Disaster Powers Limited By Amendments On May Ballot
By Leo Knepper
Last week the House and Senate each passed versions of a joint resolution to amend the Pennsylvania constitution. The House is expected to pass the Senate version this week and that will be a first step toward taking back PA. The proposed amendments aim to ensure that Governor Wolf and future Governors cannot abuse emergency declarations and govern unilaterally. To understand the importance of the proposed amendments, we should look at the current law and what transpired during the COVID-19 shutdown.
According to the PA Emergency Services Management Code, the Governor can declare a disaster emergency. That declaration can last up to 90 days. If, after 90 days, the disaster still exists, the Governor can renew the declaration as often as s/he sees fit until the disaster is over. There is a provision in the law indicating that the General Assembly can end the declaration via a concurrent resolution, and the Governor “shall” terminate the declaration; here is where things broke down.
In June, the General Assembly passed the concurrent resolution to end the disaster declaration. Governor Wolf argued, and the Supreme Court agreed, that the Governor could veto the resolution and keep the disaster declaration in place. That decision dramatically shifted the balance of power in favor of the Governor. The amendments under consideration correct that imbalance.
If adopted, the amendments would do two things. First, the disaster declarations would be limited to 21 days and require the General Assembly’s approval if the Governor wants to extend it. The second proposed change would clarify that the Governor cannot veto resolutions ending a disaster declaration.
Voters will decide in May whether or not to adopt the constitutional amendments. It shouldn’t come as any surprise that the Governor and most Democrats are opposed to these changes. Governor Wolf and his allies will likely spend millions of dollars in the lead up to May’s vote to defeat the proposals.
We have an opportunity to ensure that no future Governor can indefinitely shut down the economy again.