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Pennsylvania Senate approves constitutional amendments to limit governor’s emergency powers

Pennsylvania Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, (left) and Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, talk May 25, 2020, during the first remote voting session in the chamber’s history. The Senate passed emergency voting rules last month after Gov. Tom Wolf and the CDC recommended social distancing policies meant to slow the spread of COVID-19.

(The Center Square) – Constitutional amendments meant to limit the governor’s emergency powers passed the Senate this week, officially clearing the first hurdle in the path to the ballot.

The chamber voted 33-17 to concur on Senate Bill 1166, with four Democrats breaking from the minority party to support the measure. The vote comes one day after House lawmakers amended the bill to include language that requires the governor seek legislative approval for any extension of a disaster declaration beyond 21 days.

It also specifies that a concurrent resolution passed in the General Assembly need not be presented to the governor in order to become effective – this after a state Supreme Court ruling issued July 1 determined current law requires otherwise.

“Long-term declarations of emergency warrant the engagement of the General Assembly,” Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, said. “Under the state Constitution, we are supposed to have three co-equal branches of government. This Constitutional amendment is about protecting the institution of the Senate and the balance of power that has been lost throughout this emergency”

Constitutional amendments must past each chamber in two consecutive sessions before voters see the referendum appear on the ballot. The Senate’s passage Wednesday primes SB 1166 for its second round of consideration next year.

It’s the latest twist in a monthslong war between the Legislature’s conservative majority and the Democratic administration over how far statewide restrictions on the economy should go during the pandemic.

Gov. Tom Wolf has maintained the emergency powers afforded to him during a disaster declaration – enshrined in state law dating back four decades – give him the authority to enact strict mitigation efforts, like shutting down restaurants or bars, while also leveraging financial aid and state resources to coordinate the best response.

But Republicans say his efforts have gone too far and lack consistency, crushing small businesses, spiking unemployment and descending the state into an economic crisis far worse than necessary. SB 1166 would unravel the governor’s standing and give the Legislature more control over how long disaster declarations can last.

Crucially, a governor cannot veto constitutional amendments – making SB 1166 a last-ditch effort to defeat Wolf’s pandemic policies, albeit a symbolic win only.

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