Pennsylvania voters will get to decide whether governors should continue to enjoy almost unrestrained and unilateral emergency powers. A constitutional amendment approved Friday for the May primary ballot would give the Legislature a say in whether emergency orders, like those that closed much of the state’s economy in response to the COVID-19 epidemic, can extend beyond three weeks.
As the pandemic stretched into the summer and fall, Republican legislators, business owners and many everyday citizens across the state chafed at Gov. Tom Wolf’s repeated use of his emergency powers to shut schools and businesses, mandate mask wearing and issue stay-at-home orders. That frustration spurred the GOP-controlled Legislature to push its constitutional change, an effort that concluded Friday when the state House cleared the proposal for a statewide referendum.
Nearly every Lancaster County legislator voted for the measure, with the exception of the county’s lone Democratic representative, Mike Sturla of Lancaster city.
Wolf has warned this amendment, if approved by voters, would undermine a governor’s ability to respond to disaster emergencies.
“[The amendment] would hinder our ability to respond quickly, comprehensively and effectively to a disaster emergency by requiring any declaration to be affirmed by concurrent resolution of the legislature every three weeks,” Wolf said in a statement last month. “This would force partisan politics into the commonwealth’s disaster response efforts and could slow down or halt emergency response when aid is most needed.”
Sen. Scott Martin, R., Martic Township, was one of the amendment’s sponsors, arguing it is needed to ensure governors work with the Legislature during emergencies.
Should a governor believe a 21-day emergency order isn’t long enough, Martin said, the amendment would ensure an administration would “start pretty early making the case why it needs to be done.”
Martin pushed back on Wolf’s claim that the proposed amendment is a partisan attempt to gain control, noting bipartisan concerns with the state’s vaccine roll out, as well as a bill he co-sponsored with Sen. Lisa Boscola, D., Berks, to reopen the real estate industry.
“If the governor was a Republican and did every single thing the same way 100%, I would’ve had the same concerns in terms of advocating for the people in my district to keep them safe,” Martin said.
The amendment will appear on the May 18 primary election ballot. While Pennsylvania is a closed-primary state -- meaning only members of a political party can vote for candidates running for the party nomination -- all voters, no matter their political affiliation, can cast a ballot on constitutional amendments.
Political back-and-forth on pandemic response
Until the pandemic, the emergency declaration law was almost always used exclusively to respond to natural disasters.
Starting last March with the arrival of the coronavirus in the state, Wolf began to utilize his extensive emergency powers to shut down bars, indoor dining, and other “non-essential businesses” at the recommendation of Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine. Those steps mirrored actions pursued across the county and advocated by national health officials at the time.
But as the virus continued to spread, the Legislature attempted to side-step Wolf’s orders by passing legislation, only to see Wolf veto the bills.
“It was extremely frustrating. And especially, not just in terms of being a lawmaker, I’ve been in emergency response for years and how things worked, I always know in any type of emergency it’s an all hands on deck,” Martin said.
Lawmakers went as far as trying a “nuclear option” to end the emergency declaration on their own. Within the 1978 emergency declaration law, there is a clause that allows the Legislature to pass a concurrent resolution to require the governor to end a declaration.
Wolf vetoed the resolution, which Republicans promptly took to court. The state Supreme Court later ruled on Wolf’s behalf, noting the state constitution grants him full authority to respond to emergency situations.
To get a referendum on the ballot, lawmakers must pass legislation in two consecutive sessions. The emergency powers resolution was initially passed in July 2020, and again Friday.