Research Spotlight: Governors in Control: Executive Orders, State-Local Preemption, and the COVID-19 Pandemic

The nation’s governors took strong and decisive action in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, often affecting their localities. In our paper, we ask two questions. First, did governors’ centralize their authority or rely on their localities to deal with the emergency response during COVID-19? Second, what factors affect those decisions?

To answer our questions, we compiled an original dataset of every executive order issued by governors mentioning localities during the COVID-19 pandemic, from March 19, 2020 to August 1, 2020. Our executive orders are retrieved from Council of State Governments (CSG) COVID-19 Resources for State Leaders, which contains every executive order issued during the COVID-19 pandemic. Our final dataset yielded 897 executive orders. Some states issued more executive orders than others. For example, New Jersey issued 106 executive orders mentioning local government. On the other hand, Missouri issued one. The average state issued twenty executive orders.

Our dependent variable of interest was whether the executive order was preempting, empowering, or neutral toward local government, first used by Bowman and Kearney (2018). We coded preemptive provisions as 1, enabling as −1, and neutral as 0.

Our independent variables of interest were party and institutional power of governors, whether governors were a lame duck, whether governors have different ideological leanings than their state’s localities, partisan composition of the state, and local government autonomy. We also include measures of public health needs and the state’s economy, and whether the executive orders were targeted to specific regions of a state.

We find that governors tended to preempt localities by centralizing powers to themselves during the COVID-19 pandemic. Moreover, we find that in states that allowed localities to exercise more autonomy, governors were more likely to issue centralizing orders throughout the pandemic. Democratic governors were more likely to issue preemptive orders than Republican governors; however, after adding several controls, the effect only persisted in the final months of our study. When the ideology of governors and their localities were mismatched, governors tended to preempt their localities in the beginning of the pandemic. In later months of the pandemic, governors tended to empower localities with different ideologies than them.

This piece is an excerpt of the authors’ original article, which originally appeared in Publius: The Journal of Federalism.

Dr. Carol Weissert is a Professor in the Political Science at Florida State University. Her research interests include federalism, state politics, and health policy. You can learn more about Dr. Weissert here.

Dr. Matthew J. Uttermark is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Public Administration at Binghamton University, SUNY. He earned his doctoral degree in political science from Florida State University in 2019. You can learn more about Dr. Uttermark here.

Graduate Students | Political Science

Kenneth R. Mackie is a PhD Candidate in the Political Science Department at Florida State University. His research subfield is public policy, with most of his work centered around climate change and education. You can learn more about Kenneth here.

Alexandra Artiles (she/her) (@AKArtiles) | Twitter

Alexandra Artiles is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Political Science at Florida State University. Her research interests include public policy, state politics, and federalism. You can learn more about Alexandra here.

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