By Rep. Matthew Dowling
On May 18, Pennsylvania voters will have the opportunity to weigh in on the state’s handling of future disaster emergency declarations by way of two proposed constitutional amendments about the governor’s emergency declaration authority and the role of the Legislature in ending or extending those declarations.
I encourage you to make your voice heard on this important issue on primary election day.
Emergency declarations expand executive powers, and that is necessary sometimes to free up resources for an immediate response to situations such as natural disasters. However, I do not believe emergency powers should be used to circumvent the state Constitution, the separation of powers or – most importantly – the will of the people for extended periods of time.
That’s why I voted “yes” to placing these proposed amendments on the ballot. I believe they would restore the checks and balances that our government was built upon and give power back to the people who elect us to represent them. I voted “yes” because YOU should have the opportunity to decide.
The questions were written by the Wolf administration and will appear on the ballot as follows.
Ballot Question #1
Shall the Pennsylvania Constitution be amended to change existing law and increase the power of the General Assembly to unilaterally terminate or extend a disaster emergency declaration – and the powers of Commonwealth agencies to address the disaster regardless of its severity pursuant to that declaration – through passing a concurrent resolution by simple majority, thereby removing the existing check and balance of presenting a resolution to the Governor for approval or disapproval?
This proposed amendment comes in response to the governor’s veto of House Resolution 836 of 2020, which would have put an end to the COVID-19 disaster declaration and the governor’s unilateral authority to handle it. While state law authorizes the General Assembly to end disaster declarations with a resolution, the governor insisted – and the court agreed – that resolution was subject to his approval or veto. Under this constitutional amendment, a concurrent resolution terminating or extending a disaster emergency declaration need not be presented to the governor for his signature.
Ballot Question #2
Shall the Pennsylvania Constitution be amended to change existing law so that: a disaster emergency declaration will expire automatically after 21 days, regardless of the severity of the emergency, unless the General Assembly takes action to extend the disaster emergency; the Governor may not declare a new disaster emergency to respond to the dangers facing the Commonwealth unless the General Assembly passes a concurrent resolution; the General Assembly enacts new laws for disaster management?
This proposed amendment comes in response to the TWO extended disaster emergency declarations under which we are currently operating – the opioid epidemic declaration, which has been in place more than three years, and the COVID-19 declaration, which has been in place for more than a year. Under this constitutional amendment, disaster declarations would be limited to no more than 21 days. If a governor believes the declaration should last longer, he or she would have to gain approval of the Legislature by sharing information and data to prove the need for extending the declaration. Under current law, a governor can declare a disaster emergency for a period of up to 90 days and then renew that declaration as many times as he or she sees fit.
To reiterate, I voted for the legislation placing these two questions on the ballot because I believe the voice of the people has been silenced by the governor’s refusal to engage with the General Assembly in handling the COVID-19 pandemic.
I should also note a third question on the ballot. While not related to disaster emergency declarations, it is also important: Shall the Pennsylvania Constitution be amended by adding a new section providing that equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged because of an individual’s race or ethnicity?
All voters deserve and will have the opportunity to be heard on these issues during the May 18 primary election. If you are registered as an independent or other third party not typically eligible to vote in the primary election, you are entitled and encouraged to vote on these questions.
Representative Matthew Dowling
51st Legislative District
Pennsylvania House of Representatives
Media Contact: Patricia Hippler