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HARRISBURG — This spring, Pennsylvania voters will be asked to weigh in on one of the most contentious battles between Gov. Tom Wolf and the GOP-controlled legislature.
The state House on Friday gave final approval to a proposed constitutional amendment that would give state lawmakers the power to unilaterally end disaster declarations. Currently, such a decision belongs to the governor.
Having already passed the state Senate, the proposal will now appear on primary ballots statewide in May.
“There is no doubt the way our government in Pennsylvania is functioning right now has created a backslide of our representative Republic,” Sen. Kim Ward (R., Westmoreland), the measure’s sponsor, said in July. “From at-home orders, to school closings and business shutdowns, all of these decisions have been made unilaterally without legislative input.”
Here’s what you need to know about the measure, as well as the arguments for and against it:
What is a disaster declaration?
A disaster declaration is an executive order issued by a governor who believes a “threat of a disaster is imminent,” per state law. An initial order can last up to 90 days and can be renewed by the governor until the emergency or danger subsides.
During his time in office, Wolf has signed several disaster declarations, including one in response to the opioid epidemic, which has been renewed 12 times.
Since last March, Wolf has renewed the COVID-19 emergency order three times, most recently in November. “With cases and hospitalizations increasing, we cannot afford to let down our guard,” Wolf said in a statement at the time.
Who can end a disaster declaration?
This was a contentious question in 2020 and fueled support for the amendment.
A governor can end a disaster declaration at any time. And according to state law, it can also be lifted if the General Assembly passes a concurrent resolution.
Republicans pointed to that passage when GOP lawmakers in the House and Senate, with support from a handful of Democrats, voted to force Wolf to end the state’s coronavirus disaster declaration in June. Wolf, in turn, said such a resolution required his approval.
The state Supreme Court sided with the governor, and Wolf formally vetoed the effort.
Under the proposed amendment, the legislature would be able to end a disaster declaration, or a portion of it, at any time through a concurrent resolution without the governor’s input. A governor would also have to seek approval from the General Assembly to extend any declaration past 21 days.
The measure also bans a governor from signing a new disaster declaration that is “based upon the same or substantially similar facts.”
What can a governor do during a disaster declaration?
Pennsylvania law tasks a governor with “meeting the dangers” to the state. Accordingly, a governor can issue a disaster declaration and is then empowered to limit travel, mobilize the National Guard, order evacuations, and commandeer private property.
A governor can also suspend any regulations that could “delay necessary action in coping with the emergency,” which Wolf has used to suspend certain training and licensure renewal requirements for workers in health and child care.
During an emergency, a governor can also suspend the sale of guns, a power that Republicans in the General Assembly unsuccessfully tried to curb via legislation. A governor can also halt the sale of alcohol.
A disaster declaration can also be beneficial to local and county governments, as well as state agencies and nonprofits.
If the U.S. president approves a governor’s disaster order, counties and nonprofits can apply for federal disaster loans which can be forgiven if revenues are weak in the years following the disaster.
Some procurement requirements are waived during a state of emergency, which means school districts, universities, and state and local agencies can quickly buy supplies or hire staff, said Randy Padfield, director of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency.
“We have the ability to be able to do things in a very condensed manner, because obviously people’s lives hang in the balance,” Padfield said. “That gave us the ability throughout COVID-19 to be able to procure specific contracts for support of long-term care facilities, and staffing, and those types of things.”
What would ending a disaster declaration actually do?
Wolf administration officials said that even if the legislature was able to end the disaster declaration today, doing so would not fully reopen the economy or give lawmakers a say in public health orders like those requiring people to stay home or wear masks.
That’s because Pennsylvania’s health secretary is granted wide powers “to safeguard human life and health throughout the commonwealth” under state statutes including a 1955 disease control law. In effect, the secretary can “order general control measures, including, but not limited to, closure, isolation, and quarantine,” the health department wrote in November.
Instead, administration officials said, it would prevent the state from accessing certain federal programs, suspending training requirements for health-care workers, and even paying the National Guard, whose members have helped the state’s nursing homes manage COVID-19.
The Wolf administration in June also said ending the disaster declaration would terminate waivers on school meal eligibility, eligibility requirements for unemployment compensation, and weight limitations for commercial truckers moving food, dairy, and medicines “to assist in supply chain challenges.”
“The state could also lose federal public and individual disaster assistance, and any additional state funding sources available through transfer of unused General Fund dollars,” Wolf said at the time.
This week, Padfield, the PEMA director, said he is concerned about what such a change would mean for future disasters contained to the state and not a once-in-one-hundred-year event like COVID-19.
“My concern is that, you know, we’re kind of in uncharted territory,” he said.
Republican leadership did not respond to several requests for comment to explain what they believe ending a disaster declaration would or would not allow them to do. In public, they’ve argued they need this power to serve as a check on the executive and because their constituents want businesses, schools, and restaurants to reopen.
Speaking to reporters Friday, House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff (R., Centre) said “our goal is that the legislature be actively involved” in the process.
“That’s all we’re asking for: That after 21 days the General Assembly, who, through the constitution gives authority to the governor’s office, would have a seat at the table in these discussions,” he said.
Rep. Seth Grove (R., York) added that, while the health secretary does have “some discretion” over business closures, the constitutional amendment would provide “another tool that we can go and say, ‘Is this the right path moving forward?’”
Rep. Frank Ryan (R., Lebanon), a supporter of the amendment, previously told Spotlight PA it “gives the ultimate constitutional authority back to the voters.” It also provides the legislature with greater decision-making control and “the power of the purse string.”
“That can have an impact on the actions of the State Police, the Department of Agriculture, and others that might decide to continue with measures that may or may not make sense,” Ryan said. Both of the agencies he referenced are tasked with investigating businesses that don’t comply with the administration’s’ COVID-19 mandates.
The amendment was supported by just four Democrats in the House and one in the Senate. Many members of the party believe it’s a politically motivated power grab aimed at taking authority away from a Democratic governor.
“This is the legislature cutting off its nose to spite its face because of the person who currently occupies the governor’s mansion,” House Whip Jordan Harris (D., Philadelphia) said.
Rep. Dan Frankel (D., Allegheny) echoed concerns from the Department of Health that the state will have less flexibility to quickly respond to the pandemic.
“Without the order, pharmacists won’t be able to administer the COVID-19 vaccine,” Frankel said. “Medical professionals from other states will be blocked from crossing into Pennsylvania to address care shortages. Trained health-care practitioners and technicians, serving in the U.S. Armed Forces would be unable to assist in the COVID-19 response efforts.”
“The bottom line is that our health-care system is in danger of being maxed out,” he continued, “and we simply will not have enough doctors, nurses, medical professionals or even facilities to take care of our residents, without the emergency order.”
Angela Couloumbis of Spotlight PA contributed reporting.