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From the archives 2021

Newly empowered, Pa. GOP lawmakers move to end parts of Wolf’s coronavirus disaster order

by Sarah Anne Hughes of Spotlight PA |

Gov. Tom Wolf said some of the provisions targeted by GOP lawmakers are outside the scope of the disaster declaration. That includes the power to close businesses and to set maximum occupancy limits.
JOSE F. MORENO / Philadelphia Inquirer

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HARRISBURG — After scoring a victory at the ballot box, Republicans in the Pennsylvania legislature are moving to end parts of Gov. Tom Wolf’s coronavirus disaster declaration.

A state House committee voted 15-10 on Tuesday to terminate sections of the emergency order which waive certain regulations and allow agencies to avoid the traditional procurement process.

GOP lawmakers said the resolution would also prevent Wolf from using the declaration to close businesses or impose occupancy limits because of COVID-19, though the administration has repeatedly said its power to order such mitigation measures is separate from the proclamation.

Wolf in a statement called the vote “a discouraging development” following a “productive meeting with the legislature” after the May 18 primary. Just over 53% of voters during that election backed curtailing the governor’s emergency powers in what was widely seen as a referendum on the administration’s pandemic response. Unofficial election results show 2.2 million people voted on the questions, representing roughly a quarter of registered voters.

The two approved constitutional amendments allow a simple majority of lawmakers to terminate a disaster declaration at any time without the governor’s consent, limit the length to 21 days, and transfer power to extend an emergency order from the executive to the legislature.

“The people of Pennsylvania spoke loud and clear in the May 18 election to empower the General Assembly and provide checks and balances within emergency declaration provisions,” Rep. Seth Grove (R. York), chair of the State Government Committee, said Tuesday. “This resolution … would, in part, remove the draconian policies imposed on Pennsylvanians over the past year. What’s left is basically federal funding and ensuring that we are able to continue some of the regulatory suspensions that have occurred.”

Wolf noted the legislature is taking action before the Department of State has certified the election results, meaning the Pennsylvania Constitution has yet to be amended. Democratic lawmakers unsuccessfully attempted to table voting on the resolution Tuesday for that reason.

The Democratic governor also said some of the provisions targeted by GOP lawmakers are outside the scope of the disaster declaration. That includes the power to close businesses and to set maximum occupancy limits.

Perhaps no decisions by the Wolf administration were as reviled in the GOP-controlled legislature as the ones to temporarily close businesses deemed nonessential and stagger the economy’s reopening to slow the spread of COVID-19. Preventing a similar situation in the future became a selling point as they urged voters to approve the amendments.

The administration gradually allowed businesses to reopen last year, and the last mitigation measures — including one limiting capacity at restaurants, bars, and theaters — will be lifted on Memorial Day.

Other provisions the resolution would terminate are also coming to an end.

The measure would compel the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry to once again institute work-search requirements for people seeking jobless benefits. The agency said this week it will do so in mid-July.

Should the resolution pass both the House and Senate, the disaster declaration would be extended through Oct. 1.

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