Empowered by referendum, Harrisburg GOP moves to terminate some — but not all — of Wolf’s pandemic powers

By: - May 25, 2021 12:25 pm

Gov. Tom Wolf wears a mask during a briefing at the Pennsylvania Emergency Management headquarters in Harrisburg. Source: Commonwealth Media Services.

Using powers approved by voters in a constitutional referendum a week ago, Pennsylvania House Republicans approved, along party lines, an a la carte emergency declaration for Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf in a committee vote Tuesday.

The flexing of these new emergency powers comes after voters empowered the 253-member General Assembly to end or edit gubernatorial powers during a disaster. About 53 percent of Pennsylvania voters backed the measures.

The resolution, authored by House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, would stop Wolf from again closing businesses, issuing stay-at-home orders, and lowering building occupancy limits if case counts climbed again.

The first two have not been in place for months, while the latter are set to expire next Monday.

The legislatively edited disaster emergency also will prevent the administration from entering no-bid contracts, or from waiving the work requirement for unemployment benefits.

With these restrictions in place, the disaster declaration would then be extended until Oct. 1, barring further action by legislators.

In a statement, Wolf said the vote was “a discouraging development” after voters vested the General Assembly “tremendous responsibility.”

He was informed of the vote, Wolf added, by press release — a complaint many Republicans had about the Wolf administration’s own pandemic management.

All told, 26,700 Pennsylvanians have died of COVID-19 since the pandemic started to spread last March. To restrict the damage, Wolf and governors in both parties across the country closed businesses and issued stay-at-home orders.

The combined economic uncertainty of a deadly disease and government shutdowns put millions out of work, and fed discontent that legislative Republicans took up.

This meeting comes a year and three days after the House started its first attempt to rein in Wolf. In a May 21, 2020 committee vote, the lower chamber advanced a resolution to end Wolf’s disaster emergency in total.

The resolution passed the House and Senate. But the state Supreme Court ruled that absent a constitutional change, that resolution was not enough to end a disaster emergency. So the GOP majority pursued a constitutional amendment.

Lawmakers placed two amendments on the ballot: To allow a simple majority vote to end a disaster declaration and limiting those declarations to 21 days absent legislative approval. Last week, both passed.

Some more conservative Republican lawmakers expressed discomfort with continuing Wolf’s emergency powers at all during the meeting, and suggested they’d offer amendments on the floor.

“After I’ve talked to my voters at home after they went to vote, they didn’t vote to end this Oct. 1. They didn’t vote to end this tomorrow,” Rep. Russ Diamond, R-Lebanon, said. “They voted to end this on May 18, and they were anxious to show up to end this once and for all.”

But even after months of crusading against Wolf’s executive powers, Republican leaders said that they’d only partially restrict Wolf’s powers.

“At least on paper there needs to be an emergency ongoing so that we can continue to have some of the flexibility with the school code and the medical exams as well as some of the federal funding,” House Speaker Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, told CBS 21 in Harrisburg last week.

More work remains. The General Assembly can now also decide to permanently suspend or restore any of 498 regulations the Wolf administration suspended during the pandemic. 

Of those, the Wolf administration has recommended 62 be rewritten or fully repealed. Most would adapt state regulations to the era of Zoom meetings, from letting medical licenses meet continuing education requirements with online classes to allowing for the virtual inspection of dog kennels.

For the most part, Republicans have argued that the suspensions proved the state can afford to cut regulations from its books — a long time conservative goal that drives clashes with state unions and environmental groups.

But the resolution would restore one rule immediately — the waived work search requirement for individuals receiving unemployment benefits. 

Under this rule, those receiving jobless benefits must prove they have applied for two jobs every week and engage in “work-search activity,” such as attending a job fair, to receive unemployment payments.

Legislators temporarily suspended the requirement themselves from March to December 2020. Wolf then used his emergency powers to suspend it again.

Labor & Industry Secretary Jennifer Berrier announced Monday that the administration would bring back the search requirements in July. But GOP lawmakers questioned waiting a week more.

“I’m not sure why July is the magic date and not June,” House Labor and Industry Committee Chairman Jim Cox, R-Berks, told the Capital-Star.

Other changes are advancing elsewhere in the General Assembly. The House Health Committee approved curbside delivery of medical marijuana Monday. And the Senate is advancing a bill to extend the waived health regulations for another full year.

In a letter to lawmakers, three health care unions — including SEIU HealthCare — opposed the proposal, arguing it would give “facility administrators a free pass to operate without accountability and high quality standards.”

More changes could be coming in the future after the General Assembly completes its review of the waived regulations.

“You get 140 pages of regulations to look through, it’s going to take some time to do that,” Benninghoff told the Capital-Star Monday.

Staff reporter Marley Parish contributed to this story.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is the Capital-Star's House reporter. He previously covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter. You can reach him at 845-891-4306.

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