Lawmakers move to limit a governor's disaster powers

(Commonwealth of Pennsylvania)

The Republican-controlled Legislature on Wednesday completed the first step in lawmakers' drive to amend Pennsylvania's constitution and strip future governors of some of their authority under emergency declarations.

The Senate approved it, 33-17, a day after the House.

The measure arises from Republican lawmakers' strident disagreement with how Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, has handled the coronavirus pandemic in Pennsylvania.

It is packaged with a provision, inserted by Democrats, that guarantees equal rights under the law, regardless of race or ethnicity, although constitutional law professors say it will have little practical effect because courts already consider such discrimination to violate both the state and federal constitutions.

Aside from that, it would end an emergency disaster declaration after 21 days, unless lawmakers approve an extension through a majority vote. It also includes wording to prevent a governor from issuing another order that is similar or identical right after the first one expires, and gives lawmakers, with a two-thirds majority vote, the ability to end a disaster declaration.

Wolf first issued an emergency order in early March for 90 days, and extended it by another 90 days. Republicans say the amendment will bring balance of power during disaster emergencies, while Democrats say it will deprive a governor of the ability to manage a disaster.

Lawmakers must pass it again in the next two-year legislative session, starting in January, before it can go to voters for approval in a statewide referendum.


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