Less than a month after voters passed two ballot questions limiting the governor’s power, Republicans in Harrisburg have begun to act. On Tueday night, the House has approved House Resolution 106, which will terminate Gov. Tom Wolf’s March 6, 2020, COVID-19 emergency disaster declaration.
The resolution will now be considered by the Senate.
“When the voters approved these constitutional amendments just a few short weeks ago, their message was loud and clear: It is time to end the governor’s emergency powers. We could not agree more,” Speaker of the House Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster) and House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff (R-Centre/Mifflin) said in a statement.
“The emergency is over. Our hospitals are not overrun, successful vaccines are available and abundant, our schools are prepared to teach in person and Pennsylvanians are back to work. The time is now to end the declaration.”
According to “plain English statements” from the office of the state attorney general, the General Assembly is now allowed to terminate or extend a disaster emergency declaration, or a portion of a declaration, by majority vote without having to present it to the governor for approval or veto.
That overrides a ruling by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court stating the commonwealth’s constitution prohibits the General Assembly from passing a concurrent resolution to terminate Wolf’s COVID-19 emergency declaration without presenting it to the governor for approval.
In addition, gubernatorial disaster emergency declarations will last 21 days instead of 90, unless authorized by the General Assembly. The governor can’t declare a new disaster emergency unless the General Assembly passes a concurrent resolution.
According to Sen. Bob Mensch (R-Berks/Bucks/Montgomery), Wolf told Republican legislators late in the afternoon on Election Day “that he was going to renew the declaration with the hope and expectation that it would not last more than 21 days. And at that 21st day, we would already have the appropriate protocols, and the legislature and he would work together going forward.”
Mensch said he was most disappointed by pandemic-related operation guidelines for nursing homes across the state, as well as the negative impact on the Keystone State’s economy from the emergency declaration’s restrictions. He thought Wolf was getting bad advice from former state secretary of health, and current U.S. Assistant Secretary of Health Rachel Levine.
“I thought he was taking away people’s rights. We decimated the dining industry. You could sit at a table a foot from the bar, but you couldn’t sit at the bar. You needed a mask to walk to your table, but as soon as you sat at a table you could take your mask off. What? COVID doesn’t sit? It was so ludicrous. It was absurd. It was more about control, I thought, than it was about common sense,” Mensch said.
The constitutional amendments are about “being an equal partner to the governor,” he said. “This isn’t chastising the governor. This isn’t trying to eliminate his authority.”
Rep. Frank Farry (R-Bucks), who has firsthand experience with emergencies as chief of the Langhorne-Middletown Fire Company, said that between mandated business shutdowns, the waiver process to get around those shutdowns, management of unemployment benefits and vaccine distribution, the governor’s handling of the COVID-19 emergency had “a lot of room for improvement.”
Farry expressed frustration with what he described as arbitrary continuity of closures and assignments of what businesses are considered “essential,” particularly their impact on Delaware Valley small businesses and the construction industry.
“You’re best served when you take a variety of input and come up with the best solution … that’s not what happened. On Election Day, well over a million voters … had the same opinion,” he said.
In the immediate aftermath of the ballot vote, Farry said there were reasons the disaster emergency shouldn’t be declared over right away.
“We’re trying to sort out what federal dollars are tied to an emergency declaration … because obviously, we don’t want to miss the federal dollars. There are retired doctors and nurses that … (are) operating under emergency licenses providing care to the folks in our community. And if we end the disaster (declaration) today, they … won’t be able to do that,” he said at the time.
Rep. Todd Polinchock (R-Bucks) agreed the declaration shouldn’t be voted away too abruptly. “There’s a lot that has to be thought out before we just shut it down completely,” he said.
In the remaining time legally left in the declaration, Farry said the General Assembly is “figuring out what we can do to continue operating under a limited disaster declaration” that also allows businesses to safely and fully open up.
Polinchock has introduced House Resolution 88. “That’s to look at all the waivers that have been done through the COVID pandemic and see which ones we can keep extending. For example, some licensees, maybe we don’t need to renew them every two years. They can renew them every four years and save money that way,” he said.
A condition of the new amendments is the General Assembly is required to pass new laws establishing how each type of disaster will be managed in the future.
Now that the House has passed Resolution 106, Republicans say, it’s time to move forward.
“Make no mistake: The governor’s ability to exercise unilateral rule over the commonwealth under the existing emergency disaster declarations will finally be coming to an end. Certain regulations that have proved to benefit Pennsylvania may need to be further suspended or waived and we will run legislation to address them as part of the budget process. We have listened to the voters and are turning their vote into action,” Cutler and Benninghoff said.