Wolf edicts take toll on economy

In the face of an emerging crisis, swift and extraordinary action can be warranted. This was certainly true last March, when Gov. Tom Wolf-confronting a deadly, mysterious virus-issued a disaster declaration that granted him emergency powers. There was little time to debate details and build consensus. Pennsylvanians required action.

But more than 300 days later, Wolf still wields powers far beyond the scope of any governor before him. There is no limit on the number of times Wolf can renew the initial disaster declaration. And he has renewed it three times despite the Legislature-with a bipartisan majority-voting to end the governor’s emergency powers.

Such a concentration of power in one branch of government-indeed, in one person-flies in the face of America’s constitutional system of government. Amid worsening economic conditions – some of which are the result of the governor’s actions, it’s time to rethink the scope of emergency powers for him and all future executives.

The consequences of unchecked gubernatorial authority are stark: Nearly one in three Pennsylvania businesses have closed due to government mandates. Wolf, though, has continued to use emergency powers to control the private sector. Over the holiday season, he enacted restrictions that devastated restaurants and small businesses-despite pleas from job creators on the brink of disaster.

Pennsylvanians understand the dangers of COVID-19. Sadly, they also fear how Wolf’s unilateral powers imperil their future.

That’s why the state Legislature, whose members just heard from their constituents during last years’ elections, are making this constitutional crisis a top priority.

Last week, the state House Government Committee passed House Bill 55, which proposes a constitutional amendment to prevent any governor from extending a disaster emergency declaration beyond 21 days without legislative approval.

In other words, the General Assembly would restore legislative oversight on a governor’s executive authority-a necessary reform when considering how Wolf’s power has affected the livelihoods of Pennsylvanians.

This bill follows previous attempts by the Legislature to require accountability and transparency from Wolf. Last July, the governor vetoed a bill-supported by Republicans and Democrats-which would have terminated his emergency proclamation.

That same month, after the state Supreme Court upheld a challenge to this veto, the House and Senate passed with bipartisan majorities Senate Bill 1166, a constitutional amendment which mirrors the bill advanced in the House this week.

Lawmakers’ objective is clear: A governor who invokes a disaster declaration must gain legislative approval before renewing it. This simple check on the gubernatorial authority will allow the people’s representatives to debate the merits of the disaster response and promote cooperation between the two branches of government.

If you’re wondering what prevents the governor from simply vetoing this latest attempt to limit his authority, it’s this: A constitutional amendment does not require a governor’s signature. Instead, an amendment requires a majority vote by both chambers in two consecutive legislative sessions. Then, the measure would go before voters on the next general election ballot. Pennsylvanians would have a chance to directly reassert their voice.

Lawmakers are using the same process to advance the Taxpayer Protection Act, which would limit state spending growth to protect state residents from burdensome tax hikes.

The emergency powers constitutional amendment is key when reviewing Wolf’s pandemic track record, which included the closure of businesses in an often arbitrary and non-transparent manner. Business owners, who are willing and able to follow CDC guidelines to remain open, live in fear of the governor’s next announcement. And Wolf hasn’t indicated any end to his abrupt, even punitive, approach either.

Before the new year, for example, he warned of more restrictions for restaurants and bars ahead of the Super Bowl and Valentine’s Day-two crucial revenue sources during a traditionally slow time of year.

For now, local small business owners and working families are desperate. This is why the General Assembly must act to restore Pennsylvanians’ economic stability, even under an unwilling governor.

The dangers of COVID-19 transcend partisan politics-as does an unchecked concentration of executive power. A yes-or-no referendum is the people’s defense against any governor, present or future, who erodes civil liberties. If lawmakers follow through on passing the emergency powers constitutional amendment, I believe they’ll find Pennsylvanians support limiting the governor’s powers.

Charles Mitchell is president and chief executive officer of the Commonwealth Foundation.


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