Pennsylvania GOP pushes amendment to limit governor’s disaster powers

HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) — The power struggle continues between the state legislature and Governor Tom Wolf as lawmakers moved ahead with a constitutional amendment Tuesday that would limit gubernatorial power during an emergency declaration.

There was a pandemic that hit the state in March and a disaster declaration that quickly followed. Wolf closed schools and businesses. He shut down the state, decided which businesses could stay open, and then dictated the terms for Pennsylvania’s re-opening.

It’s been four months — and counting — of mostly unchecked power. Too much power, say legislative Republicans.

“The flaw in the system right now is if there’s a declaration of emergency, on day one, your constitutional rights can be suspended until the governor decides otherwise,” said Rep. Frank Ryan (R-Lebanon).

The GOP-controlled House and Senate did try to check the power and passed bills to immediately and unilaterally end Wolf’s disaster declaration. The case went to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court — Wolf prevailed.

Republicans complained that the high court made him a king.

“The legislature has been boxed out,” said Sen. John DiSanto (R-Dauphin/Perry). “So has the business community and other health care professionals that have valuable information.”

DiSanto is a co-sponsor of SB1166, which is expected to pass the legislature this week. The bill is a constitutional amendment that would allow governors to declare emergencies and assume powers for 21 days. After that period, the legislature must approve a continuation of the disaster declaration. If not, it’s over.

If the legislature can pass the same bill early next year, in a new session, it would then appear on the ballot for voters to decide in the May primary. That’s warp speed for the traditionally sloth-like amendment process.

“We can get this done within a year actually,” DiSanto said optimistically.

The governor has no say in the amendment process, but Wolf does have an opinion. He thinks the change is not necessary.

“When we’re in a crisis, we need to find a fair way to suspend the general rules of engagement and I think the Constitution has that and I think we have what we need,” Wolf said.

If it ain’t broke don’t fix it, argue legislative Democrats. They say Wolf’s strong stewardship has kept the commonwealth safer than most — who are now seeing record spikes in cases and deaths.

“Why after being successful do we want to throw a wrench into it and now take away the very authority that got us here in the first place?” asked Rep. Carol HIll-Evans (D-York), a no vote on the bill. “To me, that just doesn’t make sense.”