HARRISBURG — Even as businesses begin to reopen across the state, the General Assembly on Tuesday handed down a new rebuke of the governor’s business closings, passing a resolution that would end the governor’s emergency declaration.
Gov. Tom Wolf has repeatedly said he believes he can veto any such resolution. Lawmakers say even though Wolf can veto the resolution, there’s also nothing to stop him from issuing a new emergency declaration if the resolution passes. Wolf first issued a 90-day emergency order to response to the coronavirus pandemic on March 6 and renewed it on June 3.
“It’s time to end this power grab and get back to life, safely,” said state Sen. Wayne Langerholc, R-Cambria County.
The state House passed the resolution by a vote of 121-81. Twelve Democrats, mostly from western Pennsylvania, voted with the Republicans in the state House.
The Democrats who supported the resolution were: Bill Kortz, Brandon Markosek, Anita Kulik and Joseph Petrarca and Harry Readshaw, all from Allegheny County; Robert Merski, Ryan Bizzarro and Patrick Harkins, all of Erie County; Frank Burns of Cambria County; Scott Conklin of Centre County; Gerald Mullery of Luzerne County; and Pam Snyder of Washington County.
The resolution passed the Senate by a vote of 31-19. Two Democrats — state Sen. James Brewster, D-Allegheny County, and state Sen. Judy Schwank, D-Berks County — and independent John Yudichak of Luzerne County, joined the Republicans in supporting the Senate vote.
The move comes as the latest battle line in a weeks-long tussle between the Wolf administration and Republican lawmakers who’ve been pushing to get the Democratic governor to more quickly and more widely relax social-distancing restrictions as the spread of coronavirus around the state has slowed.
The Senate had altered a version of the resolution that had already passed in the state House, so the measure was returned to the House for the concurrence vote.
State Rep. Brad Roae, R-Crawford County, said the state’s emergency order isn’t needed any more and it’s driving people to cross the border to escape the restrictions.
“I don’t think we’re in a state of emergency,” he said. “Erie County residents are going to Ohio, we need to open our economy.”
The vote sends up an unprecedented showdown with uncertain legal implications as supporters and opponents of the proposal debated how far-reaching its implications could be.
Lyndsay Kensinger, a spokeswoman for the governor, said Wolf will disapprove of the resolution when it’s presented to him.
If the resolution were to take effect, it would not end the state’s business closure plan, she said.
“The resolution would not affect the Secretary of Health’s order including building closure orders, and building safety orders and therefore the administration’s phased reopening plan and associated orders would remain place,” Kensinger said.
However, the resolution, if it takes effect, could interfere with the state’s ability to deploy the National Guard, and end freezes on regulations put in place to help respond to the pandemic, she said. Ending the emergency declaration would also jeopardize federal disaster assistance, she said.
Ending the declaration would also end relief passed by the Legislature that is tied to the emergency declaration including changes to unemployment, property tax relief and educational tax credit waivers.
State Rep. Joe Hoehenstein, D-Philadelphia County, said the possibility of interfering with the changes to make it easier to get unemployment are particularly problematic.
“If you want to pull the rug out from under my constituents, from under your constituents, that’s on you,” he said.
Republicans in the state Senate said they’d been assured by federal officials that ending the emergency declaration wouldn’t bar the state from getting federal assistance.
State Sen. Ryan Aument, R-Lancaster County, added that it’s not clear the governor has the legal authority to veto the resolution.
Aument said the state law giving the governor the power to declare an emergency includes language indicating the General Assembly can end the governor’s emergency order.
According to a copy of the code posted on the state website, it reads: “The General Assembly by concurrent resolution may terminate a state of disaster emergency at any time. Thereupon, the Governor shall issue an executive order or proclamation ending the state of disaster emergency.”
State Rep. Marty Flynn, D-Luzerne County, said there is conflicting language in the state Constitution which suggests the governor would have the authority to reject the resolution.
The Constitution says: “Every order, resolution or vote, to which the concurrence of both Houses may be necessary, except on the question of adjournment, shall be presented to the Governor and before it shall take effect be approved by him, or being disapproved, shall be repassed by two-thirds of both Houses.”
Flynn said that language clearly indicates the General Assembly is trying to overstep its authority. “We’re out of our lane,” he said.
No other state has canceled its emergency declaration for the COVID-19 pandemic, said state Sen. Marie Collett, D-Montgomery County. State Sen. Lindsey Williams, D-Allegheny County, said she asked Republicans to provide written documentation to support their assertion that the move won’t interfere with state efforts to get additional federal assistance. The language provided by Republican lawmakers didn’t convince her, she said.
Sen Mike Regan, R-Cumberland County, said the governor’s actions have at times been arbitrary, both during the emergency response and during the business reopening strategy that’s been unfolding across the state.
Cumberland County, which has had 683 cases, is due to enter the state’s green phase of relaxed social distancing, while nearby Perry County, which has had just 68 cases, isn’t.
“None of this makes sense,” he said. “None of this has ever made sense.”
John Finnerty reports from the Harrisburg Bureau for The Meadville Tribune and other Pennsylvania newspapers owned by CNHI. Email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.