Pa. House votes to permanently end Wolf’s COVID-19 disaster emergency

By: - June 8, 2021 8:05 pm

House Speaker Bryan Cutler speaks at a evening press conference after the House voted to end Gov. Tom Wolf’s disaster emergency on June 7, 2021 (Capital-Star photo).

Using the powers that Pennsylvania voters gave to the Legislature during last month’s statewide referendum vote, the Pennsylvania House voted Tuesday evening to permanently end Wolf’s COVID-19 disaster emergency, and the executive powers that come with it, along party lines, 113-90.

Republican lawmakers cheered and gave a standing ovation after it passed, one loudly yelling “freedom.”

If passed by the state Senate, the resolution would take effect immediately. Wolf cannot veto it.

Surrounded by dozens of House Republicans for their first Capitol rotunda press conference in months after the vote, House Speaker Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, said their action was for “hard-working Pennsylvanians who spoke with their votes, their calls, and their messages.”

“They have sacrificed in unimaginable ways,” he added. “Today’s action to finally bring this emergency to an end, honors their patience, their perseverance, determination and sacrifice.” 

If enacted, the resolution would bring back nearly 500 regulations suspended by Wolf, governing everything from medical care and  dog kennel inspections to medical marijuana sales; immediately restore the work search requirement for jobless benefits, and cut Pennsylvania off from receiving expanded federal low-income food aid. 

Those regulations will be phased back in during the coming months, according to the Wolf administration. In the meantime, Cutler said, lawmakers will work with the administration to modify or repeal some of the suspended regulations.

Wolf already has lifted pandemic-related businesses occupancy restrictions, and stay-at-home orders haven’t been in place since last spring. 

The state’s mask order is issued under a separate authority, legal experts say, and likely could not be ended 

But if COVID cases were to spike again, Wolf would be prevented from issuing another disaster emergency and ordering businesses to close or people to stay home again.

Lawmakers were only able to take Tuesday’s vote after Pennsylvania voters approved two constitutional referendums limiting Wolf’s — and all future governors — disaster powers. 

The two amendments limit disaster emergencies to 21 days without legislative approval, and allow the General Assembly to end the disaster emergency at any time with a simple majority vote. Previously, Wolf could veto the resolution ending his disaster powers.

Two weeks ago, the House first advanced a resolution to end Wolf’s declaration. But it only ended the declaration in part, and otherwise extended it to Oct. 1.

‘Walk as free people’: Conservatives rally at the Pa. Capitol to celebrate referenda wins

Republicans at the time expressed their concerns with the half-measure. Those concerns were addressed with a floor amendment that also passed along party lines, before the House approved the final resolution.

House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, said the caucus moved up the timeline to end the disaster declaration after hearing from constituents and other Republican lawmakers.

Benninghoff added that with the budget season in full swing, and an election reform package percolating, he wanted to focus lawmakers’ energy beyond Wolf.

“Some of our members introduced additional amendments, and we listened to them,” Benninghoff told reporters. “Today’s the day. Let’s get done, and get moving.”

Negotiations now continue with the Senate to pass the final proposal, according to House leaders. 

More than 27,000 people have died of COVID-19 in Pennsylvania since last March. 

Even with Wolf’s disaster powers clipped, Pa.’s mask mandate remains. Why?

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.