Despite Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration engaging in a lengthy statewide campaign against two proposed constitutional amendments, as well as using dubious wording when developing the ballot questions for those proposed amendments, voters have rejected Wolf’s position that he should maintain the power he has wielded for more than a year as Pennsylvania has confronted COVID-19.
Unofficial results indicate voters have approved, by about 53 percent to 47 percent, two ballot questions seeking to amend the Pennsylvania Constitution to alter how – and for how long – any governor of the commonwealth can declare a disaster emergency.
Wolf, when asked about the election results during an unrelated event on Wednesday in Wilkes-Barre, appeared to accept the defeat and whatever comes next.
“I think we’ve had a long period to see how the current system works, and I think there was some thought that we could do better, so I’m looking forward to working with the legislature to figure out how we can make this work,” said Wolf.
While a few states have enacted laws to limit the length of declared emergencies as well as a governor’s authority to issue executive orders during such emergencies, Pennsylvania is the first to have voters decide on putting limits on a governor’s power.
Pennsylvania is the first to have voters decide on putting limits on a governor’s power.
One of the approved amendments will limit any disaster emergency to 21 days – reduced from the current statutory limit of 90 days – unless extended by action of the General Assembly in the form of a concurrent resolution. The other amendment gives the General Assembly the ability to terminate a disaster emergency declaration by way of legislative approval of a concurrent resolution, with that resolution not subject to gubernatorial action.
The second of the two amendments represents what a majority of Pennsylvania lawmakers argue is the process laid out in current state law, but which the state Supreme Court last summer creatively interpreted as requiring gubernatorial approval, though no such language exists in statute. A dissenting opinion to the court’s decision found the existing statute to be plain in its intent – to not require the legislature to receive gubernatorial approval when terminating a disaster declaration – but that such intent was in violation of state constitutional provisions regarding most concurrent resolutions, thereby making the disaster emergency statute unconstitutional.
With voters approving the change to the constitution, the court’s ruling becomes moot, and it would appear the governor will now have to negotiate with the General Assembly regarding a further continuation of that emergency – something welcomed by the state House of Representatives’ top two Republican leaders on Wednesday.
It would appear the governor will now have to negotiate with the General Assembly regarding a further continuation of that emergency
“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,” said House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, and House Speaker Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, in a statement. “In doing so, they have rejected the mutation of emergency authority into unilateral, one-person control that seeks expediency over the rule of law.”
“We stand ready to reasonably and responsibly manage Pennsylvania through this ongoing global pandemic, the scourge of opioid addiction, and other long-term challenges that may come to face this Commonwealth,” Benninghoff and Cutler continued. “To those contemplating litigation to stop the enforcement of the emergency disaster-related amendments: Think twice before again ignoring the voice of the people. To use the courts to continue to grasp on to power is to ignore a fresh mandate from those you represent and will confirm the worst fears of a public that wants to change course in the management of emergency periods.”
Senate GOP leaders a bit later on Wednesday expressed sentiments similar to those of their House GOP colleagues.
“The primary election results demonstrate our system of government works better when we work together,” said Senate President Pro Tem Jake Corman, R-Centre, and Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, in a joint statement. “We took our case to the people of Pennsylvania, and the people voted ‘yes’ to restore liberty and ensure the fundamental principles of our democracy remain in place even during times of an emergency. This decision by the people is not about taking power away from any one branch of government, rather it’s about re-establishing the balance of power between three equal branches of government as guaranteed by the constitution.”
“Pennsylvanians have made their choice clear – they want to see more collaboration and better results from their state government when responding to emergencies,” the Senate GOP leaders continued. “This is a responsibility that the Senate Republican Caucus takes seriously, and as leaders we are all committed to working together in the best interests of our Commonwealth. In the weeks ahead, we encourage Governor Wolf to come back to the table and discuss not only how we can better manage emergencies like the current pandemic, but also how we can help our state recover from COVID-19.”
‘Pennsylvanians have made their choice clear – they want to see more collaboration and better results from their state government when responding to emergencies…’
Legislative Republicans have been in conflict with Wolf for much of the past year, particularly after what the GOP identifies as Wolf’s mishandling of the state long-term care facilities, the closure of most of the state’s businesses, the operations of the state’s public schools and the failures of the state’s unemployment compensation system. They also challenged Wolf when virus cases and hospitalizations started to recede last spring, arguing Wolf slow-walked reopening the state and piled additional harm onto Pennsylvanians and the commonwealth’s economy which they said was already reeling from the virus and the governor’s COVID-19 policies.
General Assembly Republicans, with the assistance of a few Democrats, passed a concurrent resolution to terminate Wolf’s disaster emergency declaration, but the Wolf administration went to the state Supreme Court and argued the governor had the power to veto that concurrent resolution. As already noted, the state’s high court sided with Wolf.
Then, once the General Assembly approved the legislation that would become the ballot questions approved by voters on Tuesday, legislative Republicans and Wolf were again at odds over the wording of the ballot questions written by the Wolf administration’s Department of State. The GOP accused the Wolf administration of writing biased questions intended to get voters to reject the proposed constitutional amendments, while the Wolf administration claimed it inserted “context” to the questions. The administration has been holding events throughout the state for the past several weeks during which they’ve made claims that bad things would happen to Pennsylvania should the ballot questions be approved and Wolf’s disaster emergency powers be limited.
Legislative Democrats, most having steadfastly supported Wolf as the governor has exercised his executive powers – some of which Republicans, and even a few Democrats, have argued conflict with constitutional protections – were, like the governor, far terser in their reaction to Tuesday’s election results.
“The voters have spoken and it’s clear that they want the legislature to be involved in this process,” said Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny. “It will remain our [the Senate Democratic Caucus] priority to do what we can in state government and the legislature to keep people safe. Our caucus’ top priority now is driving out the $7 billion we received in ARP funding, and making sure our communities can recover and rebuild.”
Capitolwire did not receive a response to its request for comment from House Democratic Caucus leadership.
This article was published with permission from CapitolWire.