The concepts of “checks and balances” are embedded in the U.S. and state constitutions. Under normal conditions, lawmakers, elected by the people, pass bills that are forwarded to the president or governor for approval or veto. Conversely, elected officials in the House and Senate hold the power to fund or defund initiatives proposed by the president or governor.
In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, there is now a strong possibility that citizens of Pennsylvania will decide how the balance of power works within the state government during emergency situations.
On Wednesday, the state Senate approved a proposal to amend the state Constitution, previously adopted by the House of Representatives, that would limit the length of emergency declarations — times in which the governor is granted extended powers to direct operations. Under Senate Bill 1166, adopted by a 33-17 vote in the Senate on Wednesday — the governor would need the approval of the Legislature to continue emergency operations beyond 21 days.
This is an issue that has emerged during the current COVID-19 pandemic. Gov. Tom Wolf issued a 90-day emergency order in response to the pandemic on March 6 and renewed it on June 3. Under current law, a governor’s emergency declaration — and the broad decision-making powers that come with it — can last up to 90 days and be renewed by the governor indefinitely.
A number of state lawmakers who have disagreed with the governor’s directives and restrictions on business and industry during the outbreak say that after three weeks, there should be some checks and balances.
“More than four months after Governor Wolf issued his emergency declaration, the residents, business owners and employers across the 23rd Senate District continue to live under his restrictions,” said state Sen. Gene Yaw, R-23, whose Senate district includes Union and Lycoming counties.
“As we have seen first-hand over that timeframe, the governor has, on numerous occasions, muted the concerns of the public, as well as their elected representatives. It is clear, the governor should not have the autonomous power to restrict the voices of Pennsylvania for this length of time.”
State Sen. John Gordner, R-27, whose district includes Snyder, Northumberland, Montour and Columbia counties, said the constitutional amendment proposal is intended to restore the balance of power between the executive, legislative and judicial branches. “I don’t think anyone believes that Wolf won’t extend the declaration” when this current 90-day order expires, he said.
Pennsylvania is not alone considering limits to gubernatorial powers during a state of emergency, according to data gathered by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Proposals now pending in North Carolina and South Carolina would limit a governor’s initial state of emergency order to 14 and 15 days, respectively, and Delaware and Illinois are considering 30-day limits on emergency orders before legislators decide if they should continue,
In Pennsylvania, the constitutional amendment proposal has passed the House and Senate, but in order to advance, the same exact legislation must be adopted by both chambers again next year before moving on for a final decision by those who hold the ultimate checks and balances — the voters.
NOTE: Opinions expressed in The Daily Item’s editorials are the consensus of the publisher, top newsroom executives and community members of the editorial board. Today’s was written by Digital Editor Dave Hilliard.