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Legislative committee hopes to curb Ducey’s emergency powers

GOP lawmakers who have chafed under fellow Republican Gov. Doug Ducey's use of his emergency powers to combat the COVID-19 outbreak will convene an ad hoc committee tasked with examining that authority and proposing possible limitations to it.

But any legislation the committee proposes will need the support of the same governor whose powers it seeks to limit.

House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, and Senate President Karen Fann, R-Prescott on Wednesday announced the creation of the Ad Hoc Study Committee on Legislative Oversight of Emergency Executive Powers. The committee, co-chaired by Rep. Gail Griffin, R-Hereford, and Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, will recommend possible changes for the legislature to consider when it reconvenes in January.

The committee will hear testimony from experts, examine practices in other states and research the origins of the Arizona statutes that grant the governor broad authority during emergencies. Under the emergency declaration he issued in March, Ducey has closed businesses, mandated public health measures, limited when people could leave their homes, halted evictions and taken other steps to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus that has infected 227,000 Arizonans and killed nearly 5,800.

"It is imperative that we all have a complete understanding of the appropriate role of the separate branches of government in situations like the one we've been experiencing this year," Bowers said in a press release.

Critics, including many legislative Republicans, argue that Ducey has abused his powers. Some lawmakers believe they should be allowed to take a more active role in managing the crisis and that the governor has exercised his emergency powers for too long and without any checks and balances.

Ugenti-Rita has been one of the governor's most vocal critics when it comes to his emergency powers. She was among a group of GOP lawmakers who hoped to overturn his emergency declaration during the legislative session, and has urged Bowers and Fann since August to create a committee to examine the governor's emergency powers and propose legislation to limit them.

"We need to look at statute and we need to look at the language around emergency declarations and see if there's an opportunity to amend the law so that we can bring back the balance of power," Ugenti-Rita told the Arizona Mirror. "We want to bring back a balance of power by making sure emergency declarations can't go on in perpetuity."

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Ugenti-Rita said the committee will also have to determine whether it wants to attempt to limit the governor's powers amid the ongoing emergency declaration, presuming it's still active by the start of the next legislative session in January, or make any changes effective for only future disasters.

Of course, Ducey can simply veto any legislation that he feels restricts his emergency authority too severely.

Patrick Ptak, a spokesman for the governor, said Ducey takes his emergency powers as the state's chief executive seriously, and that the legislature should as well. He suggested that now is not the time for lawmakers to look at restricting that authority.

"We are still navigating through this pandemic. Containing the virus, protecting public health and rebuilding our economy remain our focus," Ptak told the Arizona Mirror via text message.

In recent weeks, the COVID outbreak in Arizona, which had been on the decline since peaking in July, has seen somewhat of a resurgence. Total case numbers have crept back up, as have total hospitalizations, ICU bed use and ventilator use.

Lawmakers aren't the only ones challenging Ducey's authority. Attorney General Mark Brnovich has sided with bar owners who sued to overturn the governor's order that closed some, but not all bars, accusing him of ruling by "executive fiat" and arguing that the distinctions allowing some bars to remain open depending on what type of liquor license they held were arbitrary.

It's unclear when the committee will begin meeting or even what its composition will be. Griffin and Ugenti-Rita are its only members so far, and there's no word yet on who else will be part of the committee.

In a Facebook post in August, Ugenti-Rita proposed a committee that would include five senators, with no more than three coming from each party. She also proposed including representatives from the public, the business world, the governor's office, local government and people with expertise in "emergency executive authority, separation of powers and citizens' individual freedoms."

This report was first published by the Arizona Mirror.

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Pool photo/Michael Chow/The Arizona Republic

Gov. Doug Ducey updates reporters on COVID-19 during a news conference in Phoenix June 17, 2020.