(By Christen Smith | The Center Square) – State lawmakers moved a resolution Tuesday that would edit Pennsylvania’s existing disaster declaration to prevent business closures and stay-at-home orders should COVID-19 cases rise again.
House Resolution 106 advanced out of the State Government Committee on a party-line vote after Democrats criticized the move as premature and shortsighted. Republicans said voters “spoke loud and clear” in the May 18 primary that they wanted the governor’s emergency powers limited.
“Whether or not voters really understood what that meant in detail is in question,” said Minority Chairwoman Margo Davidson, D-Upper Darby. “However, the election happened and unlike some, I respect the results of each and every election, not just the ones that I like.”
The resolution also would end Gov. Tom Wolf’s ability to engage in “no-bid, single source contracting,” such as the state did last summer when hiring the now disgraced Insight Global for contact tracing services; reinstate work search requirements ahead of the Department of Labor & Industry’s July 18 timeline; and prohibit the return of capacity limits, set to expire on May 31.
“Last week, Pennsylvania voters issued a new mandate to their government that they want more checks and balances in the management of emergency disaster periods,” said Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Bellefonte, in a statement introducing the resolution published Monday. “This resolution is a first step in bringing action to the will of the voters by terminating the most devastating portions of Gov. Wolf’s initial emergency disaster declaration.”
Committee Chairman Seth Grove, R-York, said what remains in the declaration will preserve federal funding and ensure “that we are able to continue some of the regulatory suspensions that have occurred,” until the General Assembly approves legislation making some of those policies more permanent. The edited declaration would expire on Oct. 1.
Some Republicans on the committee expressed doubts that “any part” of the declaration should be extended, but agreed to move it to the chamber floor anyway.
Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, D-Philadelphia, tried to table the resolution until the state certifies the election results on June 7. Until then, the constitutional amendments that give the Legislature the power to end declarations through concurrent resolution alone aren’t enacted, he said. The motion failed along party lines.
“We’re not yet out of the woods completely and I would advise caution with the powers that Republican majority currently holds that they take into consideration the health and safety of the citizens of the commonwealth,” Davidson said.
In a statement issued Tuesday afternoon, Wolf said the orders pertaining to business closures, stay-at-home mandates and capacity limits were issued separately from the disaster proclamation. Therefore, editing the existing declaration to prohibit those actions makes little sense, he said.
He also said that, despite a meeting with legislators just last week, he first learned of the resolution “through a press release” – a move Republicans criticized his administration for loud and often.
“The voters gave the legislature tremendous responsibility,” he said. “The administration stands ready to work with the legislature, but this is a discouraging development.”
The resolution moves to the full chamber for consideration. According to the constitutional amendments approved by voters during the primary election, the Legislature can terminate a disaster declaration with a concurrent resolution approved by both chambers.
With Republicans in control of both the House and Senate, the resolution’s odds of passing remain high.