Pennsylvania Ballot Questions Will Shape State’s Future Emergency Declarations

Pennsylvania’s governor declared a state of emergency in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Ballot questions in the state’s Tuesday’s primary will determine if state lawmakers could intervene in similar declarations moving forward.

This Feb. 5, 2019, file photo shows the dome of the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

HARRISBURG, Pa. (CN) —  After spending over a year in a state of emergency due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Pennsylvania voters will have a chance to determine whether the governor should unilaterally hold the power to make and extend emergency declarations in the state’s primary election Tuesday.

At the heart of the matter lies a party dispute. The state’s Republican-controlled Legislature has harshly critiqued Democratic Governor Tom Wolf’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic — among their issues, that he shuttered all non-essential businesses and schools at the start of the outbreak, ordered Pennsylvania citizens to wear masks in public and issued months-long moratoriums on foreclosures and evictions.

After the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled last summer that the state Legislature couldn’t force Wolf to end his pandemic declaration, the lawmakers pushed to let voters decide with two ballot questions. According to Ballotpedia, the majority of Pennsylvanians have a history of voting ‘yes’ to ballot questions and have approved all 17 questions put on the ballot between 1995 and 2019.

The first of the questions asks if voters would like PA law to allow a simple majority of the state’s General Assembly to end a disaster declaration at any time. The second asks if voters would like state law to mandate that all disaster declarations automatically expire after three weeks; after, the Legislature would have to confirm any extensions.

The state has been under emergency status since March 6, 2020 and Pennsylvania’s governor is the only state official with the authority to end a disaster declaration. As it stands, the General Assembly can only end a governor’s declaration if it achieves a “supermajority” or two-thirds vote (a measure the GOP-controlled Legislature tried and failed at this last year during Covid-19). Wolf currently holds the sole power to extend the declarations — which last 90 days by default — and has done so four times.

In the state’s most recent disaster declaration renewal in February, Wolf’s office explained that “emergency disaster declaration provides for increased support to state agencies involved in the continued response to the virus and recovery for the state during reopening.” 

It continued on, noting that the disaster declaration has allowed the governor to suspend certain regulations during the pandemic “including the ability to waive the one-week waiting period to receive unemployment compensation…and allowing the commonwealth to suspend numerous training requirements and certification and licensure renewals for health care professionals, child care workers, direct care workers, direct support professionals, among other professional groups.”

“This renewal will allow the commonwealth to maintain its response and support efforts as we continue testing, contact tracing and vaccination efforts to keep Pennsylvanians safe,” Wolf said in a statement at the time. Courts have, for the most part, backed Wolf’s use of emergency powers to impose Covid-19 response measures like social-distancing restrictions and the closure of certain business activities during the pandemic.

The state’s Republican lawmakers maintain the ballot questions will give state residents more say in determining how long emergency disasters last and offer a check to the state’s executive branch. One Republican lawmaker, Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, hypothesized at a Capitol news conference in April that without the amendments Pennsylvania would “go on forever in a state of emergency.”

The party split between Pennsylvania’s legislative and executive branches has been going on for several years. A Democratic governor has been in office in Pennsylvania since 2015. Meanwhile, the state’s house has been controlled by Republicans for the last decade and the state’s Senate has been controlled by Republicans since 1994.

The two other questions for voters on the ballot include one that would amend the Pennsylvania Constitution to guarantee equal rights for all races and ethnicities and a referendum that would allow municipal fire and emergency medical services to apply for state loans.

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