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Gov. Tom Wolf Wants Lawmakers To Return To Renew His Opioid Emergency Declaration, But Republican Leaders Are Non-Committal

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) -- Gov. Tom Wolf has asked state legislative leaders to call their colleagues back from summer recess in order to extend his emergency order on the opioid crisis.

Local officials say the opioid crisis is not over yet.

A governor once could declare an emergency and renew it every 90 days. But a constitutional amendment approved by voters last May now limits that declaration to just 21 days and then requires legislative approval to continue.

But here's the problem right now. The legislature is on its 10-week summer break until late September.

In a letter to House Speaker Bryan Cutler and Senate President Jake Corman, Wolf said legislators need to return to Harrisburg in late August to extend his declaration.

"We really have an addiction crisis or an overdose crisis. It really has expanded beyond opioids at this point," Pennsylvania Secretary of Drug & Alcohol Programs Jennifer Smith told KDKA political editor Jon Delano on Tuesday.

Smith said the problem got worse during the pandemic.

"Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic really did escalate substance use disorder," Smith said.

More than 5,100 deaths occurred last year, and this region was no exception. Take Allegheny County, for example.

"Last year, there were 689 overdose deaths," said Erin Dalton, the director of Allegheny County's Department of Human Services. "That's an increase of 120 deaths over the 2019 number. It's staggering."

Those deaths are six times the 107 homicides in the county last year, said Dalton.

The governor will renew his declaration of an opioid emergency on Thursday, but it will expire in 21 days on Aug. 26. The state House does not return to Harrisburg until Sept. 27.

Smith said the renewal is important for information sharing.

"What the governor is really asking right now is for the legislature to be proactive and renew this declaration so that we have that ability at our disposal given what we know about the increase in overdose deaths," Smith said.

Public health officials said this is not the time to end the emergency. Republican leaders in Harrisburg said they agree about the need to confront drug abuse but are not sure yet an emergency declaration is needed.

Jason Thompson, a spokesperson for Senate President Corman, sent this statement to KDKA:

"Addressing the terrible toll of the opioid crisis remains a top priority for Senator Corman and the Senate Republican Caucus, and we remain committed to working on a bipartisan basis to help individuals and families who have been affected by addiction. At this time, we are still evaluating Governor Wolf's request to determine whether an extension of the emergency declaration is warranted beyond the end of August. As the governor mentioned in his letter, the most critical resources to fight this epidemic are already established in state law, and many members of the General Assembly have also developed additional plans to help prevent addiction and support individuals in recovery. We will continue to evaluate how we can best address the opioid epidemic in the days and weeks ahead."

Mike Straub, a spokesperson for House Speaker Cutler, added these words:

"We are reviewing the request from Governor Wolf. Many of the powers first authorized by this declaration are now accomplished through other means. We are currently determining if it's in the best interest of Pennsylvanians to extend the declaration or continue efforts to address the epidemic through legislation. We remain committed to fighting against the scourge of opioid addiction and are willing to be a collaborative partner with the other branches of government in achieving our shared goals."

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