A Column by
Senator Joe Pittman
41st Senatorial District
The COVID-19 pandemic has created extraordinary challenges that clearly require the cooperation of all branches and levels of government. Unfortunately, Governor Wolf has maintained nearly absolute power over the past year, disregarding the opinions of lawmakers and the public.
The impact of that unilateral governance has been tough on many of our citizens. Far too many of Pennsylvania’s employers were arbitrarily shutdown and suffered under restrictions well beyond the recommendations of national health experts. Those closures thrust displaced workers into an overwhelmed unemployment system. The needs of long-term care residents were ignored or jeopardized by directives from the Administration. And now, even as we see a light at the end of the tunnel, the initial rollout of the vaccine was badly botched.
Meanwhile, the Governor simply – and routinely – just extends his own powers under successive emergency declarations. That must change. We are a democracy, not a monarchy. The people of Pennsylvania — and their representatives in the General Assembly – must be a part of the process.
Last Session, and again in February, the Legislature approved Senate Bill 2, amendments to the Pennsylvania Constitution that would provide a stronger system of checks and balances in how state government responds to emergencies to avoid these kinds of negative consequences.
The amendments now before the voters in the May primary give voters the final say on whether a Governor – any Governor — should be permitted to keep an emergency declaration in place for an indefinite period of time, or whether lawmakers should have the power to limit future emergency declarations if a Governor abuses this power or deeply infringes on the rights of citizens.
The intent of these amendments is not to divide state government; the goal is to require the Governor to work collaboratively with lawmakers and local emergency officials to avoid the kind of negative consequences we have seen during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Unfortunately, the Department of State distributed substantially altered language of the amendments that will appear on the ballot for voters this spring. Instead of simply informing voters in plain terms what the amendments would do, the Department inserted politically charged and prejudicial language into the ballot questions to scare Pennsylvanians into voting against their own interests.
To be clear, nothing in these amendments would prevent a Governor and state agencies from responding to any emergency. Any Governor could declare a state of emergency to respond in the days following any sort of catastrophe; however, the amendments would ensure these powers would not be open-ended.
Amending the state Constitution is intended to be a deliberative process between the General Assembly and the people of Pennsylvania. The only role of the Executive Branch is to present the questions to voters in a fair, even-handed way. It is deeply disappointing that the Administration has proven incapable of performing that one simple task without attempting to subvert this process for political gain.
The only way we can fight back is to ensure that these amendments are approved at the ballot box – no matter how badly the questions are worded. Our plea to Pennsylvanians is simply this: vote YES on the proposed constitutional amendments this spring.