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What Does It Mean When a ‘State of Emergency’ Is Declared?

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What Does It Mean When a ‘State of Emergency’ Is Declared?

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Only hours after a colossal cargo ship struck a major bridge in Baltimore and caused it to collapse on Tuesday, Maryland’s governor and Baltimore’s mayor each declared a state of emergency.

The order unlocks additional powers that can be used to deal with natural disasters or man-made crises, often by creating or suspending laws and by redirecting public funds to the task at hand.

In Maryland, Gov. Wes Moore’s declaration of a state of emergency was intended to provide additional public safety resources and to help meet the needs of residents or visitors affected by the collapse.

Here’s what you need to know:

Every state in the country allows its governor to declare a state of emergency during extraordinary conditions.

Governors are “at the zenith of their power when they make an emergency order like this,” said Meryl Chertoff, executive director of the State and Local Government Policy and Law Project at Georgetown Law. “They can suspend laws, order evacuations, commandeer private property and impose curfews, among other powers.”

In about a half-dozen states, the legislature can also call an emergency.

Most states also allow leaders of cities, towns, villages and counties to declare a state of emergency in their local district.

While those are the best known and most often used instances, the president also has such powers.

It depends on the situation. For example, by declaring a state of emergency, a governor can create new laws or suspend ones already in place to temporarily help manage dire conditions.

The crisis proclamation can also give a governor flexibility to redistribute state funds, without having to go through the legislature. It is also a requirement in order to receive federal emergency aid.

“They’re kind of expected, if something happens quickly, to declare an emergency because then you have a different set of powers, and you may not even need them,” Raymond Scheppach, who worked with more than 300 governors during his three-decade tenure as executive director of the National Governors Association. “But a lot of times they feel that they may need them if the disaster gets worse.”

Any changes by executive order must expire at the end of the emergency, usually from 30 to 90 days. They cannot be written permanently into law when the declaration is in place.

The temporary laws set by state, county and city leaders cannot eclipse the Constitution or overstep federal authority.

Some states also have a system of checks and balances that allows the legislature to reject a governor’s emergency decree. Usually, all it takes is a majority vote. In other occasions, a legislature has the final say on whether an emergency declaration can be extended.

“It’s really important for the governor to have those powers in the acute phase,” Ms. Chertoff said. “But then at a certain point, it would be good as a policy matter, to get additional input from the state legislature.”

In fewer instances, states can require a governor to call a special session of the legislature. If the state cannot manage the response on its own, it can ask the president to declare a major disaster.

Under the National Emergencies Act, the president has almost 150 distinct powers, only some of which have meaningful restrictions and congressional oversight, according to an analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.

The coronavirus pandemic brought criticisms of emergency powers to the fore. All 50 states, the District of Columbia and United States territories declared public health emergencies in response to the pandemic in March 2020.

Those declarations allowed state officials to lift limits on hospital capacity, expand access to telehealth services and even allow highway weight limits to be exceeded, in case the National Guard needed to quickly move in. But they also included face mask mandates, business and school closures, eviction moratoriums and the extension of tax filing deadlines.

The governors’ expansive rule-making attracted scrutiny, and some pandemic-related executive orders were successfully challenged in court.

Critics have often been concerned by the emergency powers extending for years. Hundreds of bills have been introduced in nearly every state and territory since 2020, with at least 30 states paring back some powers before this spring.

Pennsylvania was among the first to pass restrictions on a governor’s power, in May 2021. The Republican-controlled Indiana State Legislature is advancing a similar bill this spring. And voters in Arizona will decide on Election Day whether to give the Legislature similar powers through a constitutional amendment.

The attitude of most legislators toward a governor’s emergency declaration, Mr. Scheppach said, once was, “I don’t want to get in the middle of it, basically.” But now nearly every state has considered amending the process for a state of emergency, shortening the maximum length of each declaration and cutting the number of times that a governor can renew an emergency declaration.

A leader can come under criticism for using these powers, but there are clear benefits to looking like a strong executive who acts decisively.

Mr. Scheppach said that his organization gave governors lessons in emergency preparedness. “You’ll often see governors on TV, right? Because we train them to go to the site because they need to appear in control,” he said. “And if they don’t do it, there’s often a lot of criticism.”

In extreme cases, he said, a poor performance in a crisis leads to a failure to be re-elected. “You’ve got to do it right,” Mr. Scheppach said.

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