Two questions on Pennsylvania’s May 18 ballot tackle one of our state’s big political tussles of the past year: the battle between Gov. Tom Wolf handling the pandemic through emergency disaster declarations and our legislature resisting such declarations as unilateral. Under current Pennsylvania law, only our governor can end a disaster declaration like the one imposed to confront COVID-19. While the General Assembly can pass a resolution to terminate the declaration, the state Supreme Court ruled last year that the governor gets final say.
Ballot questions 1 and 2 — among four total questions voters will decide on — would change that system. One would allow a majority of lawmakers to end a disaster declaration anytime without the governor’s approval, while the other would limit disaster declarations to 21 days instead of the current 90 days, and require the legislature’s consent to renew instead of being renewable as many times as the governor wants. The Inquirer asked the vice president of the Commonwealth Foundation think tank and the director of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency: Should voters say yes to ballot questions 1 and 2?
Yes: The governor’s excessive powers have not helped the commonwealth.
By Nathan Benefield
Since last spring, many governors have used the pandemic to assume emergency powers, giving them wide-ranging authority to, among other things, shut down businesses, close schools, and enforce stay-at-home orders.
Unfortunately, many abused this authority, wielding unilateral powers while dismissing the checks and balances of state government. But state legislatures are moving against governors’ arbitrary decision-making. The pushback, dating to last summer, has gathered momentum as lockdowns subsided. Just this year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 45 states have proposed more than 300 measures to limit governors’ executive authority.
In Arkansas and Utah, for example, Republican governors — welcoming legislation that limits their executive power — recently signed bills to restore legislative oversight. In Kentucky and Ohio, state legislators overrode their governors’ vetoes of similar legislation. A similar proposal is advancing in Indiana, while in Kansas, lawmakers voted to end existing emergency orders while providing legislative oversight of new ones. All six states have legislatures with Republican majorities. But even in deep-blue New York, Democrats struck a deal to limit the powers of its embattled Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo. Limiting governors’ unchecked power isn’t a partisan fight; it’s about good governance.
In Pennsylvania, lawmakers have pursued a yearlong effort to restore checks and balances. Last summer, in addition to favoring numerous bills to reopen the economy, the Republican-led legislature voted — with support from some Democrats — to end Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s emergency declaration. The state Supreme Court, however, ruled that the governor could veto this resolution, and he did.
» READ MORE: Your guide to Pa.’s 2021 primary ballot questions
Wolf’s emergency declaration has been renewed four times and passed the one-year mark last month. Yet, the governor’s extraordinary powers did not make the Keystone State’s pandemic response more efficient. As of this month, Pennsylvania ranked among the top 15 states for strictness of COVID-19 restrictions, per WalletHub. The commonwealth fared worse before the legislature’s pushback forced Wolf to change course somewhat. Many states ordered business closures, and most governors applied similar metrics for making these determinations. But Wolf created his own standard for defining “life-sustaining” businesses, then enacted a selective, opaque waiver process so that his administration alone had the power to determine whether a business could remain open.
Wolf was especially tough on restaurants, though his office’s own data did not show dining establishments to be a major source of spreading COVID-19. Yet, he proceeded with ever-changing capacity limits and various restrictions, such as no drinking alcohol without ordering a meal.
“Amending the state constitution to require collaboration between the two branches is the only remaining option.”
As a result, Pennsylvania ranked second in the nation in most jobs lost due to government action, as well as second in most businesses forced to close — behind only Michigan in both — according to U.S. Census data. As of February, Pennsylvania’s unemployment rate stood at 7.3%, among the highest in the United States, and has continued to lag behind in job recovery.
Last summer, Wolf blasted the governors of Florida and Texas for being less restrictive, yet Pennsylvania has more deaths per capita than Florida or Texas — about 26% more than Florida and 17% more than Texas. And Pennsylvania — like neighboring New York and New Jersey — has seen new case counts exceed those of Florida and Texas, even while maintaining tougher restrictions.
As lawmakers pushed back, Wolf vetoed no fewer than 19 bills since last year. The governor has essentially sidelined the legislative branch. Amending the state constitution to require collaboration between the two branches is the only remaining option. It’s a nonpartisan precept that when facing a crisis like COVID-19, the executive branch should work with the legislature.
Nathan Benefield is vice president and chief operating officer of the Commonwealth Foundation, Pennsylvania’s free-market think tank. He first wrote this piece for RealClearPolitics.
No: The governor needs a route to act fast and get federal support.
By D. Randy Padfield
Disaster emergency declarations are necessary to protect public safety, save lives, and help Pennsylvanians rebuild after a disaster ends.
In the upcoming primary election, ballot questions 1 and 2 will allow Pennsylvanians to choose whether the commonwealth should continue with its existing disaster declaration process or create a new one.
Under Pennsylvania law, the governor is responsible for lessening the dangers disasters pose to the commonwealth. By declaring a disaster emergency that has the force of law, the governor and Pennsylvania agencies — including the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency — can respond quickly.
Even with advance notice of weather events, otherwise routine summer storms can cause flooding that devastates communities for months or years. Chemical spills, industrial accidents, and nuclear incidents can bring both short- and long-term dangers. Pandemics can overwhelm health-care systems, endanger entire communities, and kill thousands.
Despite our best efforts to build safely, plan carefully, and prepare for the unexpected, the only thing we know for certain is that the further away we are from our last disaster, the closer we are to the next one. What we can’t know is exactly where, when, and how Pennsylvanians will be endangered next — and that’s why disaster emergency declarations are so vital.
After a declaration from the governor, state and local resources can be redirected to help people. This includes prepositioning supplies and personnel before a disaster strikes, providing resources and personnel to assist in evacuations, establishing shelters, and distributing life-sustaining supplies.
Perhaps most importantly, it activates the state emergency response plan — a requirement to request assistance and possible reimbursement from the federal government when the incident is beyond the capabilities of the commonwealth and affected local governments.
Under such a declaration, the governor can waive statutes and regulations to speed disaster response actions to save lives and protect property — things like waiving weight restrictions for vehicles transporting equipment and supplies into the state for disaster response, or suspending tolls for emergency vehicles traveling through the state.
“A disaster emergency declaration allows the state to shift funds to make sure rescue and recovery efforts are uninterrupted.”
In response to COVID-19, Gov. Tom Wolf reduced licensing requirements to lower barriers that might prevent out-of-state and retired health-care workers from providing care to patients, expanded the allowable use of telehealth, and authorized pharmacists and other medical workers to give vaccines. If these changes were attempted outside of the disaster emergency, they would have required regulatory or legislative change that likely would have taken months.
When it comes to boots-on-the-ground response, a disaster emergency declaration is crucial. Without it, the governor cannot transfer unused but otherwise appropriated funds for emergency response activities. Up to $20 million annually is used to pay for critical rescue and recovery efforts, like rapid deployment of the Pennsylvania National Guard.
In some disasters, only 75% of eligible expenses will be reimbursed by the federal government. The money for that initial response — including paying for National Guard deployment — needs to come from somewhere. A disaster emergency declaration allows the state to shift funds to make sure rescue and recovery efforts are uninterrupted.
If the declaration is ended prematurely, all of this goes away. Sharing resources between state agencies, paying the Pennsylvania National Guard for assistance, asking for help and reimbursement from the federal government, expediting resources to help — none of it happens without declaring a disaster emergency at the state level.
Pennsylvanians deserve better than uncertainty and fear after disaster. They deserve an emergency response plan to keep them as safe as possible and support them throughout recovery. The flexible disaster emergency declarations currently provided by Pennsylvania law are crucial for that plan.
D. Randy Padfield is the director of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency.