(The Center Square) – Republicans in both chambers of Pennsylvania’s General Assembly advanced identical bills this week that would limit the governor’s emergency powers.
House Bill 55 and Senate Bill 2 both require legislative approval for any emergency declaration extending beyond 21 days. The measures, if approved in both chambers, would toss the question to voters in the upcoming primary election.
“Under Governor Wolf’s current declaration of emergency for COVID-19, we are witnessing what consolidated power looks like,” said Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Greensburg. “Inconsistent vaccine rollouts, businesses that have been shuttered, nursing home residents who have suffered under the Department of Health, and hundreds of thousands of unemployed workers who continue to struggle to obtain unemployment benefits. Every step of the way, the Pennsylvania Legislature has attempted to pass bills to assist these affected groups, and the Governor has responded with a veto.”
The bills represent Republicans’ last stand against what they consider oppressive economic and social restrictions handed down by Gov. Tom Wolf over the last 10 months of the pandemic. Lawmakers spent much of the last year voting on legislation that would overturn, weaken or eliminate some of Wolf’s rules regarding school and business closures, despite the looming promise of veto.
The bills represent Republicans’ last stand against what they consider oppressive economic and social restrictions handed down by Gov. Tom Wolf over the last 10 months of the pandemic.
All the while, 2.5 million residents sought relief through enhanced unemployment compensation and stimulus checks — both policies mired in political gamesmanship at the federal level. After state courts upheld Wolf’s actions and broad emergency powers as enumerated in the constitution, legislators said amending it was the best, albeit slow, way forward.
Constitutional amendments require approval by the General Assembly in two consecutive sessions before a referendum can appear on the ballot. The language of the amendments cannot be altered in any way between the two sessions, meaning proposals from Democrats to include LGBT protections – in addition to the race and gender protections already written into the language – were doomed.
Changes aside, Democrats argued the legislation endangers the state’s ability to apply for federal disaster aid during emergencies. Part of Wolf’s reasoning for extending the 90-day declaration three times since March is continued access to pandemic relief funds that speed up the state’s response to emerging outbreaks and, now, vaccination administration.
“The legislation adds politics to disaster declarations when our focus should be on coordinated, efficient responses to the crises at hand,” said Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Pittsburgh. “Partisan votes every 21 days won’t save lives or livelihoods.”
Changes aside, Democrats argued the legislation endangers the state’s ability to apply for federal disaster aid during emergencies.
Rep. Seth Grove, R-York, who sponsored the House version of the bill, says it aligns Pennsylvania more closely with most states that only authorize emergencies for 30 days at a time.
It also “improves cooperation between the executive branch and the Legislature in responding to emergencies by limiting the length of emergency disaster declarations unless approved by the General Assembly,” he said.
“What we have seen over nearly a year is one person making all the decisions, which impact the nearly 13 million residents of the Commonwealth, in regard to the state’s response to the pandemic,” Grove said. “The only input the Legislature was permitted to have in the matter were bills, most of which were vetoed by the governor, in response to actions he already took. The General Assembly should not be limited to being a reactionary board that merely attempts to advise the governor on actions he unilaterally decided to take.”
Wolf, for his part, denies he’s shut out the General Assembly in his policy decisions, telling reporters last week he has Republican leaders “on speed dial.”
On Wednesday, the House State Government Committee voted along party lines to approve SB 2, poising the bill for floor approval next week. HB 55 will move to the Senate for consideration, though only one bill needs the approval of both chambers to appear on the primary ballot.
Christen Smith follows Pennsylvania’s General Assembly for The Center Square. She is an award-winning reporter with more than a decade of experience covering state and national policy issues for niche publications and local newsrooms alike.
This piece was originally published in The Center Square. Read the original article here.