Pennsylvania votes to limit emergency declarations

By OWEN WALSH
Posted 5/26/21

PENNSYLVANIA — In last week’s primary election, a majority of Pennsylvania constituents voted to reduce a governor’s power in declaring states of emergency and increase the General Assembly’s authority to end them.

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Pennsylvania votes to limit emergency declarations

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PENNSYLVANIA — In last week’s primary election, a majority of Pennsylvania constituents voted to reduce a governor’s power in declaring states of emergency and increase the General Assembly’s authority to end them.

Gov. Tom Wolf is known—some Republican lawmakers would say infamous—for his liberal use of emergency disaster declarations. He has renewed his declaring of emergency regarding the opioid crisis in Pennsylvania more than a dozen times since January 2018. He’s kept one in place throughout the entirety of the COVID-19 pandemic as well, just recently renewing it for another 90-day period.

Over the past year, Pennsylvania lawmakers have worked tirelessly to pull the plug on the governor’s COVID emergency status. When they passed legislation in June 2019 to unilaterally end the declaration without the governor’s approval, the judicial branch joined the conversation and sided with Wolf. According to the PA Supreme Court, the legislature lacked authority to end an emergency declaration on its own.

“Today’s ruling... sends a message to all Pennsylvanians: The governor and the Supreme Court do not want to hear from you,” Republican leadership said in a statement at the time. Republicans eventually found a path that successfully bypasses the governor’s office: the primary election.

Voters’ ballots included two constitutional amendments for Pennsylvanians to consider. One grants lawmakers the authority to terminate or extend an emergency declaration by resolution, and the other makes a governor’s emergency declarations subject to legislative approval every 21 days. According to the PA Department of State’s website, about 52 percent of voters chose “yes” on both questions.

Throughout the past year, the governor has defended his use of emergency disaster declarations and also argued that Republicans’ quest to end them is misguided.

“Premature termination or nonrenewal of the current COVID-19 disaster emergency will be disastrous for the commonwealth,” Wolf said in February. “It will undo all of the progress that has been made in combating the spread of COVID-19 and saving the lives of Pennsylvanians and put the commonwealth in a poor position to address another resurgence.”

And while Republicans stoked Pennsylvanians’ disapproval of Wolf’s broad business shutdown measures during the height of the pandemic, the governor has said those shutdowns have nothing to do with emergency declarations.

“The disaster declaration is separate from the orders signed by under the Disease Prevention Act that include provisions for business reopening and for worker and building safety.”

Still, PA GOP House leadership touted the election results as a victory.

“The people of Pennsylvania have exercised their vote and resoundingly reaffirmed their desire for a government with strong checks and balances that works in their interests and not for its own power. In doing so, they have rejected the mutation of emergency authority into unilateral, one-person control that seeks expediency over the rule of law,” Speaker of the House Bryan Cutler and House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff said in a statement.

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