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Two of the four ballot questions in Pennsylvania’s 2021 primary election propose changes to the governor’s disaster declaration powers.
The unilateral power sits at the heart of a political dispute in Harrisburg over Gov. Tom Wolf’s COVID-19 response. Critical of Wolf’s pandemic mandates, the Republican-controlled legislature wants to reign in the governor’s ability to unilaterally declare emergencies, and make it harder to extend those that do happen.
Now, the issue is in voters’ hands.
What you’ll see on the ballot
Shall the Pennsylvania Constitution be amended to change existing law and increase the power of the General Assembly to unilaterally terminate or extend a disaster emergency declaration — and the powers of Commonwealth agencies to address the disaster regardless of its severity pursuant to that declaration — through passing a concurrent resolution by simple majority, thereby removing the existing check and balance of presenting a resolution to the Governor for approval or disapproval?
Shall the Pennsylvania Constitution be amended to change existing law so that: a disaster emergency declaration will expire automatically after 21 days, regardless of the severity of the emergency, unless the General Assembly takes action to extend the disaster emergency; the Governor may not declare a new disaster emergency to respond to the dangers facing the Commonwealth unless the General Assembly passes a concurrent resolution; the General Assembly enacts new laws for disaster management?
What it means
If passed, this first proposed constitutional amendment would allow a majority of lawmakers in the General Assembly to end a disaster declaration at any time — without the governor’s consent.
As it stands, state law gives the governor sole authority to terminate a disaster declaration. In the current situation, Wolf first activated emergency status on March 6, 2020, when COVID cases first appeared in Pennsylvania, and the declaration remains in place more than a year later.
Disaster declarations are more than just words. They greatly expand the governor’s powers to do things like suspend regulations, control travel and order business closures — in the name of emergency response.
Read about the other May 18 ballot questions:
- Should Pennsylvania amend its constitution to prohibit discrimination based on race and ethnicity?
- Should Pennsylvania fire departments and EMS companies be able to apply for loans?
- Should Philadelphia expand the board that hears appeals on property violations and firearm permits?
The second question would amend the constitution to have disaster declarations automatically expire after three weeks, when they’d then need the legislature’s OK before being extended.
Pa. disaster declarations currently last 90 days by default, and the governor can renew them as many times as needed without approval. Wolf signed his fourth such renewal for the pandemic order in February.
If passed, the measure would also prevent the governor from issuing a new disaster declaration based on the same or similar facts as a previous declaration.
House and Senate Republicans accuse Wolf of executive overreach, arguing he infringed on individual rights and crippled businesses with school closures, indoor dining limits and mask wearing mandates. Wolf counters that the emergency declaration allows him to keep Pennsylvanians safe and protect the most vulnerable — for example, by suspending evictions.
GOP lawmakers pushed to get these constitutional amendment questions on the ballot after exhausting other legal avenues.
In a victory for Wolf, the Pa. Supreme Court ruled that the GOP-controlled legislature can’t force the governor’s hand to end his own declaration. The General Assembly can pass a resolution to terminate the declaration, as it tried to last year, but the governor maintains veto power. A two-thirds majority vote is needed to override the veto — and Republicans couldn’t muster the supermajority during their attempt last year.
Who’s for it (and against it)
- Most Republicans in the Pa. House and Senate
- Conservative political groups like Americans for Prosperity
- Gov. Tom Wolf
- Most Democrats in the Pa. House and Senate
- Turn PA Blue, a grassroots Democratic political group