How the Pa. Legislature wants to curtail Gov. Tom Wolf's emergency COVID declaration powers

J.D. Prose, USA TODAY Network - PA State Capitol Bureau

Following a sometimes heated debate on Wednesday, the Pennsylvania House passed a constitutional amendment to limit emergency declarations by the governor, after the state Senate approved a similar bill the previous night.

One of the bills needs to be passed by the other body before Feb. 18 so the constitutional amendment can go to a statewide referendum on the May primary ballot. Republicans control both the House and Senate and both bills passed mostly along party lines.

Rep. Jordan Harris, D-Philadelphia, mocked Republicans for claiming the legislation was not about politics, but returning power to the Legislature.

“It’s time to call a spade a spade,” Harris said. “This is politics.”

Another Philadelphia Democrat, Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, was admonished by House Speaker Bryan Cutler for being too loud in taking Republicans to task over the bill and their argument that they are merely giving Pennsylvanians a “say” in important matters as many of them refuse to wear masks and take pandemic precautions.

“We can’t trust you with a say!” Kenyatta said, his voice rising. “Because you don’t follow basic facts! You don’t follow basic science!”

Rising to defend the bill, Rep. Russ Diamond, R-Lebanon County, gave his own passionate argument that was initially met by chuckling from Democrats. “This is not political at all,” Diamond said. “You can laugh all you want, but this is practical.”

Diamond said the emergency declaration limit was a response to the businesses that have been forced to close or go bankrupt during the pandemic shutdowns ordered by Wolf as well as the unemployed who have not received payments and parents with children struggling in schools with “unpredictable” schedules.

“This is practical to them,” Diamond said.

The House bill passed 116-86 with a few Democrats joining Republicans in supporting it.

If approved, the constitutional amendment would limit a governor’s emergency declaration to 21 days and give the Legislature the ability to end a declaration with a two-thirds majority vote.

A bill passed by the state Senate Tuesday night would limit emergency declarations from Gov. Tom Wolf and future governors to 21 days rather than the current 90 days.

Republicans have seethed as Wolf has continually extended his 90-day emergency declarations after signing the first one in March 2020 when the pandemic began in Pennsylvania.

They have repeatedly referred to him as a dictator for issuing masking orders and closing businesses, particularly restaurants and bars, due to the pandemic.

Senate Bill 2 passed 28-20 in the Senate with just one Democrat joining Republicans in supporting the bill. Constitutional amendments must pass two consecutive legislative sessions and cannot be vetoed by Wolf.

However, the Wolf administration has said lifting the emergency disaster declaration would not affect his power to issue those orders because they rest on the state's Disease Prevention and Control Act.

“Under Governor Wolf’s current declaration of emergency for COVID-19, we are witnessing what consolidated power looks like,” said Senate Republican Majority Leader Kim Ward of Westmoreland County.

“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,” Ward said.

“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.”

Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa of Allegheny County, a Democrat, said in a Twitter post Tuesday night that the bill “adds politics to disaster declarations when our focus should be on coordinated, efficient responses to the crises at hand. Partisan votes every 21 days won't save lives or livelihoods.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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