Wolf, Senate Republicans headed to state court in fight over COVID-19 emergency order repeal

Gov. Tom Wolf addresses the state during an online news conference on Monday, 5/12/20 (screen capture)

(*This story was updated at 3:57 p.m. on 6/10/20 to include new material from Pa. Senate Republicans)

Gov. Tom Wolf said Wednesday that the Republican-led Legislature doesn’t have the authority to end the state’s pandemic emergency declaration with the resolution it passed Tuesday, and he’s prepared to fight the matter in court if necessary.

“The choice we have is whether we prioritize safety by reopening carefully with precautions in place, or whether we just create chaos and confusion through carelessness,” the governor said during a news conference. “I’m standing for safety.”

Administration General Counsel Gregory Schwab said if the resolution were presented to the governor he could veto it, but said so far the Legislature’s plan appears to be to deliver a copy of the resolution to Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar’s office. 

“It seems clear that the plan was that they were never going to present this to the governor, thereby taking away his ability to approve or disapprove the resolution,” Schwab said, adding that’s what the state Constitution requires. “It’s obviously very unusual. Not that we’ve done exhaustive research but it’s not clear that this type of dispute has ever arisen so we’re looking at it very carefully.”

Senate Republicans filed a lawsuit in Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court on Wednesday afternoon asking the appellate bench to “command” Wolf to terminate his disaster declaration.

“Governor Wolf’s failure to issue an executive order or proclamation ending the COVID-19 state of disaster emergency is unlawful, unreasonable, and without just cause,” Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, and Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, said in the lawsuit. “Governor Wolf has no discretion to refuse to issue an executive order or proclamation ending the COVID-19 state of disaster emergency.”

Speaking to journalists Wednesday, Wolf listed the provisions that would be halted if the emergency declaration was terminated: the moratorium on utility shut-offs would end, the temporary eviction suspension would end, and the food distribution set up through schools would all cease to exist. 

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

“But, and this is important, ending the disaster declaration would not reopen anything,” Wolf said. “Anybody who says differently is wrong.” 

Wolf added that Pennsylvania was carefully reopening, with the goal to not become one of the states seeing a spike in new cases of the virus after reopening too soon. 

“We’re doing it as quickly as we can,” he said. “For some it’s too cautious, and I get that, but for everyone who wants to move faster, there are other people who really understand why we do this in a measured way.” 

State lawmakers voted mostly along party lines Tuesday to terminate the emergency declaration, which Wolf issued March 6. The Senate passed the proposal 31-19, with all 

Republicans and two Democrats voting in favor; the measure passed the House 121-81, which included “yes” votes from all Republicans and 12 Democrats. 

The declaration has allowed the state to mandate the wearing of face masks, close non-essential businesses and keep people at home. Most of the social distancing measures have gradually been relaxed, with much of the state in the “green” or “yellow” phases of Wolf’s three-tiered reopening plan. 

GOP lawmakers in the General Assembly say the proposal does not need Wolf’s signature. But Wolf said Wednesday that the state Constitution says otherwise, reiterating that it only can take effect if the governor signs it or the Legislature overrides him with a two-thirds majority vote. 

“I don’t know, anywhere in the [state] Constitution that says the general assembly can unilaterally pass a law and put it into place,” Wolf said. 

Republican lawmakers held a press conference Wednesday urging the governor to sign the proposal. 

“Our vote last night is our message to you: Don’t ignore us,” said Rep. Russ Diamond, R-Lebanon, who sponsored the measure. “We are experts in communicating with our community. You’ve ignored us from the beginning. It’s time to stop. Sign the proclamation. Let’s get on with the business of running Pennsylvania amidst the virus.”

The governor also said Wednesday that PIAA-sanctioned sports may resume in areas that have moved into the yellow or green phases of reopening, but with some limitations in place.

“Pennsylvania has some of the best athletes and teams in the country and they can now begin to safely return to organized sports,” Wolf said in a release announcing the news. “This guidance balances keeping student-athletes safe from COVID-19 while allowing them to participate in an important part of their lives.” 

Correspondent Kim Lyons covers Pittsburgh and western Pennsylvania for the Capital-Star. Follow her on Twitter @SocialKimLy. Capital-Star Editor John L. Micek and Staff Reporter Stephen Caruso contributed reporting.