Pennsylvania Constitutional amendment limiting governor’s emergency powers passes committee

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf addresses reporters Dec. 2, 2020.

HARRISBURG — Republican lawmakers in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives wasted little time this week advancing a bill that would amend the state constitution to limit the governor’s emergency powers.

The State Government Committee approved House Bill 55 along party lines, positioning the measure for a floor vote soon. If the General Assembly moves fast enough, the referendum the bill authorizes could appear on ballots in the upcoming primary elections.

The constitutional amendments would expand nondiscrimination protections and would require legislative approval to extend emergency declarations beyond 21 days. The latter is a direct result of Gov. Tom Wolf’s unilateral decision to extend the state’s 90-day disaster status three times since the pandemic arrived in March, affording him broad powers to implement economic and social restrictions that often clash with Republican policy priorities.

“I don’t believe the people who wrote the emergency services code in 1978 fully understood what they were doing,” said Rep. Russ Diamond, R-Lebanon. “They in fact created a system of government that is not the guaranteed republican form of government that is identified in Article 4 of our constitution.”

Prime sponsor and majority Chairman Seth Grove, R-York, said the amendment would align Pennsylvania with most other states that only declare 30 day emergencies.

Democrats say the bill sets a “dangerous” precedent and jeopardizes the state’s ability to access federal relief in times of emergency.

“We have no idea whether it is a flood or a blizzard or possibly even an insurrection, as we saw in Washington, so the governor needs the ability to respond swiftly,” said Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, D-Philadelphia. “I think anything that abridges the governor’s ability to do that is dangerous for the people of Pennsylvania.

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Diamond argued that the bill still gives the governor 21 days to respond “unilaterally and swiftly” in an emergency.

“If the General Assembly, a co-equal branch of government does not believe the governor is acting properly, then the General Assembly should have a right to override that governor’s disaster emergency order,” he said.

Democrats also questioned why the anti-discrimination language didn’t include mentions of gender identity or sexual preference – a potential oversight that Grove said amending would “restart the clock.” Constitutional amendments must pass both chambers of the General Assembly in two consecutive legislative sessions before appearing on the ballot.

“If we would change this, it would restart that clock moving forward,” Grove said. “Our official position is we are opposed to any amendments at this time to get it to the voters as quickly as possible.”

Rep. Joe Webster, D-West Norriton, said omitting the language now would cause legal trouble in the future.

“I think it’s very risky legally to vote for specific equality statements in our constitution and exclude others,” he said. “A good attorney is going to argue that the Legislature very deliberately meant to exclude gender identity and LGBT rights. I think it needs to be on the record that we believe equality needs to be much more general.”

The committee approved the bill on a party-line vote. It now advances to the House floor for consideration.

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