Indiana's governor oversees the day-to-day management of many of the agencies of state government, but not all. Independently elected Cabinet heads – such as attorney general, state auditor, treasurer and secretary of state – have more power over their respective agencies than the governor.
Since Indiana joined the union in 1816, the governor and the executive branch of state government have been weaker when compared to the legislative and judicial branches, wrote Linda Gugin and James St. Clair in their 2006 book “The Governors of Indiana.”
Gugin, a historian and professor of political science at Indiana University Southeast, wrote governors gained more power in the 1970s. One such power allowed the governor to prepare a spending plan for a budgetary agency run by officials appointed by the governor. Gubernatorial authority over the budget was the “greatest transfer of power” to the Indiana governor in two centuries, Gugin wrote.
But over the past couple of years, the General Assembly has pushed to rein in gubernatorial power to set rules for state agencies and to issue executive orders. And this year, as last, the impetus for the legislation is Gov. Eric Holcomb's liberal use of executive orders in an effort to stall the spread of COVID-19.
Last year, legislators passed a bill giving themselves a bigger role in extended health emergencies such as COVID. Holcomb sued the General Assembly. A hearing on the case before the Indiana Supreme Court is slated for April 7.
This year, House Bill 1100 passed through committee Jan. 12. It would limit all executive orders to 180 days unless the General Assembly extends them. Since Jan. 1, Holcomb has issued 30 executive orders related to the state's response to COVID.
HB 1100 also would require all emergency rules created by state agencies be approved by the attorney general's office and limited to 180 days. Non-emergency rules would expire after four years instead of the current seven.
“My constituents and generally just about everybody I have talked to in the state of Indiana say no one person should have that kind of authority for an extended period of time without bringing everyone together to talk about it and discuss it,” said Rep. Stephen Bartels, R-Eckerty, author of HB 1100, before it was passed to the full House.
The bill should've been placed on the House calendar last week. It wasn't. House Speaker Todd Huston confirmed House leadership is taking a second look into the legislation.
The General Assembly is a body of part-time legislators. They convene during odd-numbered years for 61 days and even-numbered years for 30 days. Chances are good the next state emergency – a tornado outbreak, widespread flooding or another highly infectious variant of COVID-19 – will occur when the legislature is not in session.
The governor shouldn't be expected to convene the General Assembly for permission to act in the face of a time-sensitive emergency.
The three legs of our system of government – executive, legislative and judicial branches – certainly should be co-equals in governance. But the state's chief executive, the governor, should have the power to move with alacrity, empathy and urgency when the health and safety of Hoosiers demand it.