By BRIAN A. HOWEY

INDIANAPOLIS – Gov. Eric Holcomb answered the most pertinent question at the Statehouse this week: What would he do with engrossed legislation that would curb his powers and allow the General Assembly to call itself into special session.

“I cannot skirt my duty and do something that I believe is unconstitutional,” Holcomb said at his weekly pandemic press conference Wednesday. “So yes, I can answer your question with four letters and it’s V-E-T-O.”

The Indiana Senate voted Monday giving the General Assembly the authority to convene an “emergency session” in an amended HB1123. Indiana’s Constitution specifically states only the governor is authorized to call the Legislature back to the Statehouse after lawmakers have adjourned for the year.

Former Indiana Supreme Court Justice Frank Sullivan Jr. told the  Senate Rules Committee under the auspicies of Senate President Pro Tem Rod Bray last month that SB407 would violate the Indiana Supreme Court’s long-standing precedent that it is unconstitutional for one branch of government to subject another branch to its “coercive influence.” Sullivan added, “If the governor’s power to handle emergencies needs to be reduced, [you should] do it in a way that the Constitution permits. You have plenty of options in that regard. And if you decide that the Legislature does need power that the Constitution does not now give it, the right way to do that is by a constitutional amendment, not an unconstitutional bill.”

“I’ve made no secret about my understanding of Indiana’s Constitution,” Holcomb said. “I have viewed this with the belief that this is unconstitutional. We have supplied our legislative friends with background. There is an honest difference of opinion. They honestly believe otherwise. I’m left with no other alternative. I believe I am duty bound by the constitution first and foremost. I can’t do an end-around the people.”

Holcomb said that he is not “in complete disagreement” with the motives House and Senate Republicans led by House Majority Leader Matt Lehman and State Sen. Sue Glick had for the legislation.

The bill does not rescind any of the governor’s emergency powers such as prohibiting church services and locking down non-essential businesses as he did last March in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Hoosiers saw a 3.2% jobless rate in February balloon to 16.9% in April. It was back to 4% this past February.

“I believe, for example, the funding coming into the state of Indiana, it is beyond understandable; it is to be expected that we work together and they be updated,” Holcomb said of the more than $5 billion coming to the state via President Joe Biden’s American Relief Act passed by Congress in March. “We’ve been doing that over the past year with letters and phone calls from legislators, sitting down at the table and going over on more than one occasion when we weren’t in session.”

Holcomb said he asked leadership if they want to be in special session and “The answer was no.”

The governor has taken some heat after his statewide address nine days ago that he was shifting the state’s mask mandate to an advisory. He left it in the hands of local governments to determine whether they wanted to keep the mandate in place. At least four counties (Marion, Monroe, St Joseph, Huntington) have said they will continue local mask orders.

“Eric Holcomb has too often made politics a part of the equation with the state’s pandemic response rather than implementing the science, data-based approach he claims to use every week,” said Indiana Democratic Party spokesman Drew Anderson. “With everything Hoosiers have gone through over this past year, why would Holcomb risk derailing all of this progress just to appease folks who don’t believe in COVID-19 to begin with? The Governor will create more problems in the near future, not less, if he doesn’t responsibly lead Indiana out of the pandemic.”

On Wednesday, Holcomb was confronted with an amendment that would prohibit local units of government from keeping mandates in place. “Yes, it concerns me,” he said. “A lot of things concern me. I haven’t had an opportunity to look at the amendment; didn’t see it before the hearing. We’ll take a hard look at this. But on this, I’m going to have to look at each and every word. To be determined.”

Holcomb added, “It’s taken months to arrive at where we are right now and we didn’t have months to make decisions.”

As for the advisory shift, Holcomb explained, “We have been very clear since the outset in our desire to drive down deaths and hospitalization rates, they have come a long way, they are coming down. It’s not the one number I focus on; it’s many numbers in terms of our ability to care for those who are hospitalized. We do what we can to limit the spread. 

“It’s not mission accomplished,” he continued. “There is some personal responsibility to be demanded if we want to continue to manage our way through this and manage our way through this is what we’re doing.”

As for criticism from Democratic Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear who said he would ask Holcomb to reconsider rescinding the mask mandate, Holcomb said, “Gov. Beshear has my cellphone number and he clearly has the media number as well. He has not contacted me. I did see his comments and I have always taken the approach ... to respect all other governors and the decisions they have to make according to the numbers on the ground and what is happening in their states. I am paying attention to the numbers here in Indiana and what’s best for Hoosiers.”