By Senator Kim Ward
Each new year ushers in its own expectations, challenges, hope and excitement. This year, the stress of a global pandemic has made the transition away from 2020 seem like a celebration. But, we are not out of the woods yet. The stress on our healthcare, business, school, mental health systems and communities have not subsided. Addressing these challenges will be at the top of our legislative priorities.
It would be disingenuous to look at 2020 as a complete disaster. Indeed, Pennsylvania has had its share of suffering associated with the COVID-19 pandemic and corresponding shut-downs, but there are numerous examples of survival, heroics and perseverance. Our health-care industry, and the individuals on the front lines of our hospitals, nursing homes, emergency services, community clinics and front-line workers, have demonstrated the best of what Pennsylvanians are capable of. At all levels, these vital workers exemplified their heart and dedication in protecting the people in their communities.
Our school administrators and teachers successfully conquered a near impossible task when they rapidly transitioned to remote learning so our children could finish their school year. This fortitude was demonstrated again with the opening of our schools and the creation of hybrid programs this past September. At the highest levels of education, our institutional leaders and students showed resilience and creativity to endure an unpredictable environment.
Last year, we learned how some in government define ‘essential business’. This highly charged issue created situations of disparity that carried punitive ramifications for many small businesses. Federal government programs helped alleviate losses, but they also created more issues. In light of this, many businesses learned to adapt and redefine their role in their communities. Small businesses began to expand food sales, retail stores enhanced safety protocols and social distancing, and large companies began to utilize software such as Zoom, Skype, and Microsoft Teams as their new conference rooms.
Sadly, many of the issues affecting all of us related to the pandemic last year have carried over into the new one. The rollout of a vaccine is reason for hope, but the economic strain on our business community, along with the emotional and financial toll on our healthcare industry, still remains. In these tumultuous times, it is incumbent on government to support the people they represent in new and creative ways. This is the challenge in front of us as the Senate enters into a new legislative session. Challenge accepted.
Restoring balance in government will be central to my approach this session. Throughout last year’s COVID-19 restrictions, Governor Tom Wolf and his Secretary of Health consolidated considerable power through emergency declarations and health orders. These unilateral restrictions affected every facet of our lives. They picked winners and losers through their business waiver program. They vetoed legislation that offered sensible solutions to reopen our state. They even withheld important information from the public and our first responders that could be used to keep them safe from COVID-19 during response calls. All of this was done under an emergency declaration that cannot be ended by anyone other than the governor himself.
Backing him throughout this process was the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. They rejected our resolution to end the declaration of emergency, they altered statewide election law, and they continue to stretch the boundaries of their constitutional authority. They continue to legislate from the bench.
This year our goals will be to build confidence with Pennsylvanians to ensure our election system is safe and fair. We will move to provide a voice to all residents through a referendum limiting a governor’s ability to arbitrarily extend emergency declarations. We will focus on helping the Pennsylvania business community regain strong economic footing through assistance and working to reduce regulatory red tape. Issues such as expansion of broadband, infrastructure investment and fiscal accountability will get significant attention in our first six months of this session. As the Senate Majority Leader, I am ready to work with my colleagues to resolve these issues.
Pennsylvania residents have high expectations of us all moving into 2021, and I look forward to working with all my colleagues to advance legislation that is critical to the communities we all represent.
Senator Kim Ward represents Pennsylvania’s 39th Senatorial District. She was sworn in this January as Pennsylvania’s first female Senate Majority Leader.