Senate panel asks Commonwealth Court to force Wolf to release waivers

Senator Jake Corman takes questions from reporters (Capital-Star photo by Cassie Miller).

A Pennsylvania state Senate panel is asking a Commonwealth Court judge to force Gov. Tom Wolf to turn over records related to the state’s business waiver program, which exempted more than 6,000 businesses across the state from a shutdown order Wolf issued in March. 

The petition filed Monday would force Wolf to comply with the subpoena a Senate committee issued last month, seeking details about the 42,000-plus requests for business waivers processed by the state Department of Community and Economic Development.

Wolf responded to the subpoena Friday by releasing the names of 6,000 businesses that were granted waivers. But he invoked privileges of the executive branch and declined to fulfill the rest of the request. 

Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, said Monday that the Senate was not surprised by Wolf’s response, but nonetheless hopes a judge will make Wolf reveal all the businesses that were denied waivers and the criteria his administration used to evaluate their applications.

“That’s transparency in government,” Corman said on a conference call with reporters. “For whatever reason, the governor has refused to hand over that information.”

The Commonwealth Court filing by the Senate Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee, chaired by Sen. Mike Regan, R-York, may kick off another week of tug-of-war between Wolf and the Republican majority in the General Assembly. 

Republicans in the House and Senate have been unable to check Wolf’s broad executive powers even as they grow increasingly critical of his efforts to contain the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Wolf has already vetoed the General Assembly’s attempt to expand the list of businesses that can operate during his shutdown order. But a Senate committee is slated to vote later this week on a measure that will give county commissioners the power to reopen businesses and adopt county-level mitigation plans if they don’t want to follow the state’s public health mandates.

The bill also creates a task force with appointees from the executive, legislative and judicial branches to review the state’s COVID-19 response.

The House and Senate both voted last month to approve the legislation, but the House removed the provision granting greater powers to county officials.

Corman said Monday, however, that Senate lawmakers believe they have the bill “in a position that the House will pass [and] that will empower the counties.”

Corman also implied that some of his Democratic colleagues may come out in support of the bill this week, now that Pennsylvania has entered a gradual reopening period that allows some counties to resume limited business activities.

“It’s not just Republican areas” that want to reopen, Corman said. “Clearly the Democrats are hearing the same thing.”

Wolf has so far allowed 24 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties to enter  the “yellow phase” of his tiered reopening system, and last week announced 13 more counties that will be permitted to join them this Friday. 

The rest of Pennsylvania’s counties are slated to remain in the red phase, where stay-at-home orders and business shutdowns may remain in effect until June 4. 

Even though polls suggest that Wolf’s orders remain broadly popular with the public, elected officials in some “red phase” counties announced over the weekend that they would stop enforcing Wolf’s public health orders on May 15, whether or not he granted his permission. 

Wolf responded sternly on Monday, pledging to withhold federal relief money from counties that defied state guidelines. 

But Corman was skeptical that Wolf could enforce that penalty unilaterally. 

Corman said Wolf pledged to work with the General Assembly to appropriate the $3.9 billion in federal dollars that Pennsylvania received from the Congressional CARES Act. 

Wolf could theoretically veto a spending plan that allocated money to defiant counties, Corman said, but he doesn’t expect it will come to that. 

“I think cooler heads will prevail before this is all said and done … but  [the administration] has committed to the Legislature that they will work with us to appropriate these dollars,” Corman said. “And that is the premise we’re working on.”