Next move Wolf: House and Senate approve resolution toppling Gov’s emergency declaration

Gov. Tom Wolf (Flickr)

After hours of floor debate on Tuesday, first the Pennsylvania Senate, then the House, passed a proposal to end Gov. Tom Wolf’s state of emergency for COVID-19. 

“Thirteen weeks is long enough,” said Rep. Bill Kortz, D-Allegheny. “Time to vote yes.”

The Senate passed the proposal 31-19, with every Republican and two Democrats supporting it. In the House, the proposal passed 121-81, with every Republican and 12 Democrats in favor. 

Lawmakers cheered and applauded the tally in the House when it passed just after 9 p.m.

Wolf’s issued the emergency order March 6. He has used it to close scores of businesses, mandate mask use for those that remained open, and to keep people in their homes.

Since, Wolf has rolled back most of the most extreme social distancing measures. As of June 8, every county in Pennsylvania has at least partially reopened.

Republican Lawmakers in Pennsylvania’s General Assembly have long disagreed with Wolf on what would happen if they passed a resolution to terminate Wolf’s emergency declaration on COVID-19, which has armed the Democratic governor with vast executive powers since he issued it in March.

GOP leaders say the measure sponsored by Rep. Russ Diamond, R-Lebanon, does not need the governor’s signature to become law, thanks to a statute in the state’s Health and Safety code.

Wolf and his fellow Democrats, meanwhile, have said that the state constitution is clear: the measure can only take effect if Wolf allows it to become law, or if the General Assembly musters a two-thirds vote to override his veto. Both of Tuesday’s votes did not reach the mark.

Both arguments will soon be put to the test, since the measure is headed to Wolf’s desk following hours of spirited debate in the Legislature.

Republicans who supported the measure said the time is past for Wolf to flex his executive powers, which he has used to close schools and businesses and extend mail-in voting deadlines as the state beat back COVID-19.

Public polling found widespread support for Wolf’s orders, even as the downturn in business activity led nearly 2 million Pennsylvanians to seek unemployment benefits, and forced the state’s 1.7 million schoolchildren to embark on an untested experiment in mass online learning. 

But Republicans have blamed the state’s response for breeding a host of social ills, including increased isolation and depression, delays in non-emergency medical treatments, and disruptions in drug and alcohol treatment services. 

They also said Wolf abused his executive powers when he vetoed their legislation to open more businesses, and give local officials more power to follow their own response plans.  

“It is our duty to ensure that the people of Pennsylvania are heard,” Sen. Ryan Aument, R-Lancaster, said Tuesday, when lawmakers debated the resolution for three hours in the Senate. “Let’s ensure that no governor, Republican or Democrat, can ever again have this much unchecked power over the people of this Commonwealth.”

Democrats who rejected the measure said that it would hamper Wolf’s ability to take decisive action if the state sees an uptick in COVID-19 cases. They also warned it could jeopardize the state’s ability to receive billions of dollars in federal aid intended to help schools, hospitals and local governments recover from the pandemic.

“I got [U.S. Treasury Secretary] Steve Mnuchin telling me it’s okay? No thank you,” House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny, said.

He also said that ending the declaration would allow evictions, foreclosures, and utility shut offs to begin anew — even with the virus not entirely defeated.

Republican lawmakers said federal officials assured them that Pennsylvania could still receive federal aid when it exited its emergency declaration. 

Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, tweeted out a statement Tuesday clarifying the stance of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which an agency spokesman confirmed was accurate in an email to the Capital-Star.

Corman also acknowledged that “there’s nothing that prevents the governor from declaring another emergency” if the legislative resolution takes effect. 

The House held its first vote on Diamond’s resolution in May, when parts of the state were under stay-at-home orders. 

Since then, more than half of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties have entered the most permissive stage of the state’s three-phase reopening plan. 

Stay-at-home orders have expired in every county in the state, including hard-hit Philadelphia, and retail businesses, restaurants and day care centers have resumed limited activities statewide. 

Wolf’s actions has also proved broadly popular in most public polling, while his use of executive power has been backed by both the state and U.S. Supreme Court.

A state high court decision on Wolf’s powers pointed out that the Legislature could stop Wolf’s order, but did not comment on his ability to veto such a measure.