Two of the three members of the Montgomery County Council on Wednesday weighed in against legislation in Harrisburg intended to curtail a governor’s powers to issue emergency declarations.
House Bill 55 proposes a constitutional amendment that would limit the length of a disaster declaration from to just 21 days. Any extension after that would have to be approved by the legislature.
“We strongly advise members of the PA General Assembly to vote against House Bill 55 as it creates the potential to politicize the response to a public health emergency,” the statement from Chairwoman Dr. Valerie Arkoosh and Vice Chairman Kenneth Lawrence Jr. said. “Giving lawmakers the power to end a Governor’s Disaster Declaration after 21 days is short-sighted and contradicts sound public policy. This bill as written has the potential to slow, and even stop, essential emergency response operations.”
Arkoosh and Lawrence are both Democrats. The statement did not include anything from the lone Republican on the county council, Joe Gale. He has been virtually exiled from the board because of an ongoing series of spats in which the majority Democrats have accused Gale of unethical behavior and of being a racist.
Unsurprisingly, the rationale of the two commissioners was similar to the one Gov. Wolf himself had already put forward.
“HB 55 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,” Wolf said in a press release two weeks ago.
“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.”
Republican lawmakers were repeatedly flummoxed in 2020 over the powers Wolf exercised by declaring the COVID-19 outbreak an emergency, powers such as ordering business closures as well as limiting indoor and outdoor gatherings.
In the summer, Republicans in the General Assembly passed a bill with the support of a small number of Democrats to terminate the coronavirus emergency declaration — a bill Wolf eventually vetoed.
Also last summer, Wolf issued another emergency declaration as protests that sometimes devolved into riots and looting swept through Philadelphia and Pittsburgh in reaction to the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis, Minn.
Soon after, one Republican lawmaker expressed alarm about the number of declarations, instead of objecting to only their length.
“We have the COVID emergency declaration,” then-Representative Steve Barrar (R-Chester/Delaware) told Delaware Valley Journal in June. “We’re still under the opioid emergency declaration which has been in effect for 30 months now.”
“I think all of these emergency declarations have to be somewhat of a concern because they do give the governor extremely broad powers, and here we are now going to be under another emergency declaration.”
Charles Mitchell, president and CEO of the free-market think tank the Commonwealth Foundation, made the case for the constitutional amendment in a recent editorial.
“Such a concentration of power in one branch of government — indeed, in one person — flies in the face of America’s constitutional system of government,” Mitchell wrote. “Amid worsening economic conditions, some of which are the result of the governor’s actions, it’s time to rethink the scope of emergency powers for him and all future executives.”