HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — A divided state House on Friday gave lawmakers' final OK to put on the May ballot a constitutional amendment limiting governors' powers during a disaster emergency.
State representatives voted 116-86 for the Republican-backed proposal that would end emergency disaster declarations after 21 days, unless lawmakers approve an extension through a majority vote.
It would also explicitly give lawmakers, with a two-thirds majority vote, the capacity to end a disaster declaration without the governor's signature.
If voters approve it on May 18, the amendment will go into effect.
Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf's first COVID-19 pandemic emergency order was issued in March for 90 days, the maximum allowed, and he has since extended it repeatedly. A separate disaster emergency for the opioid crisis has been in place for several years.
"Businesses have been shut down — they don't exist any more under this order," said Rep. Seth Grove, R-York, referring to the pandemic. "There's no continuity for any business to stay open. Checks and balances. This should be a unanimous vote from this General Assembly to send a message that we will not curtail our powers and erode them any more."
Rep. Margo Davidson, D-Delaware, warned of the proposal's consequences.
"It's not the first and will not be the last power grab by this Republican, gerrymandered, Republican majority. This bill does not deal with the fact that on day 22 of any emergency, what will happen?" Davidson said.
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Emergency disaster declarations give governors the power to issue or rescind executive orders and regulations, access stockpiles of emergency supplies and equipment and suspend laws or regulations that govern state agencies.
Republicans have primarily made the case for the proposed amendment by criticizing Wolf's shutdowns of businesses during the pandemic. But the amendment may have no such legal effect on that kind of executive branch power in the future.
Wolf has cited the authority for such measures under the state's Disease Prevention and Control Act to shut down businesses and schools and issue broad masking orders and other social-distancing requirements on the state's citizens.
Courts have repeatedly backed Wolf's use of those powers during the pandemic. In any case, Wolf's administration has said lifting the emergency disaster declaration would not affect powers such as those, which rest on the state's Disease Prevention and Control Act.
Courts may end up determining the ultimate effect of the proposed amendment.
Wolf's office has said that lifting the declaration now would make Pennsylvania the only state without such an order in place and would cost it federal aid.
The House also voted unanimously Friday for a bill that would direct participation of the Pennsylvania National Guard in getting state residents vaccinated against COVID-19. It was sent to the Senate for its consideration.
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