A Column by Senator Dan Laughlin
Up until last year, our state government operated under guidelines set by the state Constitution, which established three separate, co-equal branches – executive, legislative and judicial – and a checks and balance system.
That all changed in March 2020 with the COVID-19 pandemic and Governor Wolf’s disaster declaration. The COVID-19 pandemic created challenges that clearly required the cooperation of all branches of government. Yet the disaster declaration gave the Governor nearly absolute power to take any action he has deemed necessary over the past year. And this has continued regardless of the opinion of lawmakers or the general public.
As a result, an extraordinary number of employers have faced shutdowns and restrictions that go far beyond the recommendations of national health experts and displaced workers were thrust into an unemployment system that could not handle the volume of new claims. Additionally, the initial rollout of the vaccine was badly botched, the needs of long-term care residents have been routinely ignored and our schools have been closed for far too long.
Lawmakers recently approved proposed amendments to the Pennsylvania Constitution that would provide a stronger system of checks and balances in how state government responds to emergencies to avoid these kinds of negative consequences. The measures would give voters the final say on whether the governor is permitted to keep an emergency declaration in place for an indefinite period of time, or whether lawmakers should have the power to limit future emergency declarations if the governor abuses his power or deeply infringes on the rights of citizens.
The intent of these amendments is not to further divide state government; the goal is to require the governor to work collaboratively with lawmakers to avoid the kind of negative consequences we have seen during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In reality, nothing in the bill would prevent the governor and state agencies from responding to any emergency situation. Any governor could declare a state of emergency to respond in the days following any sort of catastrophe; however, the amendment would ensure these powers would not be open-ended.
The fact is that these questions are worded badly. Let me explain in plain English what the two questions entail.
Under ballot question #1, a disaster emergency declaration could be terminated or extended by Legislative approval of a concurrent resolution, which does not need to be presented to the Governor for his signature. A YES vote means a majority of state lawmakers, elected by the people, can vote to end emergency declarations and restrictions on citizens. A NO vote means a Governor retains the unrestricted power to continue emergency restrictions indefinitely — even if a legislative majority votes to end them.
Ballot question #2 would limit disaster declarations to no more than 21 days unless approved by the General Assembly. A YES vote means emergency declarations would be limited to 21 days unless the General Assembly, elected by the people, approves a longer duration. A NO vote means a Governor can unilaterally extend declarations, including “emergency” provisions, business closures, and restrictions indefinitely.
That’s it. There is nothing nefarious here. These amendments are not about partisanship. They are focused entirely on ensuring that Pennsylvania avoids the negative consequences of one person making all the decisions during an emergency. They would apply to any Governor in the future no matter what political party.
YES votes on these amendments will result in a more collaborative approach to protect lives and livelihoods and prevent our great Commonwealth from ever having to again endure the same kind of mismanagement and consequences that resulted from unilateral rule during the pandemic.
NO votes retain the current system under which the Governor holds unrestricted control over the state.
On May 18, the choice is yours.
Contact: Matt Azeles firstname.lastname@example.org