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EDITORIAL: Bills to check emergency powers deserve support

Last May, after 26 months, then-Gov. Steve Sisolak finally lifted the emergency order he imposed to fight COVID-19. The edict gave the governor vast and virtually unrestrained powers during the public health emergency, with little input from the Legislature.

Such authority may be appropriate in extremely rare circumstances, such as a foreign attack or a massive national disaster. But legislators do themselves and the citizens of Nevada no favors when they abrogate their duty to serve as a check on executive overreach. Many states, for instance, require that a governor’s emergency declaration automatically sunset unless lawmakers approve an extension.

In that spirit comes Senate Bill 130 and Senate Bill 136, each sponsored by a handful of Republican lawmakers. The proposals would limit the power of the governor to impose emergency orders in perpetuity and without approval from lawmakers.

SB130 puts a 30-day limit on any gubernatorial emergency or disaster declaration that “restricts the operation of a business” in Nevada unless “the Legislature, by resolution, expressly approves a continuance of the emergency or disaster.” It also gives county commissions the power to impose “less stringent” regulations if they determine that emergency orders or regulations issued by the governor are “not necessary to protect the public health of the residents of the county.”

SB136 prohibits the governor from doing an end-run around the 30-day limit absent legislative approval by declaring another emergency “due to the same occurrence or threatened occurrence” once the original declaration has expired.

Legislative Democrats have comfortable majorities in both houses and may be inclined to oppose these proposals, as they did when similar legislation surfaced in 2021. But these bills are not political and make no distinction between Democratic and Republican governors. Rather they simply allow lawmakers to reassert their authority to ensure a proper balance of power.

Gov. Sisolak’s exercise of his emergency powers triggered much criticism and controversy. Perhaps the latter would have been tempered somewhat if Nevadans were satisfied that their elected representatives in Carson City had thoroughly debated the ramifications and justifications for the many restrictions under which they labored during the pandemic. Rather than an exercise in partisanship, these bills are in keeping with the notion embedded in our political traditions that consolidated power increases the danger of tyranny.

Lawmakers should amend the emergency management statutes to reflect the importance of checks and balances. SB130 and SB136 would be good places to start.

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