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GOP Senator Seeks New Limits on Northam

Steve Newman holding microphone speaking on Senate floor
Steve Newman speaks on the Senate floor in 2012 (Craig Carper/VPM News)

A top Republican in Virginia’s Senate is proposing new time limits on the governor’s executive orders, which have multiplied in the wake of the pandemic.

Governor Ralph Northam has issued 16 executive orders since the beginning of March. He’s used his powers to close schools and businesses when the pandemic hit and enforce a curfew during Richmond's protests.

Sen. Steve Newman (R-Bedford), vice chair of the Senate Republican Caucus, likened the actions to “dictatorial rule.”

“It's certainly more efficient and easier, but it doesn't mean that that's the way a free people should be governed,” Newman said.

Newman, a religious conservative who is one of the Senate's longest-serving members, is proposing a bill that would cap a governor’s executive orders at 30 days. Barring any action from the General Assembly, the governor could reissue the order for another 30 days, but no more.

“Over the last 133 days we have been governed by press conference,” Newman said. “And that is not the way the Code of Virginia or the Constitution of Virginia is meant to operate.”

Under current law, executive orders can last over a year through the June following the next regular session of the General Assembly unless lawmakers intervene with legislation that affects the order.

That means Northam’s executive orders passed in March of this year could theoretically last until July 1, 2021.

Grant Neely, Northam’s chief communications officer, said emergencies often don’t conform to the “arbitrary” time limits set out by Newman.

“Under Senator Newman’s proposed bill, Virginia’s response to the pandemic would have ended weeks ago in May, effectively leaving 8.5 million Virginians without a leader during a worldwide health crisis,” Neely said in a statement. “That’s a bad idea, and so is this bill.”

Dick Howard, a University of Virginia law professor who helped write Virginia’s 1971 constitution, said that Virginia’s code was “fairly generous” in the duration of executive orders. But Howard said he believed that was a helpful feature during an unpredictable crisis like the pandemic.

“How many of us in February or March would have been sufficiently prescient as to imagine the number of cases or deaths we now witness?” Howard said in an email. “Leaders must be nimble in dealing with a challenge like this, and arbitrary time limits seen unwise and imprudent.”

Newman’s bill is the first to be filed ahead of an August 18 special session focusing on revising the state budget, responding to police brutality and COVID-19. Democratic leaders in the House and Senate are holding virtual meetings with Northam to determine the exact scope of the session and could decide to shelve Newman’s bill if they chose.

A 1973 Virginia law gives the governor the power to pass orders that have the power of law during an emergency. In some orders, like one that declared Juneteenth a state holiday, Northam has cited other sections of state code.

At least one Democratic Senator -- Chap Peterson -- has questioned Northam’s authority by representing businesses that challenged the governor’s COVID-related orders. Peterson voluntarily dismissed the case on Friday.

Newman repeatedly pushed for Northam to speed up reopening in spring and called the Virginia Department of Health’s anonymous mask violating reporting system the “snitch police.” But Newman said the issue of executive orders shouldn’t be partisan.

“Do we in the legislature...want to kind of give all the authority of the Code of Virginia away to a governor anytime he declares executive powers act?” Newman said.