Amendment limiting Pa. Gov.’s emergency powers heading to voters this May

HARRISBURG - Gov. Tom Wolf relaunches his RESTORE PA proposal, to tax natural gas in the state to care for aging infrastructure (Cassie Miller photo).

This story was updated at 5 p.m. on 2/5/21 with additional information

A proposed constitutional amendment that would limit the emergency powers of Gov. Tom Wolf and his successors is headed for the statewide ballot.

Pennsylvanians will be asked to approve or reject the measure, which limits gubernatorial disaster declarations to 21 days absent legislative approval, when they cast their votes in this May’s municipal primary election.

The spring referendum vote was set up when the Pennsylvania House approved the amendment with a 116-86 vote on Friday.

“Senate Bill Two is a great bill,” state Rep. Russ Diamond, R-Lebanon said, referring to the measure. “It will give the people of our commonwealth – our bosses – a chance to reform and alter their form of government just like is promised by article 1, section 2 of the same constitution.”

The amendment follows a year in which legislative Republicans have charged that Wolf cut them out of the state’s COVID-19 response. 

The GOP-controlled General Assembly passed more than 100 bills last year, many of which became law. But Wolf vetoed 19 proposals, many of which would have reopened everything from restaurants and  manufacturers to high school sports stadiums.

While the General Assembly could never muster the two-third vote total to override Wolf, constitutional amendments only have to pass with a simple majority and cannot be vetoed by Wolf.

If a majority of Pennsylvania voters approve the amendment, it will go into effect immediately.

Wolf already has said he opposes the amendment, arguing it will tie his hands and those of emergency workers who are empowered or protected by his executive actions. It would also threaten federal funding, he said.

The amendment “would force partisan politics into the commonwealth’s disaster response efforts and could slow down or halt emergency response when aid is most needed.”

The bill passed by the General Assembly also teed up an amendment to outlaw racial and ethnic discrimination, which will be presented to voters as a separate ballot question.

The state’s municipal primary is on May 18. While only registered Democrats or Republicans can vote for local and judicial candidates in the primary, all registered voters will be eligible to vote on the amendments.

Associate Editor Cassie Miller contributed to this story.