In a pandemic rebuke, Pa. voters move to limit Wolf’s emergency powers; approve referenda questions on racial justice and fire depts

By: and - May 19, 2021 11:11 am

Gov. Tom Wolf speaks at a Middletown child care center Tuesday, August 25 to roll out his fall agenda, including legal weed. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

(*This story was updated at 11:11 a.m. on Wednesday, 5/19/21 to include comment from Philadelphia attorney Kevin Levy, who has been tracking the Wolf administration’s pandemic response, and at 6:23 p.m. with additional comment from Gov. Tom Wolf.)

Voters across Pennsylvania approved all four referenda questions put before them on Tuesday’s primary ballot, according to calls made by the Associated Press.

Most critically, they voted to restrict the emergency powers of Gov. Tom Wolf and his successors by limiting emergency declarations to 21 days without legislative approval, and allowing the Legislature to end any emergency with a simple majority vote.

Republican legislators put the measures on the ballot in response to Wolf’s broad use of executive powers to combat the spread of COVID-19 since March 2020.

Both the executive powers amendments passed by near identical margins, each receiving a little more than 53 percent of the vote — roughly one million total votes each, according to unofficial tallies.

“This is something that has dominated your thinking for the past 13 months, and it’s over,” Matt Bellis, lead organizer of the grassroots ReOpen PA group that opposed Wolf’s measures, told supporters in a social media video Wednesday.

How the new amendments will impact Pennsylvanians in the short term is unclear. The Wolf administration played up concerns that limiting emergencies would restrict the flow of federal dollars to Pennsylvania, and hamstring disaster response.

Wolf’s most recent COVID-19 disaster declaration is set to expire Thursday. While the Associated Press made its call on the ballot measures on Wednesday, the results of the referendum aren’t yet certified, and won’t be for weeks.

Still, House Republican spokesperson Jason Gottesman told the Capital-Star that the chamber’s majority Republican leadership will discuss Wednesday what to do when it reconvenes for voting sessions next week.

Gottesman said that the caucus’ legal analysis concluded that lawmakers could take action at that point to end Wolf’s emergency declarations, even if the amendment still isn’t official.

“We have to start moving as though the clock has started,” Gottesman said.

The governor has already announced plans to gradually roll back most COVID-19 restrictions, such as occupancy limits, in the coming weeks. While Wolf could renew his disaster emergency right now, it’ll be limited to just 21 days once the amendment is certified. The GOP Legislature could also end it even earlier if they wished.

In the past, even when Wolf partially lifted health orders, he kept the disaster declaration active in order to quickly renew restrictions to combat any sudden spike in cases.

With the amendments added to the constitution, Wolf will now have to negotiate with legislative leaders to approve the return of any restrictions.

Speaking at an unrelated Pottstown press conference Wednesday, Wolf said he’d honor the referenda results.

“The voters have spoken,” Wolf said. “And we’re going to do what I think the voters expect us to do and make the best of it.” He added he did not plan to challenge the referendum in court, and was in talks with GOP leadership to figure out how he could keep parts of the emergency order intact.

*Kevin Levy, a Philadelphia attorney with Saul Ewing tracking the Wolf administration’s COVID-19 regulations, expects the governor will renew the declaration either way.

“That might be that final dare to the General Assembly, once the election is certified by the secretary of state, to go ahead and schedule a vote to terminate the proclamation,” Levy told the Capital-Star.

Though unusual for disasters to last longer than 21 days, Levy highlighted that the General Assembly has been left out of decisions related to the pandemic since Wolf signed the initial emergency declaration in March 2020.

“We’ve obviously been in this for a long time, and that’s a very, very long time for the General Assembly not to have input on new laws, which are what these emergency orders are,” Levy said. “They carry the force of law. They have carried the force of law, and they restricted business and personal activities. That, generally, is something that the General Assembly does; that’s within their realm.”

About three in four voters also voted to approve a constitutional amendment to add racial and ethnic discrimination protections to the state constitution. Legal experts said many of those protections have precedent in state jurisprudence, but adding specific language would not cause harm.

Finally, voters signaled their approval for letting professional firefighters access a state loan program for volunteer firefighters.

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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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Marley Parish
Marley Parish

A Pennsylvania native, Marley Parish covers the Senate for the Capital-Star. She previously reported on government, education and community issues for the Centre Daily Times and has a background in writing, editing and design. A graduate of Allegheny College, Marley served as editor of the campus newspaper, where she also covered everything from student government to college sports.

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