Hawaii’s Covid-19 state of emergency will soon be over.

Come Friday at midnight, the state will drop the last of its pandemic mandates, a requirement to wear masks when indoors. That will also mark the end of emergency proclamations related to Covid-19 more than two years after Gov. David Ige issued his first proclamation in the islands as the Covid-19 pandemic spread around the world.

And as the state of emergency finally comes to an end, Hawaii lawmakers are weighing bills that could limit the governor’s emergency powers in the future.

Governor David struggles with removing his mask during press conference held at August 19, 2020. The press conference announced 50 COVID-19 contact tracers coming online at the Hawaii Convention Center. August 19, 2020
As what could be Hawaii’s last Covid-19 emergency proclamation ends, lawmakers consider limits on the governor’s executive power. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

State law gives Hawaii governors broad authority to suspend laws and direct resources as they see fit. Ige and the county mayors did just that, suspending procurement laws to speed up the pace of acquiring resources and issuing quarantine orders for infected individuals or those who entered the state, among numerous other provisions.

But some decisions raised eyebrows. At the start of the pandemic, Ige suspended the state’s public records and open meetings laws. Former Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell closed outdoor locations like parks, beaches and hiking trails.

And Ige left in place a mask mandate even as other states dropped theirs.

The content of emergency proclamations, and the amount of time they’ve been in place, have led lawmakers to take another swing at clamping down on executive authority. Last year, a measure that set limits on emergency proclamations died at the end of session.

House Bill 1585 and Senate Bill 3089 would still allow a governor to implement an emergency period for 60 days. But any additional proclamation or extensions of a proclamation could be overridden by a two-thirds vote of the Legislature.

Lawmakers would have the authority to strike down an entire proclamation, or parts of a proclamation. SB 3089 carries an additional prohibition against suspending Hawaii’s records laws.

SB 3089 was actually introduced by the governor, but those provisions were added by lawmakers.

There’s a question of whether these new proposals go far enough in limiting executive authority. The bills actually expand the governor’s powers by requiring counties to obtain permission before issuing a local emergency order or rule.

Malia Hill, policy director for the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, said both bills could do great things for the state.

“But they don’t go quite as far as we’d like,” Hill said. “We’ve seen two years of continuing emergency proclamations. There needs to be a point where the government has to get permission to continue the emergency period.”

The Grassroot Institute supports both measures, but asked lawmakers to mandate that the governor obtain permission from the Legislature to continue an emergency period.

Mask required sign at the Daniel K. Inouye International Airport.
Some organizations like the Grassroot Institute want legislative approval for emergency proclamation extensions. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Thirty-five state Legislatures now have the authority to end an emergency proclamation, according to a survey by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Of those, 10 require a governor to seek legislative approval before issuing additional emergency proclamations once an initial order has expired.

“We’re squarely in the trend,” Hill said. “It’s a statement of, no matter what party our governor or lawmakers identify with, we want to ensure there’s checks on their power.”

Kentucky lawmakers recently voted to end their state’s emergency proclamation amid protest by Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear.

House Speaker Scott Saiki, who has supported placing limits on the governor’s emergency authority, doesn’t think its necessary to require legislative approval for every emergency proclamation since both bills already give the Legislature the ability to terminate a proclamation.

“In my opinion, that’s the ultimate authority,” Saiki said.

Requiring approval for a proclamation hung up House Bill 103 last session, according to Saiki. There were lingering questions over what exactly constituted an extension of an emergency. Lawmakers debated if each proclamation should be considered an extension, or, if it would be a new proclamation that couldn’t be struck down by lawmakers.

“We don’t want this to be an unwieldy process, we want to take a very leveled approach where the Legislature can override a proclamation, or a part of it,” Saiki said.

Cindy McMillan, Ige’s spokeswoman, declined to comment on the pending legislation in Hawaii. But the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency and other state departments testified in support of SB 3089.

Meanwhile, HB 1585 is progressing through the Senate. Ige’s administration has said it prefers the Senate measure.

Both bills are moving to their final committees in the House and Senate.

On Thursday, the governor issued another emergency proclamation, but only for the limited purpose of continuing Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits.

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