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State capitols face showdown over COVID powers and spending

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — State lawmakers across the country will convene in 2021 with the continuing COVID-19 pandemic rippling through much of their work — even affecting the way they work.

After 10 months of emergency orders and restrictions from governors and local executive officials, some lawmakers are eager to reassert their power over decisions that shape the way people shop, work, worship and attend school.

They also will face virus-induced budget pressures, with rising demand for spending on public health and social services colliding with uncertain tax revenue in an economy that is still not fully recovered from the pandemic.

“COVID will frame everything,” said Tim Storey, executive director of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The virus even will affect the mechanics of making laws. Some legislatures will allow their members to vote remotely, instead of gathering in tightly packed chambers. Temperature checks, health screenings, Plexiglas dividers and socially distanced seating are planned in some capitols.

Lawmakers will be meeting as COVID-19 vaccines are being distributed, first to medical workers and high-risk groups such as the elderly. That may spark debates in some states about whether the distribution plans should be subject to legislative approval and whether workplaces and institutions can require people to receive the shots.

All 50 states are scheduled to hold regular legislative sessions in 2021. In many, it will mark their first meeting since the November elections in which Republicans again secured statehouse supremacy. The GOP will control both legislative chambers in 30 states compared with 18 for Democrats. Minnesota is the only state where Republicans will control one chamber and Democrats the other. Nebraska’s legislature is officially nonpartisan.

Though many of the bills seeking to limit gubernatorial powers are coming from Republicans, Storey said there are bipartisan frustrations among lawmakers. He expects well over half the legislatures to flex their authority by holding oversight hearings, reviewing administrative rules and passing bills aimed at limiting the emergency powers of governors during the pandemic.

The pushback is occurring even in states where the legislature and governor’s office are controlled by the same party.

One of the hottest topics in the GOP-led Arkansas Legislature will be whether to support the state’s disaster declaration, which has been used by Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson to impose a mask mandate, capacity limits and other restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of the virus.

The GOP supermajority in the Tennessee Legislature has created a panel to study gubernatorial emergency powers and has come up with a number of suggestions to allow lawmakers to end, override or have the final say on the extension of a health-related state of emergency or executive order.

In Missouri, Republican lawmakers who hold large majorities in both chambers already have filed about a dozen bills that would limit the authority of state or local officials to impose restrictions.

One bill by state Sen. Bob Onder, a respiratory physician, would bar local health orders from lasting more than 30 days and require a two-thirds vote of the local governing body for rules extending beyond one week. His bill also would prohibit restrictions on religious activities that are greater than what others are facing.

Onder said he provided testimony for court cases challenging restrictions on churches and synagogues in California, New Jersey and New York. He also has opposed a local order by the St. Louis County executive prohibiting indoor dining at restaurants.

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