask mandate and any capacity limits.
Of course, COVID-19 is not the only area in which Holcomb has found himself at odds with his party this legislative session.
His own party overrode his veto over legislation preventing local governments from enforcing certain aspects of the landlord-tenant relationship. Plus, they declined to even give a hearing to bills that would require businesses to provide pregnant women with accommodations like Holcomb had sought.
Meanwhile, other bills individuals from Holcomb’s administration opposes, such as a bill on wetlands and one nixing the permit requirement to carry a firearm, are still alive and well.
“Holcomb had always represented a more moderate Republican perspective which is increasingly put him at odds with his more far-right party members in the legislature,” Merrifield Wilson said. “It is really interesting to watch this conflict unfold because the governor had a relatively unremarkable — nothing terribly bad, nothing necessarily overwhelming — first term so it feels somewhat unexpected to see such tension now.”
Call IndyStar reporter Kaitlin Lange at 317-432-9270. Follow her on Twitter: @kaitlin_lange.