GOP leaders accuse Wolf of setting up voting questions on emergency powers for failure: ‘It wasn’t a mistake’

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Republican legislative leaders accuse Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration of trying to sabotage their efforts to reassert their authority in determining the duration of emergency disaster declarations in Pennsylvania.

They say the governor’s State Department intentionally formulated two proposed constitutional amendments which will appear on the May 18th primary ballot in a way that tries to ensure that they fail to garner support from voters.

“It was not a mistake,” said Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Jake Corman of R-Center County of the wording of the proposed amendments.

“The governor is so desperate to hang on to power that he drafted this language in the May ballot to misrepresent the amendment,” said House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff of County R- Center.

Corman, Benninghoff and Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland County, spoke about voting issues at a press conference on Capitol Hill Thursday.

A spokeswoman for Wolf defended the wording as necessary to provide context for the referendum that voters are urged to consider.

One of the proposed amendments would limit the duration of an emergency disaster to 21 days, but it could be extended by passing a concomitant General Assembly resolution. Currently, the constitution allows a governor’s emergency disaster to last up to 90 days and can be extended indefinitely.

The State Department wording is as follows:

“Should the Pennsylvania Constitution be amended to change existing law and increase the power of the General Assembly to unilaterally terminate or extend a declaration of disaster emergency – and the powers of Commonwealth agencies to in the face of disaster however serious it is in accordance with this statement – by passing a simultaneous resolution by simple majority, thereby removing the existing control and balance of presenting a resolution to the governor for approval or disapproval? “

A separate amendment would allow the General Assembly to end an emergency disaster without having to present it to the governor for signature. This follows from a decision of the State Supreme Court However, the General Assembly cannot act unilaterally to end a governor’s declaration of emergency. The court said it would require the governor’s approval to go into effect.

Here is the State Department wording of that referendum:

“Should the Pennsylvania Constitution be amended to change existing law so that: a declaration of disaster emergency automatically expires after 21 days, regardless of the severity of the emergency, unless the Assembly general take action to prolong the disaster emergency; the Governor cannot declare a new disaster emergency to respond to the dangers facing the Commonwealth unless the General Assembly passes a concomitant resolution; the General Assembly promulgates new laws for disaster management? “

Wolf spokesperson Lyndsay Kensinger said: “Ballot questions tell the voter in a fair, precise and clear manner what question to vote on. The proposed amendment removes the existing control and balance – already contained in the Constitution of the Palestinian Authority – of presenting simultaneous resolutions to the governor for approval or disapproval. “

The administration is also reporting a series of court cases that highlight the need for voters to have context in relation to the issue before them.

Wolf, along with his Democratic allies, have made clear their opposition to these proposed constitutional changes that stemmed from Republicans’ dissatisfaction with Wolf’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Democrats say the governor’s decisions related to the pandemic had the health and safety of the public at heart and that the proposed constitutional amendments are an attempt to seize power by Republican legislative majorities.

But Republican leaders have maintained their intention behind the proposed amendment, which has been passed by both houses with bipartisan support in two consecutive legislative sessions, is intended to give the people a voice in determining the duration of a disaster. emergency.

“We’re not trying to take away the governor’s power,” Ward said. “We are trying to reestablish our equal branches of government. And if there is still an emergency going on, yes the governor still has a call for a state of emergency, but we would also have a seat at the table to look at things.

Benninghoff said the administration’s decision to draft the referendum the way it did begs the question, “Why are they so scared?”

“All we asked for was to have a voice,” he said.

Particularly troubling to GOP leaders were the phrases “however severe the emergency” and “remove existing checks and balances” they support are meant to scare voters into voting no.

“It’s shameful,” Benninghoff said. “I’m just amazed at the way this was written and frankly the Pennsylvanians deserve better.

It is the latest in a series of issues that have arisen with other proposed constitutional amendments since Wolf has been governor.

Recently, lawmakers have overwhelmed the inability of the State Department to release a proposed amendment this would open a two-year window for lawsuits brought by survivors of child sexual abuse who are beyond the statute of limitations. Lawmakers and victim advocates wanted him to appear on the May ballot. This botched effort led to the resignation of Kathy Boockvar as secretary of the department.

Five years ago, it was the State Department’s formulation of yet another proposed constitutional amendment regarding the mandatory retirement age for judges that became the center of the controversy that resulted in an unsuccessful legal challenge by Republicans in the Senate. The dispute over this referendum unfolded so close to the primary elections that the issue ended up appearing twice on the ballots. The first time the question came up it didn’t count and the second time, he barely passed.

Going forward, Corman said they are looking to remove the State Department from the role of drafting voting questions and hand them over to the bipartisan Legislative Reference Office. The office is at the center of the legislative action that led to his time in the General Assembly and knows the intent behind it, Corman said.

Regarding these proposed amendments, Corman said no legal challenges are being considered, citing Republicans’ unsuccessful record on various Democratic-majority issues in the state’s Supreme Court.

Instead, he said they would focus on educating voters on ballot issues.

“It’s about how we move forward as a government and we want one person to make all of these decisions. I don’t think our drafters designed our government that way, ”Corman said. “We hope to do our best to educate voters again so they can make the call.”

Last week, Wolf signed another 90-day extension to the state’s disaster declaration due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It will be in effect until the May primary.

Jan Murphy can be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @JanMurphy.

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