Last week, Pennsylvania became the first state to put limits on gubernatorial emergency powers in order to restore checks and balances between the branches of government. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, state legislatures across the country have been considering restricting the scope and reach of gubernatorial powers during states of emergency.
In a ballot referendum, voters approved two changes to the state’s constitution as it relates to a governor’s emergency powers. The first measure gives the General Assembly the ability to end or extend an emergency disaster declaration by a simple majority vote. The second measure would limit emergency disaster declarations to 21 days, but would allow the General Assembly to approve an extension via a concurrent resolution. Prior to these changes, governors could issue an emergency declaration for up to 90 days and extend it indefinitely and the General Assembly could only end a declaration by a 2/3 majority vote.
Over the past year, the Republican majorities in the House and Senate were often at loggerheads with Gov. Tom Wolf over his administration’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. The administration’s mitigation efforts – including the business shutdown order and subsequent waiver process; targeted restrictions for the hospitality industry and closure of in-person schooling – had been heavily criticized by legislative Republicans, who also accused the governor of acting unilaterally and without sufficient consultation of legislative and local leaders. After several attempts to circumvent the governor’s orders legislatively – which resulted in vetoes by the governor – the General Assembly moved forward with the proposed changes to the constitution. In order to amend the state constitution, the exact same legislative language must be passed by the General Assembly in two consecutive legislative sessions before going before the voters in a ballot referendum.
The PA Chamber had supported the constitutional amendments as a way to restore checks and balances to the emergency declaration process.
The governor had strongly opposed the constitutional amendments, but acknowledged last week the majority of voters disagreed with him.
“There’s no question that I opposed this…But the voters have spoken, and Pennsylvania wants to change the rules. And I think it’s incumbent upon us to the best we possibly can to make those rules work,” he said in an interview with the Associated Press.
This past Thursday the governor renewed his COVID-19 emergency declaration for the fifth time, but said he was engaged in conversations with the legislative leaders on a path forward.