By Richard A. Panzer, PhD
When Pennsylvania voters head to the polls on Tuesday, May 18, for the primary election, they will find three important questions on the ballot regarding amendments to the state Constitution. The first two constitutional questions deal with disaster emergency declarations while the third addresses racial equality.
Why Are These Questions Important?
For more than a year, Pennsylvania has been operating under two long-term disaster emergency declarations imposed by Gov. Tom Wolf. One declaration is related to the opioid epidemic and has been in place for more than three years, while the other was ordered in March 2020 at the start of the pandemic. The governor renewed the COVID-19 declaration for a fourth time in February.
On Tuesday, May 18, voters will have a say in the duration of future disaster emergency declarations under legislation approved by the General Assembly. Senate Bill 2 proposes to amend the state Constitution regarding disaster declarations in two ways: limiting emergency declarations by a governor to a maximum of 21 days without legislative approval and clarifying that a concurrent resolution terminating or extending a disaster emergency declaration need not be presented to the governor for his signature.
While executive powers to declare emergencies are sometimes needed to free up resources for an immediate response to situations such as natural disasters, disaster emergencies should NOT be used to circumvent the state Constitution, the separation of powers or – most importantly – the will of the people.
If approved, these constitutional amendments would restore the checks and balances that our government was built upon and give power back to the people who elect us to represent their interests.
What You’ll See on the Ballot
The questions will appear on the May 18 ballot as follows. Voters need to be aware questions one and two were written by the governor’s Department of State using language that is far from impartial. In other words, the Governor does not want any limitations on his power to rule by fiat through endlessly extending “emergencies.”
Ballot Question #1
Shall the Pennsylvania Constitution be amended to change existing law and increase the power of the General Assembly to unilaterally terminate or extend a disaster emergency declaration – and the powers of Commonwealth agencies to address the disaster regardless of its severity pursuant to that declaration – through passing a concurrent resolution by simple majority, thereby removing the existing check and balance of presenting a resolution to the Governor for approval or disapproval?
Context for Ballot Question #1
This proposed amendment comes in response to the governor’s veto of House Resolution 836 of 2020, which would have put an end to the COVID-19 disaster declaration and the governor’s unilateral authority to handle it. While state law authorizes the General Assembly to end disaster declarations with a resolution, the governor insisted – and the court agreed – that resolution was subject to his approval or veto. Under this constitutional amendment, a concurrent resolution terminating or extending a disaster emergency declaration need not be presented to the governor for his signature.
What Your Vote Means
A YES Vote on Ballot Question #1 means a majority of PA state lawmakers, elected by the people, can vote to end emergency declarations and restrictions on citizens.
A NO Vote on Ballot Question #1 means a governor, alone, holds the power to continue emergency restrictions indefinitely even if a legislative majority votes to end them.
Ballot Question #2
Shall the Pennsylvania Constitution be amended to change existing law so that: a disaster emergency declaration will expire automatically after 21 days, regardless of the severity of the emergency, unless the General Assembly takes action to extend the disaster emergency; the Governor may not declare a new disaster emergency to respond to the dangers facing the Commonwealth unless the General Assembly passes a concurrent resolution; the General Assembly enacts new laws for disaster management?
Context for Ballot Question #2
This proposed amendment comes in response to the TWO extended disaster emergency declarations under which we are currently operating. Under this constitutional amendment, disaster declarations would be limited to no more than 21 days, allowing time for the General Assembly to be called into session and meet possible emergency needs. If a governor believes the declaration should last longer, he or she would have to gain approval of the General Assembly by sharing information and data to prove the need for extending the declaration. Under current law, a governor can declare a disaster emergency for a period of up to 90 days and can renew it as often as he or she likes.
What Your Vote Means
A YES Vote on Ballot Question #2 means emergency declarations would be limited to 21 days unless the General Assembly, elected by the people, approves longer.
A NO Vote on Ballot Question #2 means a governor, alone, can extend declarations, including “emergency” provisions, business closures, and restrictions indefinitely.