March 6th, 2020 marked the date Governor Tom Wolf signed his first proclamation of disaster emergency in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. At the time, the 90-day window which extended through June 2020 seemed like an eternity. Nearly one year later, on February 19th 2021, he extended the order for a 4th time. The good news is that just a few weeks beforehand, the Pennsylvania General Assembly voted to place two questions on the May 2021 primary ballot that would limit emergency declarations to 21 days and reassert the legislature into the conversation for extended time beyond that 3-week window. For a constitutional amendment, which is what, if approved by the voters, the ballot questions would provide for, legislation must pass both chambers in the same form in two consecutive legislative sessions. Through 2019-2020 legislative session’s SB1166 and this 2021-2022 legislative session’s SB2/HB55, the General Assembly has done the work to provide us, the voters, a final say in restoring balance to how emergencies are managed in Pennsylvania by making certain that we the people, through their representatives, have a voice in the length of a declared emergency.
Naturally, the Governor and his administration opposes the amendments. His Department of State and the Attorney General have produced ballot language that includes
charged wording of the questions, leading to the potential of voters thinking that the General Assembly will reflexively terminate disaster declarations once they expire, regardless of the facts of a given situation. Nothing could be further from the legislature’s intent.
Instead, the proposed amendments recognize that while the decision to impose emergency declarations and the direction of state government’s response must rest with an executive official (in this case, the governor) who is held accountable by the electorate, members of the General Assembly, as the most direct representatives of the people of Pennsylvania, must have the responsibility to oversee and participate in a governor’s response to an emergency. To date, such attempts to participate in the COVID-19 response by members of the General Assembly and their constituents have largely been rebuffed or ignored entirely by Gov. Wolf and his administration, with devastating consequences for Pennsylvania’s families and small businesses.
The two proposed constitutional amendments are intended to accomplish this goal by:
- Limiting the duration of any emergency declared by the governor to 21 days unless expressly extended by the General Assembly; and
- Preventing any substantially similar emergency from being declared once the first declaration expires unless expressly authorized by the General Assembly.
The above provisions help to uphold the principle that the exercise of governmental authority in an emergency must be properly constrained, so that the rights and privileges of individuals and private groups are not arbitrarily or unduly infringed. Therefore, appropriate checks on a governor’s ability to impose and extend emergency declarations must be added to the Pennsylvania Constitution to guard against the risks associated with investing a single individual with the power to act under “emergency” conditions—risks that have manifested themselves during Gov. Wolf’s COVID-19 emergency declaration in the form of small businesses destroyed, jobs and livelihoods lost, children’s educational and emotional development disrupted, amongst many other costs.
Americans for Prosperity-Pennsylvania intends to educate Pennsylvania voters about the true intent and effect of the two proposed constitutional amendments, and why a “yes” vote on both makes sense for the future of the Commonwealth. We ask you to visit americansforprosperity.ivolunteers.com and sign the petition entitled “Vote ‘YES’ to Restore checks and Balances in Pennsylvania.” Once you sign, you can share that you’ve taken action on your social media channels and encourage others to act with similar urgency. We look forward to seeing each of you at the polls on Primary Day, May 18th, so we the people can have the final say over our lives and livelihoods!
Ashley Sisca Klingensmith | State Director | Americans for Prosperity – PA