We must end risks of unilateral rule Tuesday

A colleague of mine recently said “A benevolent dictator is still a dictator.”

No matter what your political affiliation, it is important to remember that the Founding Founders never envisioned our Republic to be ruled by a single Executive for long stretches of time. Both nationally and at the state level, a strong Executive was constitutionally established for speedy and aggressive action, particularly in the event of natural disasters like floods and earthquakes, or if there were an immediate military necessity. However, the power to act unilaterally was limited in scope by checks and balances.

In Pennsylvania specifically, a maximum time was instituted for an emergency declaration by the Governor, and a provision was included whereby the Legislature could at any time end the declaration. Unfortunately, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently interpreted this provision to practically rule out any ability of the people’s representatives to end a declaration unless the Governor agreed. This seems counter-intuitive and dangerous to democracy. And that court ruling signaled to all future Governors that they could go it alone indefinitely with emergency powers.

Pennsylvanians have now been living under an all-powerful Executive Branch rule for nearly 14 months during the COVID-19 pandemic. Yes, the pandemic has had tragic health consequences for far too many citizens whose lives we mourn. But keep in mind that these broad emergency powers were used to close undefined “non-essential” businesses and ruin livelihoods.

The Governor’s Office, with zero transparency, determined who could get waivers to re-open their businesses. Although this mishmash of a process caused chaos for small family businesses across Pennsylvania, the Governor’s former wooden cabinet business was immediately granted a waiver. Large national chains were permitted to operate while small mom-and-pop competitors were shuttered. Individualized transactions which could occur safely, like outdoor construction, real estate sales, car sales and golfing — which were permitted in every other state following CDC guidelines — were closed in Pennsylvania.

Workers were thrust into an unemployment system that could not handle the volume of new claims. Nursing homes were ordered to admit COVID positive patients even as the Secretary of Health’s mother was surreptitiously moved out of a nursing home and into a hotel. Don’t forget that initially the broad interpretations of emergency powers led the governor to unilaterally close sporting goods stores and suspend firearm sales in Pennsylvania until an immediate public outcry reminded the governor of Second Amendment protections. All these examples and more illustrate the problems with unilateral decision making without any outside input.

There is a better model. Transparency and cooperative dialogue with a broad range of outside voices allows for better decisions. For example, after the unilateral Department of Health vaccine rollout resulted in Pennsylvania receiving a ranking of 44th of 50 states, positive changes came through the collaborative work of a bipartisan Vaccine Task Force involving a new Health Secretary and lawmakers. Although challenges remain, Pennsylvania now ranks 10th in the nation and first among the most populous states for the percentage of individuals having received the first dose of vaccine.

Cooperation and feedback have improved outcomes swiftly and positively for vaccine administration. This demonstrates that bringing more voices to the table, including dissenting voices, can lead to more thoughtful, transparent, and successful responses to future emergencies.

On Tuesday, the voters have a chance to ensure that dialogue, cooperation, and transparency will occur in the event of future emergencies. A “Yes” vote on the Constitutional Amendments will not prevent state government from being able to “respond to the dangers facing the Commonwealth” as the administration claims. Rather, if approved, the amendments simply prevent government rule by one person for a never-ending period.

Join me in voting “Yes”.

Scott E. Hutchinson is state senator of the 21st District, which includes Warren.


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