In volley of votes, GOP House and Senate try to force Wolf to pull back the curtain on COVID-19 response

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 Tuesday, Feb. 4. (Photo from Commonwealth Media Services).

Pennsylvania’s state lawmakers have mostly focused on damage control since COVID-19 hurled the Commonwealth into a state of emergency in March, and have passed bills to delay the state’s primary election; to ensure pay for school employees, and allow public notaries to work from home.

But as the commonwealth enters its second month of the pandemic, the Legislature’s Republican majority has taken on another role: watchdogging Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, who they say has exercised broad executive powers without much transparency.

“Oversight is an extremely important part of our job, and we are going through an unprecedented time of executive power,” Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, said. “[We need] to review and look at how the administration is using this unprecedented power.”

Their efforts to check the executive branch began earlier this month when lawmakers passed bills to open some of the businesses that Wolf shuttered in March. The governor has already vetoed one such bill, which would have expanded the list of businesses that can operate during the emergency.  

Now, lawmakers are trying to make the administration reveal more details about how it responded to the disease, charging that its approach so far has been opaque. 

In the state House, a panel voted to force the administration to respond to open records requests, which have gone unanswered since state offices closed and largely transitioned to telework in March. 

The Senate, meanwhile, announced it will kick off a series of public hearings next week to question top Wolf administration officials on the state’s pandemic response.

Corman said the hearings will probe everything from the state’s handling of unemployment compensation claims to its regulation of nursing homes and personal care homes, which have been the source of more than half of the state’s COVID-19 fatalities, Department of Health data show.

Senators also voted 47-3 Wednesday to pass a bill requiring the state Department of Health to report information about COVID-19 patients to police, firefighters and 911 dispatchers. 

Supporters said that first responders have requested the data so they can allocate personal protective gear when responding to emergency calls, but current state privacy laws limit what the state can share with local agencies. 

The votes come after weeks of calls from elected officials, business owners and the press for the Wolf administration to reveal more about its decision making on business closings, reopening schedules, and the publication of public health data during the pandemic.

One of the biggest issues has been the roll-out of Wolf’s March 19 order to close all non-essential businesses in Pennsylvania, based on criteria that his administration developed and later revised.

Wolf introduced a waiver program to let businesses seek exemptions from the sweeping order. More than 42,000 businesses applied before the program closed on April 3, but only 8,000 were approved. 

Business owners said waivers were issued inconsistently, and the Wolf administration has refused to release a list of all waivers.

Multiple media outlets, including the Capital-Star, have filed public records requests for the list. But they have not been processed.

The administration has countered that it cannot process requests while state offices are closed. 

“We’re in the middle of a global pandemic,” Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine said over the weekend. “So, I don’t know when we’ll be able to address those.”

The House State Government Committee voted to force Wolf, and all future administrations, to answer Right-to-Know requests during a disaster declaration.

The 15-10 vote fell on party lines, as Democrats backed their governor and voted against restarting public records requests.

The committee’s chairman, Rep. Garth Everett, R-Lycoming, said that people have a right to the data that drives government decisions, even during a pandemic.

Speaking to his Democratic colleagues during a committee meeting Wednesday, Everett said that Wolf, a Democrat, “may be … open to your requests for information, but they have not been to ours.”

The administration’s justification to delay public records requests legally sound, according to state Office of Open Records chief Erik Arneson, and is often used by agencies in rural parts of the state that are only open for a few days a week.

But the bill would remove such a justification for the state during a disaster, and allow requesters to sue to have documents released.

The proposal by Rep. Seth Grove, R-York, would also make all data used by the administration in decision making a public record.

One lawmaker also pointed out that bill language wasn’t available on the state’s website until an hour before the vote.

“Good government doesn’t come from bad government,” Rep. Brian Sims, D-Philadelphia, said.

The concerns over transparency have simmered for weeks, but have ratcheted up in the past few days. 

On Monday, the investigative news website Spotlight PA reported that two Republican senators threatened to file a subpoena and force the administration to release information about the business waivers. 

The senators set a deadline of Wednesday evening for a response.

Responding to state senators in a hearing last week, state Department of Community and Economic Development Secretary Dennis Davin said his agency was preparing data on business waivers for release, but did not provide a timeline.

Wolf has previously argued that making the list public would open the process up to “all kinds of pressures that make it work less well.”