In late night debate, House votes to undo Wolf’s emergency declaration

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf delivers his sixth budget address to a joint session of the general assembly inside the House of Representatives chamber at the State Capitol in Harrisburg on Friday, December 13, 2019 (Photo from Commonwealth Media Services).

In a late night vote Thursday, the Pennsylvania House passed a resolution to end all business closures ordered by Gov. Tom Wolf in mid-March to mitigate the spread of coronavirus.

The proposal passed 117-85, with the support of all 109 Republicans and 8 Democrats. 

The Senate must now approve a matching resolution for it to go into effect. But Wolf and Republican legislators disagree on how the chief executive must answer the proposal.

The order originally ended Wolf’s emergency declaration wholesale, but was amended Thursday night by House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, to target Wolf’s business closures.

“We cannot keep people separated indefinitely, we cannot keep people from working indefinitely,” Cutler said.

Democrats had raised concerns that the bill — as originally drafted — might keep the commonwealth from utilizing federal stimulus money.

Pa. House panel moves to end Wolf’s executive powers amid pandemic

Coronavirus cases have been on the decline for weeks in Pennsylvania. And Wolf announced six days ago that he would move the entire state into an early reopening stage by June 5. 

As of Friday, 17 counties will have very limited social distancing standards. Another 40 will be a middle phase, with stay-at-home orders lifted but continued business restrictions. 

A final 10 counties, including Philadelphia, its suburbs, and the Lehigh Valley, will still be under strict social distancing requirements.

The Wolf administration has expressed confidence in its testing and tracing abilities. But experts have cautioned that both resources, for containing new outbreaks, are still limited.

On the floor, most Democrats opposed the proposal, saying it left openings for unsafe workplaces with little accountability.

“There’s no way the state can be sure people scattered all over Pennsylvania are doing what they need to stay safe,” House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny, said.

But not every Democrat backed Wolf. Rep. Frank Burns, D-Cambria, said in a statement that the administration “has failed time and again to engage with the legislature – the elected representatives of the people – as he attempts a one-size-fits-all response to this pandemic.” He voted for the measure.

Wolf has derived much of his authority during the pandemic from the state’s 1977 vintage emergency response law, which states that “the Governor is responsible for meeting the dangers to this Commonwealth and people presented by disasters.”

But the law also states that the “General Assembly, by concurrent resolution, may terminate a state of disaster emergency at any time.”

The proposal’s legal efficacy is hard to predict. The Wolf administration has said he can veto the proposal, as the state constitution gives him the ability to veto any bill or resolution that passes out of the General Assembly — currently controlled by Republicans.

Wolf, a Democrat, has made ample use of the power, vetoing a number of bills reopening businesses piecemeal over the past weeks passed by the Republican-controlled General Assembly with bipartisan backing.

Wolf has justified the vetoes by arguing he is protecting his executive power in case of a second wave of COVID-19. An attempt at an override in the House last week came up short.

Pa. House fails to override Wolf’s reopening veto

Meanwhile, the resolution’s sponsor, Rep. Russ Diamond, R-Lebanon, has acknowledged that Wolf could simply order another emergency order if he wants.

The governor’s broad use of police power has been backed by both the state and U.S. Supreme Court, and most polling has shown it popular.

But Cutler pointed the state Supreme Court ruling backing Wolf’s order, which states that “as a counterbalance to the exercise of the broad powers granted to the Governor, the Emergency Code provides that the General Assembly by concurrent resolution may terminate a state of disaster emergency at any time.”

The decision is silent on Wolf’s ability to veto a termination resolution. But on Wolf’s authority, Cutler said that the General Assembly once “gave it, and we can take it back.”

“Why? Not just because the law allows it, but because we represent the people,” he added