(The Center Square) – Voters in Pennsylvania will soon decide the extent of the governor’s emergency powers.
A constitutional amendment requiring the governor to seek legislative approval before extending disaster declarations beyond 21 days cleared the last hurdle Friday after the House voted, 116-86, to send the question to voters via a ballot referendum in the upcoming primary election scheduled for May 18.
Senate Bill 2 also includes another amendment that expands discrimination protections on the basis of race or ethnicity. The third says the General Assembly can overturn a disaster declaration without presenting it to the governor for signature.
The latter is a direct result of a court battle legislative Republicans lost earlier this year when Gov. Tom Wolf’s 90-day emergency declaration remained, even after the General Assembly approved a concurrent resolution ending it. Wolf has extended the order three times since the pandemic hit in early March.
“Throughout the pandemic, the voices of many Pennsylvanians have been silenced by Governor Wolf’s unilateral actions and arbitrary orders," said prime bill sponsor Sen. Scott Martin, R-Lancaster. "Now, state residents will have an opportunity to ensure their voices are heard."
The constitutional amendments come after Republican majorities in the House and Senate tried and failed to strip back most of Wolf’s economic restrictions enacted throughout the pandemic. The restrictions, seen as some of the toughest in the nation, spiked applications for jobless benefits to more than 2.6 million over the last year.
“We have seen the consequences of one person or one branch of government wielding too much authority for an indefinite period of time, and the results are not good," Martin said.
The governor has said the amendment wouldn’t impact public health orders to wear masks, social distance and restrict certain economic activities. Still, he said, the policy jeopardizes critical federal disaster aid and hamstrings the state’s ability to respond quickly in an emergency. He urged Republicans to quit “this hyper partisanship.”
“If the House GOP is successful, Pennsylvania would be the only state without some type of emergency in place for COVID 19, and could lose out on federal funding for businesses and individuals in future COVID-19 relief packages,” he said last month.
Republican leaders in the House agreed that the Department of Health can still order restaurants and bars to close because of its jurisdiction over liquor licenses, but the constitutional amendments bring lawmakers “to the table” in discussions over emergency response.
"[Now] We don't have the ability to have any say whatsoever. If the people approve this … we can actually have those discussions moving forward,” said State Government Committee Chairman Seth Grove, R-York. "We are out of it right now."