Pa. Republicans eye constitutional amendment to restrict top health official, confine powers

‘We must be calculated and thoughtful instead of making wide-sweeping decisions,’ a group of Republican senators wrote in a memo.

By: - September 1, 2021 2:53 pm

Department of Health Acting Secretary Alison Beam speaks at a press conference. Harrisburg, PA – February 17, 2021

One day after Republicans who control the state Legislature railed against a new statewide mask mandate in K-12 schools and childcare centers, a group of GOP lawmakers are again eyeing the constitutional amendment process to limit the authority of the state’s top health official.

Sens. Judy Ward, R-Blair, Patrick Stefano, R-Fayette, and Kristin-Phillips Hill, R-York, are leading the latest effort to do an end-run around Gov. Tom Wolf’s recent executive action. In a Wednesday memo seeking support from colleagues, the lawmakers announced plans for an amendment that would tie the state health secretary’s response powers to an existing public health disaster emergency declaration.

“We agree with the majority of Pennsylvanians that the most effective way to preserve public health is to encourage decisions to be made locally,” they wrote. “Our communities are not facing the same COVID-19 challenges, and to act as if they are, does everyone a disservice. We must be calculated and thoughtful instead of making wide-sweeping decisions.”

Legislative Republicans have looked to the lengthy and expensive constitutional amendment process as a means to avoid Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and his veto pen since voters opted to limit the governor’s emergency response powers in the May primary election. The referendum, which GOP lawmakers advocated for, was brought on by a year-long feud over pandemic response and statewide restrictions and expanded the General Assembly’s emergency powers.

This is the second proposed constitutional change geared toward the state health secretary since the May primary.

Over the last month, mask-wearing guidance has been at the forefront of lawmakers’ minds as kids returned to in-person instruction amid rising coronavirus cases.

 After lawmakers turned down a request from the governor to pass a mandate legislatively and calls from grassroots education groups went unfulfilled, Wolf’s administration, specifically the Department of Health, announced a new statewide order that requires universal masking inside schools and daycares.

The latest mandate was issued under powers given to acting Health Secretary Alison Beam by the 1929 law establishing the state Health Department, and a 1955 state infectious disease law

Though Beam’s powers were untouched by the May constitutional change, Republicans have argued that an active disaster declaration is needed for the health secretary to enact mandates and other statewide guidelines.

Sen. Scott Martin, R-Lancaster, also announced plans for legislation on Tuesday that aims to accomplish the same thing; however, the bill would likely see a veto.

This isn’t the first time the Legislature has scrutinized the state health secretary’s powers.

Earlier this year, Wolf vetoed a so-called “vaccine passport” bill introduced by Phillips-Hill that would have prohibited public and private colleges, school districts, and government agencies from requiring a COVID-19 vaccine to access services. Ward, who’s a former nurse, tacked on an amendment that would have prohibited the state health secretary from unilaterally enacting statewide shutdowns or mandates.

In July, Rep. Ryan Warner, R-Fayette, announced plans for a similar constitutional amendment. The language, he said, would be identical to the bill Wolf vetoed.

At the time, Kevin Levy, a Philadelphia attorney who has tracked the Wolf administration’s COVID-19 response, said the amendment would be “very far-reaching” and could “unnecessarily kneecap” a future health secretary during a public health emergency.

“Constitutionalizing limits on the ability of a governor to issue executive orders for well over a year after the initial outbreak makes a certain sense,” he told the Capital-Star, referring to the May primary election and voters’ decision to strip the governor of some emergency power.

He added: “Removing all authority from the secretary of health doesn’t.”

Before a ballot question reaches voters, the Legislature must pass the proposed amendments in two consecutive sessions. The process can take months, if not years, and can cost millions of dollars. 

According to an earlier estimate for another GOP-backed referendum from the Department of State, the cost for advertising could range between $2 million to $3 million.

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