Virginia has been under a state of emergency due to COVID-19 for 257 days.
During that time, Gov. Ralph Northam has carried the ability to issue executive orders as the director of emergency management — a power defined under the Code of Virginia.
Since Northam took office in January 2018, he has issued 71 executive orders, according to the governor’s website. Of those orders issued in 2020, 23 out of 27 have been issued under the state of emergency declared on March 12.
There is no time restraint listed in the Code of Virginia for how long a governor can declare a state of emergency, which led to Del. Tony Wilt, R-Broadway, wanting to make some changes.
Wilt filed an amendment to the state’s Constitution on July 29 for the special session that would grant the General Assembly oversight and authority over certain emergency orders issued by the governor. Specifically, it would require any emergency executive order to be approved by the General Assembly if a state of emergency continued for more than 45 days.
The legislation was assigned to the House Committee on Privileges and Elections, but the committee never met.
“There was no venue for this bill [during the special session],” Wilt said Monday.
Wilt said he wasn’t surprised the legislation was never discussed because there were other issues brought before the House and Senate, but that didn’t stop the delegate from reintroducing the same legislation Monday morning.
“For over eight months now, the governor has had the sole discretion to issue orders in response to COVID-19 that limit citizen’s ability to gather, worship, maintain employment and operate their businesses,” Wilt said in a press release. “Even for those that agree with the governor’s actions to date, everyone should recognize this is a lot of power for the executive. My proposal will restore the appropriate balance of power to ensure the lawmaking body of our commonwealth can weigh in on actions that have the force of law.”
With the 45-day limit, any emergency executive orders issued by the governor after that time would need to be approved by the General Assembly. If the 45-day period does not lead into a General Assembly session, the governor would need to call for a special session to address the emergency declaration.
The proposed legislation would not give the General Assembly the ability to extend a state of emergency longer than the governor’s order.
For the amendment to be adopted, it will need to pass the General Assembly twice — once during the 2021 session and again in 2022 after an election cycle. If passed by the General Assembly twice, it would then be placed on the ballot in the 2022 general election for approval by voters.
Wilt said in a press release that despite the time frame for such passage, he said a Constitutional amendment is necessary because of legal challenges and hurdles regular legislation could face.
“It’s responsible government,” he said.