Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf speaks during a press conference outside the Berks County Intermediate Unit on Monday 3/15/21. The facility is being used as a clinic to vaccinate school district employees (Commonwealth Media Services screen capture)
Pennsylvania is all about history, and voters in the Keystone State made some by approving amendments to the state constitution that limit a governor’s ability to exercise emergency powers.
The first such actions approved by any state during the COVID-19 crisis, the amendments end a governor’s declaration of an emergency after 21 days and give the state legislature the authority to extend or terminate the emergency at any time by majority vote.
Since the pandemic began in March 2020, Governor Tom Wolf has used unilateral power at various times to tell Pennsylvania residents to stay at home, schools and nonessential businesses to close, and bars and restaurants to serve only take-out orders.
Masking and social distancing requirements, as well as limits on the size of gatherings, were modified for vaccinated persons only recently.
Republicans in the state legislature criticized Wolf for executive overreach, enacting limits on his use of emergency powers and taking the governor to court. However, Wolf vetoed curbs on his authority and the state supreme court ruled he was acting lawfully.
GOP leaders then turned to the constitutional amendment process, in which Pennsylvania governors have no formal say.
This week’s referenda were approved by a 53%-47% majority after a brief campaign in which amendment supporters, including the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity, outspent Wolf and opponents four-to-one.
Similar clashes are taking place in other states, many but not all involving Democratic governors and Republican-controlled legislatures.
Prior to COVID, most states had checks already in place. Over a dozen states permit the legislature to terminate an emergency declaration anytime, and many others place a time limit on executive disaster authority.
In fact, the Commonwealth is an outlier by giving governors broad authority to declare disasters. Proof of that was Wolf’s proclamation of a public health emergency in 2018 to combat the opioid epidemic, an order which is still effective.
The true test of principle will come, if it ever does, when a Republican governor declares abortion rights a public health disaster or gun control a threat to statewide law and order. No one should be surprised if Democrats play the overreach card and Republicans defend executive authority.
Constitutional theory aside, it is fair to ask whether public approval of the May ballot issues was a repudiation of the governor’s handling of the COVID crisis. The record is decidedly mixed.
In the early weeks of the pandemic, two-thirds of Pennsylvanians approved of Wolf’s performance dealing with the pandemic. Over time, state public opinion became evenly split, mostly along partisan lines as COVID restrictions were politicized nationally.
With regard to the coronavirus, the Wolf administration appears to have outperformed most states.
As of May 20, Pennsylvania had the 11th lowest rate of cases per 100,000 residents in the nation. It is 9th among the states in the share of population with at least one vaccination (55%) and 18th in the percentage of residents who are fully vaccinated (40%). One study ranked Pennsylvania fifth best in its 2021 response to the pandemic.
On the other hand, Pennsylvania has the 11th highest rate of deaths per 100,000 residents and the 3rd highest rate of COVID cases in nursing homes. Black, Hispanic, and Asian Pennsylvanians are receiving a disproportionately low share of vaccinations than are Whites.
Overall, Pennsylvania seems to be in the middle of the pack when it comes to economic recovery.
The Index of State Economic Momentum, issued March 2021, ranks the Keystone State 27th. An April 2021 WalletHub analysis gives Pennsylvania the same rank among states hardest hit by COVID-19.
However, the Commonwealth Foundation noted that Pennsylvanians endured a 16% decline in personal income in the last half of 2020, the worst in the nation. The state had the 2nd most business closures in 2020. Official unemployment in March 2021 was 7.3%, 8th highest among the states.
As for changes in the quality of life, the Save the Children Federation placed Pennsylvania 19th best in “protecting and providing for children during the pandemic.” Its rankings were based on measures of child hunger, lack of tools for remote learning, and difficulty for families paying bills.
Looking ahead, it is unclear how much the new limits will affect the state’s ability to respond to natural- and human-caused disasters. Would legislative intervention have made a difference during Hurricane Agnes in 1972 or the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster in 1979?
Republicans will waste no time attempting to close the door on Wolf’s current authority, but what if another pandemic, linked either to a coronavirus variant or a new disease, should arise?
But, given that redistricting, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, consolidation of state system universities, the fiscal 2021-22 budget, election reform, and the 2022 governor and U.S. Senate races are on the horizon, what’s another emergency to Pennsylvania lawmakers?
Opinion contributor Fletcher McClellan is a political science professor at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pa. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Readers may email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @mcclelef.
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