Pennsylvanians Back Amendments that Limit a Governor’s Powers

In this May 12, 2021 file photo, Gov. Tom Wolf speaks at an event in Mechanicsburg, Pa. (AP Photo/Marc Levy)

By Patrick Abdalla

May 19, 2021

The GOP backed the amendments because of its anger with Gov. Tom Wolf. 

HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania voters appear to have approved two state constitutional amendments that will restrict a governor’s powers during statewide disasters.

The amendments were largely pushed by Republicans who were unhappy with Gov. Tom Wolf’s actions in responding to the coronavirus pandemic. 

Republican lawmakers across the country are reeling in emergency powers that governors wielded during the COVID-19 pandemic, and Pennsylvania is in the unique position of being the first to take the question to voters.

The first proposed amendment would make it easier for the legislature to terminate a disaster declaration. It garnered more than 53.7% of the vote, according to the state’s unofficial results as of Wednesday afternoon. 

In 2020, Republicans were angry about Wolf’s disaster declaration and tried to overturn it with a resolution. They didn’t have the votes to overturn his veto, however, so they voted to change the state’s constitution.

Now the legislature has the ability to cut any disaster declaration short with a simple majority vote. 

The second proposed amendment limits a disaster declaration to 21 days. For that declaration to be extended, the state Legislature would have to approve it. 

Wolf’s coronavirus disaster declaration has been in place since March of 2020.

The coronavirus declaration isn’t the only disaster declaration in the state right now. Wolf issued a declaration concerning the opioid pandemic in 2018 that he has renewed 13 times. 

When the election is certified and the amendment adopted, the legislature will have to vote on the opioid declaration.

That amendment had 53.7% of the vote, according to the state.

Wolf, a Democrat, and his emergency disaster director have called the proposals reckless, political, and a threat to a functioning society if it prevents a fast and wide-ranging response to increasingly complicated disasters.

Republicans have accused Wolf of fear-mongering and said that the framers of the constitution never intended for a governor to hold so much power to suspend regulations, order mask-wearing, and order businesses and schools to shut down.

The Legislature did not hold hearings on the measures, and they might end up in court because their effect is in dispute.

Republicans claim the governor cannot order shutdowns without a disaster emergency in effect. Wolf disagrees, saying a governor’s authority during a public health emergency rests on separate public health law and is unaffected by the ballot questions. — The Associated Press contributed to this report


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