Proposed Amendment to PA Constitution Could Limit Governor Wolf’s Emergency Powers

By Katie Herrmann

In the first few meetings of the new year, committees from Pennsylvania’s General Assembly have approved a proposed amendment to the Pennsylvania Constitution that will limit the length of future disaster declarations. On January 13, the State House Government Committee approved the bill that backs the proposed constitutional amendment, and on January 26, the Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee approved the same bill.

Senate Bill 2 mirrors Senate Bill 1166, which was approved in July of 2020 by the Pennsylvania General Assembly. Per the PA Constitution, constitutional amendments must be passed by the House and Senate during two separate consecutive legislative sessions before they may be placed on the ballot for the next election. Accordingly, this will be the second session needed to pass the amendment.

Currently, Governor Wolf can issue a disaster declaration for up to 90 days and can extend it as needed. The proposed amendment would limit emergency declarations to only 21 days, and the Governor may not issue a new disaster emergency declaration based upon the same or substantially similar facts and circumstances without the passage of a concurrent resolution of the General Assembly expressly approving the new disaster emergency declaration.

The bill was introduced by Republican leaders in light of Governor Wolf’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic where he first declared a state of emergency on March 6, 2020 and has since renewed the declaration three times. The Republican-controlled legislature, frustrated by the Governor’s actions, repeatedly attempted to ease the pandemic restrictions ahead of the administration’s timelines and the efforts were repeatedly vetoed by Governor Wolf. A lawsuit was even initiated against the Governor to force the end of his emergency declaration but was rejected by the state Supreme Court.

In a written statement about the proposed legislation, Senate Republicans criticized Governor Wolf for suspending state statutes, spending taxpayer dollars without legislative approval, and keeping millions of Pennsylvania residents from earning a living through his business shutdown orders.

Republican Senator DiSanto said, “I have personally talked to hundreds of constituents and received thousands of emails from those harmed by the governor’s orders. With extraordinary powers comes extraordinary responsibility, and regrettably this administration has demonstrated an utter lack of transparency and accountability.” Republican Senator Martin also commented, “Allowing one person to hold such an extraordinary amount of power for an extended period of time will inevitably lead to oversights and mistakes that harm Pennsylvania citizens. This Constitutional amendment would restore the balance of power and ensure the voice of the people is represented as we respond to future disasters.”

Conversely, Democratic members of the legislature call the bill dangerous for putting an arbitrary limit on gubernatorial power. Representative Malcolm Kenyatta of Philadelphia stated, “In a moment of a disaster we have to have an executive that is fully empowered to respond to that disaster whether that executive is Republican or Democrat,” Kenyatta said. “They need to have the flexibility to respond.”

Governor Wolf himself has spoken out against the proposed changes, stating that they would “hinder our ability to respond quickly, comprehensively and effectively to a disaster emergency by requiring any declaration to be affirmed by concurrent resolution of the legislature every three weeks. This would force partisan politics into the commonwealth’s disaster response efforts and could slow down or halt emergency response when aid is most needed.” This issue has clearly elicited strong responses from Republican and Democratic leaders alike. As of now, however, the Pennsylvania legislature is Republican-controlled and if the proposed amendment is approved by both the House and Senate in identical form in this session, it could go to the voters for ratification possibly as early as the spring. If both chambers approve the amendment by mid-February, it could appear on the May 18 primary ballot.

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