After 14 months of dealing with a once-in-a-century pandemic, the strengths and weaknesses of state government’s emergency response is coming into clearer focus. With more Pennsylvanians getting vaccinated and infection rates plummeting, our job now is to review the lessons learned during this crisis so future emergencies can be managed more effectively and efficiently without the inconsistency we have seen during COVID-19.
One of the indisputable things we have learned is unilateral control by one branch of government only leads to completely avoidable mistakes. When operating on its own, the Wolf Administration’s blunders were numerous and well-documented:
- The business shutdown waiver system was criticized as prejudicial and inconsistent by Republicans and Democrats alike.
- Resources for nursing homes and long-term care settings were lacking, and flawed guidance led to higher rates of infection.
- The Unemployment Compensation system could not keep up with the increased demands during the shutdown, leading to delays of weeks or months for many claimants to access benefits.
- U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data show that too many industries were shuttered, and businesses were kept closed too long.
- In some cases, ongoing business restrictions were enacted that conflicted with federal guidance and were not based on science.
- Inflexible guidance to schools kept kids out of classrooms far too long, leading to learning gaps for many students.
- Most recently, the company chosen by Wolf Administration to run the state’s contact tracing efforts failed to follow protocols and suffered a data breach affecting at least 72,000 Pennsylvanians.
These are many of the reasons why lawmakers proposed constitutional amendments that would mandate greater cooperation between the Executive and Legislative branches of government. Voters will decide on these amendments on May 18.
One of the key questions that has emerged in this debate is whether the General Assembly is up to the task of responding to emergencies quickly. The meaningful things we have accomplished together during this crisis has given us all the evidence we need to know that lawmakers are perfectly capable of moving quickly and decisively to meet the needs of the Commonwealth.
In the first two weeks after the governor shut down most schools and businesses, the General Assembly established a system to meet virtually, becoming the first state in the nation to meet remotely.
During that time, we also took action to authorize a new small business assistance program, put emergency provisions in place for local governments, remove mandates from our schools and ensure our frontline health care workers had the supplies and PPE they needed to respond to the pandemic. In the months that followed, we also approved the distribution of two different federal COVID-19 relief packages on a bipartisan basis to meet the needs of the communities we represent. While most state agency offices remain closed, legislative offices have been open and serving the public for months.
Just a few months ago, the state’s vaccine distribution efforts were among the worst in the nation (ranked 49th). Thanks to the bipartisan involvement of the legislature through the Joint Vaccine Task Force, our vaccine distribution numbers are now the best in the nation among the most populous states.
The evidence is clear – emergency response functions best when all stakeholders work together toward a common goal of protecting our communities. That is exactly what will happen if voters approve the constitutional amendments on the ballot on May 18.
By Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, Speaker of the House Bryan Cutler, Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward and House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff. They can be reached through Jason Thompson (Corman), Mike Straub (Cutler), Erica Clayton Wright (Ward), and Jason Gottesman (Benninghoff).