Don’t strip governor of emergency powers
The Legislature is considering a bill to limit the governor's power to declare states of emergency without legislative approval.
Gov. Linda Lingle was criticized two years ago when she declared a state of emergency to quickly authorize providing shelters for the homeless along the Leeward Coast. She acknowledged that use of her emergency powers was "creative," but that doesn't justify a move in the Legislature to strip her of those powers and put the public at risk when a life-threatening calamity occurs.
Bills that have passed both chambers but need a House-Senate conference to become identical would require the governor to obtain legislative approval to use emergency powers under some circumstances. Real emergencies require swift action. Legislators should refrain from interfering in relief and limit their measure to a mild slap on the wrist.
House Speaker Calvin Say contends that Lingle "usurped the Legislature's authority" when she spent state money for the homeless, so her powers should be trimmed to prevent another abuse. Former Speaker Joe Souki agreed that the governor's use of the powers "maybe was handled incorrectly. But this is petty if we're going to be coming up with a bill of this nature."
The consequences could be more than petty and were reflected in an early vision of the bill, which would have required the governor to obtain legislative approval to take emergency measures when "tangible and measurable harm ... has already occurred and that, unless immediately acted upon, would otherwise be irreparable," resulting in imminent death or health or safety hazard. It has been changed to allow her to take action when the "harm or damage has resulted or is about to result" from the disaster.
Maj. Gen. Robert G.F. Lee, the state director of civil defense, testified to legislators that disaster relief to residents must be delivered swiftly. "Most emergencies and disasters are fluid events, the extent of which can rarely be predicted, let alone depicted in minute detail," he said. "The gravity of these events as they become known or reported through various channels is often underestimated."
The bill asserts that emergencies do not include "the remedying of periodic or longstanding societal inequities or circumstances that may arise over the course of time" and could be addressed by legislation. In other words, helping the homeless is not an emergency.
Lee also complained that the bill would not allow disaster relief to extend beyond the adjournment of the next regular session of the Legislature without legislative approval. He argued that emergency relief might take four to six years to complete. Then it no longer is an emergency and legislative oversight is warranted.
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