Legislature takes first step to try to limit governor’s powers

If you can’t beat the governor in court, try again in the legislature.

That’s exactly what the Pennsylvania General Assembly is trying to do in SB 1166, which would limit the governor’s unilateral ability to declare an emergency.

When Gov. Tom Wolf extended the declaration for an additional 90 days last month, Senate Republicans took a challenge to the state Supreme Court regarding Wolf’s ability to make the declaration.

The Supreme Court sided with Wolf.

SB 1166 is a different means to the same end and aims to amend the state constitution to limit the governor’s ability to issue such declarations.

The measure might rightly be perceived as a long shot. To amend the constitution requires passage in consecutive sessions of the General Assembly and then approval via a state-wide public referendum.

The legislation, approved by the House of Representatives yesterday and the state Senate last month, permits the governor to take executive action “upon finding that a disaster has occurred or that the occurrence or threat of a disaster is imminent that threatens the health, safety or welfare of this Commonwealth.”

That’s where the similarities to the current COVID-19 pandemic end.

Each disaster emergency declaration issued by the governor… shall indicate the nature, each area threatened and the conditions of the disaster, including whether the disaster is a natural disaster, military emergency, public health emergency, technological disaster or other general emergency, as defined by statute,” the legislation states. “The General Assembly shall, by statute, provide for the manner in which each type of disaster enumerated under this subsection shall be managed.”

The bill also seeks to cap the length of a governor’s order to 21 days and hamstring the ability to extend the declaration.

“Upon the expiration of a disaster emergency declaration… the governor may not issue a new disaster emergency declaration based upon the same or substantially similar facts and circumstances without the passage of a concurrent resolution of the General Assembly expressly approving the new disaster declaration.”

The measure passed the House 115-86 on Tuesday.

State Senators Michele Brooks and Scott Hutchinson voted in the affirmative at committee and on final passage last month while Rapp votes yes on Tuesday.

Rapp said on Facebook that the legislation would “empower the people to take back their lives, livelihoods and liberties from Wolf’s unchecked abuse of emergency powers” that, she says, have caused “three million unemployment claims and thousands of COVID-19 deaths in our nursing homes.”

Speaking on SB 1166 specifically, Rapp said that the legislation “ensures our citizens are fully represented, even during state-declared emergencies.”


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