Pennsylvania voters are poised to curb their Democratic governor’s emergency powers.
Two referendums on the ballot in Tuesday’s primary election gave voters the choice to shift the balance of power in a disaster emergency from Gov. Tom Wolf (D.) to the Republican-controlled General Assembly. The latest election returns showed both referendums held commanding leads in favor of stripping the governor’s powers.
The first will give the state legislature the authority to end or extend an emergency declaration made by the governor. The second will automatically end an emergency declaration after 21 days unless the General Assembly votes to extend it. As of Wednesday morning, returns showed voters favored the referendums by a 7 percent margin with 74 percent of precincts reporting, according to the Morning Call.
Republicans in the General Assembly voted in favor of both measures in January and February, allowing voters the final say in Tuesday’s election on whether to enshrine them in the state’s constitution.
Lawmakers backing the amendments say they were prompted by Wolf’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Republicans have criticized the governor for his emergency restrictions and shutdowns on businesses—like his March 2020 order shuttering all gun stores in the state—that they found arbitrary and draconian.
“Wolf has maintained nearly absolute power to take any action he has deemed necessary over the past year … without any sense of transparency to justify his actions,” state Senate majority leader Kim Ward (R.) and other state Senate Republicans said in a statement endorsing the referendums. “An extraordinary number of employers have faced shutdowns and restrictions that go far beyond the recommendations of national health experts—unless a business benefited from a secretive and inconsistent waiver process the Wolf Administration oversaw.”
Voters favored the referendums in spite of concerns that the Wolf administration worked to undermine the initiatives by including biased language in the ballot text. The first referendum question asked voters if they support giving the General Assembly authority to end an emergency declaration “regardless of its severity … thereby removing the existing check and balance of presenting a resolution to the governor.” The second question said the proposal would cause emergency declarations to expire automatically “regardless of the severity of the emergency” and make the governor unable to “declare a new disaster emergency to respond to the dangers facing the Commonwealth.”