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Wolf Warns That Emergency Powers Ballot Questions Would Make It ‘A Lot Messier, Slower’ To Manage Crises

Tom Wolf.jpg
An-Li Herring
90.5 WESA
During a stop in Pittsburgh Wednesday, May 12, Democratic Governor Tom Wolf called on Pennsylvania voters to reject two ballot questions that would weaken the executive branch’s authority to declare states of emergency.

With the primary election less than a week away, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf on Tuesday urged Pennsylvanians to reject two ballot initiatives that would significantly curtail the executive’s powers during emergencies such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

Speaking outside the Allegheny County Courthouse, Wolf warned that the proposals would “make the whole process of getting help when and where it's needed a lot messier … a lot more complicated, [and] a lot slower.”

“They handcuff our political system when it comes to responding to the crises that constantly surprise every society and every single political system in the world,” the governor said. “We’ve just gone through the COVID pandemic. That's a crisis, but there are crises that preceded that, and there are crises sure enough that will come after that.”

While one of the ballot questions would limit the governor’s disaster declarations to three weeks, the other would allow state lawmakers to extend or cancel the proclamations without the chief executive’s input. Both proposals would amend the state constitution.

Currently in Pennsylvania, a state of emergency can last up to 90 days, and governors usually can extend it at their discretion. Wolf has renewed his COVID-19 emergency declaration four times since March 2020.

His handling of the coronavirus pandemic has fueled Republican demands to scale back executive emergency powers. GOP legislators have complained that the administration’s shutdown orders and mask mandates are too sweeping. They also fault the administration for a slow vaccine rollout and refusal to disclose information about its handling of the virus.

This year, lawmakers in 45 states have sought to curb their governors’ emergency authority, and they’ve succeeded in at least 11 cases. In Pennsylvania, states of emergency last notably longer than in many other states, where the period lasts between five and 60 days.

Wolf said he is not concerned about the disparity because the General Assembly has the power to overturn disaster proclamations. But when the legislature attempted to undo Wolf’s COVID-19 declaration last summer, Wolf vetoed the move, and lawmakers never amassed the two-thirds majority needed to override his veto.

Voters of any party affiliation may weigh in on the ballot questions Tuesday.

An-Li Herring is a reporter for 90.5 WESA, with a focus on economic policy, local government, and the courts. She previously interned for NPR Legal Affairs Correspondent Nina Totenberg in Washington, DC, and the investigations team at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. A Pittsburgh native, An-Li completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan and earned her law degree from Stanford University. She can be reached at aherring@wesa.fm.
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