GOP lawmakers accuse Wolf admin of trying to fix results of ballot question limiting governors’ emergency powers

(Capital-Star photo by Sarah Anne Hughes)

Republican lawmakers who control Pennsylvania’s General Assembly are mulling legislation to restrict the role of the executive branch in amending the state constitution, a top GOP leader said Tuesday. 

The bill that Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre, described at a press conference would mark another attempt by the Republican-controlled Legislature to curb executive branch powers with policies that would outlast the current Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and his administration. 

It comes as state legislatures nationwide move to restrict the unilateral authority of governors, who have exercised extraordinary powers to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic over the last year.

Those tensions between legislative and executive branch officials have boiled over in Pennsylvania. Republicans lawmakers are now blasting the Wolf administration over language it wrote for a ballot question that will go before voters in the May primary. 

Republican leaders say the series of three questions are “prejudicial” and “clearly slanted to make voters vote ‘no’” on a proposed constitutional amendment that would give them a greater say in the state’s disaster responses.

“Their way to sort of jump into this was to write [this] language,” Corman said, referring to the state’s executive branch. “So, we are now looking at legislation to remove them from that process.”

The series of three questions, which were drafted by executive branch officials to describe a proposal authored by Republican lawmakers, asks whether Pennsylvania’s constitution should be amended to give lawmakers a say in renewing disaster declarations that augment the governor’s powers.

The General Assembly has approved the proposed amendment twice in a series of near party-line votes in the last year. They say it’s a necessary check on Wolf’s executive powers, which he has used to shutter bars and restaurants and limit evictions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Republican lawmakers have long said that Wolf’s pandemic response decimated small businesses and jobs across the Commonwealth. They have tried to reopen businesses and end the disaster declaration through legislation, which Wolf vetoed.

They positioned the amendment as a way to perform an end-run around the governor, since proposed changes to the constitution do not require his signature to appear before voters. 

Wolf has said he opposes the amendment, arguing it would compromise his ability to respond quickly to long-running emergencies.

The state’s executive branch has a small, mostly administrative role in presenting proposed constitutional amendments to the state’s voters for ratification. 

The Department of State, an executive branch agency led by a gubernatorial appointee, drafts the ballot questions voters will see as they decide whether or not to ratify an amendment. 

Republican leaders said Tuesday that the Department of State took editorial liberties framing this amendment for voters. They took particular issue with a phrase telling voters that the new rules for emergency declarations will apply “regardless of [the] severity” of the emergency. 

“[This] was clearly written in a way to scare voters away from this resolution,” Corman said. 

Wolf spokeswoman Lyndsay Kensinger said “the ballot questions fairly, accurately and clearly apprise the voter of the issue to be voted on.”

Lawmakers could appeal the proposed language to the courts. But Corman and House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, said they’d let the language stand, and allow voters to decide for themselves whether to approve the amendment.

This isn’t the first time this year the General Assembly has accused the Wolf administration of exerting undue influence on the state’s constitutional amendment process.

The Department of State also is responsible for advertising proposed amendments by placing public notices in newspapers. 

But in a high-profile misstep revealed earlier this month, the agency failed to advertise a separate proposed amendment for crime victims that was poised to go before voters in May. 

The administrative error torpedoed the years-long amendment effort and led to the immediate ouster of former Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar.

Officials insisted it was a one-time fluke. Wolf said the Department of State has since implemented new guardrails to prevent similar missteps from happening again. 

GOP lawmakers say the problems with constitutional amendments are part of a pattern, and that the Department of State’s administrative duties would be better fulfilled by a bi-partisan commission or different state agency.

Corman’s spokeswoman said this change could be achieved by amending state statute or the constitution itself. Senate Republicans are exploring both options, she said. Wolf would be able to veto a bill they send to his desk, but not an amendment.

Wolf has already expressed displeasure with how little power the executive branch has in amending the state constitution.

“It’s a little concerning that you can get something on the ballot if you control the legislature without anyone actually overseeing that and weighing in,” Wolf said at a January press conference.

Wolf vetoed a new high 21 bills last session, many of which aimed to check his executive powers managing the COVID-19 pandemic.

Capital-Star reporter Stephen Caruso contributed to this report.