Wolf's COVID response behind ballot questions

Gov. Tom Wolf answers questions after a tour of the COVID-19 vaccination clinic on April 28 inside the Bayfront Convention Center in Erie. 

Gov. Tom Wolf isn’t running for re-election, but voters will have an opportunity to chime in on his job performance in the May 18 primary, nonetheless.

Two of four ballot questions put in front of voters could limit a governor’s emergency powers in the commonwealth.

“This is a referendum on the governor,” said Carol Kuniholm, vice president of the League of Women Voters in Pennsylvania.

The first ballot question asks voters whether the General Assembly should have the power, through a simple majority vote, of ending a governor’s emergency declaration. Those who vote “yes” on the questions would be in favor of limiting the governor’s emergency powers.

The second ballot question asks voters whether emergency declarations should only last 21 days without approval of the General Assembly to extend them. Current law allows the governor to declare emergencies for periods of 90 days and there is no limit on how often he can renew the declaration. Wolf has renewed his emergency declaration for the COVID pandemic four times and he’s renewed his emergency declaration to respond to the opioid epidemic — which he first declared an emergency in January 2017 — 13 times.

The third ballot question would add language to the state Constitution barring discrimination based on race or ethnicity.

The fourth ballot question asks voters whether fire departments with paid staff should be allowed to access a loan program created for volunteer fire departments.

Monday is the last day to register to vote and May 11 is the last day to apply to get a mail-in ballot. While the election is a primary, all registered voters are allowed to vote on the ballot questions, whether they belong to a political party or not.

The ballot questions targeting Wolf’s emergency powers were inspired by the failed attempt by the General Assembly last summer to end the governor’s emergency declaration by passing a resolution. Lawmakers argued that resolutions didn’t require the governor’s signature so he couldn’t veto them, but after Wolf ignored them, they went to court and lost. In a 4-3 decision, the state Supreme Court ruled in July of 2020 that Wolf had the right to veto the resolution.

Lawmakers also repeatedly tried to pass laws that would have rolled back some of the mitigation efforts, such as those limiting crowd sizes and business occupancy limits, only to have the governor veto the bills.

Constitutional amendments aren’t subject to veto by the governor so if the voters approve the ballot questions, so emergency powers of the state’s governors would automatically be curtailed despite Wolf’s opposition.

The League of Women Voters declined to weigh in on how voters should vote on the ballot questions limiting the governor’s power during emergencies, Kuniholm said.

Instead, the League generated a list of “pros” and “cons” to for voters to consider when they are trying to decide, she said.

In the effort to limit Wolf’s emergency powers, the “pros” include: Involving lawmakers would ensure that elected officials from all parts of the state have an opportunity to help decide whether an emergency declaration is needed.

The “cons” included: Potentially creating logistical hurdles in having to convene the Legislature during an emergency; and limiting the power of the governor who is elected by voters statewide.

The Wolf Administration has repeatedly asserted over the last weeks that the emergency declaration provides the flexibility needed to respond to the pandemic more than a year after it first swept across the state.

“The ability for the administration to act quickly and pull resources together, through emergency powers, allowed any Pennsylvanian in need of food to simply show up at a food bank or say they need help, with no proof of eligibility, and receive food for themselves and their family,” Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding said Wednesday. “Recovery takes time and Pennsylvanians deserve to rest easy knowing their government has their back.”

A week earlier, Randy Padfield, director of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, warned that limiting the governor’s emergency powers could “drastically impact the ability to effectively respond to and recover from disasters.”

Padfield said while the focus is now on the COVID pandemic, the move to limit the governor’s powers could be significant if the state needed to respond quickly to other types of emergencies.

“We are not immune to human-caused and other types of disasters and emergencies, such as animal disease outbreaks, severe drought, nuclear power plant accidents, train derailment,s hazardous materials incidents and the threat from both domestic and foreign terrorism,” Padfield said.

“Disasters are becoming increasingly complex and no two disasters are the same nor do they require the same solutions,” he said. Even incidents that may only last a few days may have “long and complex recovery periods,” Padfield said.

Republican lawmakers say if the amendment is approved, they would use their increased power to negotiate with Wolf as he seeks to manage the state’s response to the pandemic.

“This amendment does not, let me repeat, does not ultimately end the state of emergency. It gives us a voice. It lets us sit and work with the governor on issues related to this emergency,” said Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland County.

Senate President Pro Tem Jake Corman, R-Centre County, said the legislative task force created by Wolf is an example of how lawmakers and the Wolf Administration have been able to work together to tackle problems related to the COVID pandemic.

Lawmakers have been frustrated that such collaboration hasn’t happened more often, he said.

“Since March of last year when the governor declared an emergency in Pennsylvania, we’ve seen one individual in unilateral control,” Corman said. “When we could go to school. When we couldn’t go to school. Who could go to work. Who couldn’t go to work. Who could receive health care. Who couldn’t receive health care. All of these decisions were being made in one place, the chief executive of this commonwealth,” he said.

Other states

Ward said the same standoff between lawmakers and governors is playing out in state capitols across the country.

“We’re not the only state doing this,” she said. “It all comes back to a balance of power.”

Lawmakers in 45 states have proposed more than 300 measures this year related to legislative oversight of executive actions during the COVID-19 pandemic or other emergencies, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In Ohio, Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, vetoed legislation that limits the governor’s power during emergencies, but lawmakers in that state overrode his veto. Senate Bill 22 limits emergencies to 90 days unless the Legislature extends it.

In New York, where Democrats hold majorities in the Legislature and Gov. Andrew Cuomo is a Democrat, lawmakers passed legislation in March limiting Cuomo’s emergency powers.

John Finnerty reports from the Harrisburg Bureau for the New Castle News and other Pennsylvania newspapers owned by CNHI. Email him at jfinnerty@cnhi.com and follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.

 

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CNHI PA State Reporter

John Finnerty reports from the Harrisburg Bureau for the New Castle News and other Pennsylvania newspapers owned by CNHI. Email him at jfinnerty@cnhi.com and follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.

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