HARRISBURG — Denise Johnson's confirmation hearing for the state's Physician General position appears to be caught up in a dispute between Senate Republicans and Gov. Tom Wolf.
Wolf has taken the "extraordinary” step of recalling the nominations of seven Cabinet members in response to a threat by Republicans that they won’t confirm his nominees to the Public Utility Commission if the administration continues its planned entry into a Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.
A spokeswoman for the governor said the Cabinet officials can continue to do their jobs without Senate confirmation.
“At this time, the governor has withdrawn several of his nominations because the Wolf administration will not let its cabinet officials be held hostage by the Senate Republicans' insistence to halt progress on policy issues that are important to Pennsylvania's citizens. The individuals will continue to serve in an acting capacity. The title of ‘acting’ does not impact their ability to do the job in any way,” said Lyndsay Kensinger, a spokeswoman for the governor.
The seven officials whose nominations were withdrawn are: Johnson of Meadville, Acting Adjutant General Mark Schindler, Acting Secretary of State Veronica Degraffenreid, Acting Secretary of Education Noe Ortega, Acting Secretary of Labor and Industry Jennifer Berrier, Acting Secretary of Human Services Meg Snead, and Acting Secretary of Health Alison Beam, said state Sen. John Gordner, the vice chairman of the Senate rules and executive nominations committee.
Johnson was nominated in March to succeed Dr. Wendy Braund. As physician general, Johnson's role is to advise the governor as well as the Secretary of Health on health policy in Pennsylvania.
Gordner called Wolf’s move “extraordinary” and added that Senate leaders haven’t decided whether to honor Wolf’s request or not. Last November, Wolf sought to recall the nomination of then Victim Advocate Jennifer Storm, but the Senate ignored him and voted against confirming her.
Gordner said if the Senate were to ignore Wolf’s recall request it’s not even clear that the Senate wouldn’t confirm the nominees.
“We can take any action on them,” he said.
The Senate had been preparing to confirm Berrier as Labor and Industry secretary before Wolf recalled her nomination, Gordner said.
Wolf’s move came a week after all Senate Republicans, plus state Sen. John Yudickak, an independent from Luzerne County, signed a letter threatening to vote against Wolf’s nominees for the PUC over the RGGI controversy.
Wolf announced his plan in 2019 to join RGGI — whose existing members include Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont — a cap-and-trade agreement intended to limit greenhouse gas production.
“We have made it clear over the past 19 months that this is about the balance of powers in Pennsylvania,” said Republican Sen. Joe Pittman of Indiana County. “One of the key components of RGGI is a tax on carbon emissions. That in and of itself would destroy thousands of family-sustaining jobs across the commonwealth. Beyond that, the power to tax is a function of the legislative branch, not the executive branch. It is dangerous precedent to tolerate the Governor unilaterally imposing a tax. This moratorium on confirmation of PUC nominees is a reminder to the Governor that Pennsylvania has three distinct and co-equal branches of government.”
John Finnerty reports from the Harrisburg Bureau for The Meadville Tribune and other Pennsylvania newspapers owned by CNHI. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.