PA disaster declarations up for vote

By OWEN WALSH
Posted 2/18/21

HARRISBURG, PA — Last Tuesday, Gov. Tom Wolf renewed his emergency disaster declaration for the opioid crisis for a 13th time. This extends the opioid epidemic’s emergency status until …

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PA disaster declarations up for vote

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HARRISBURG, PA — Last Tuesday, Gov. Tom Wolf renewed his emergency disaster declaration for the opioid crisis for a 13th time. This extends the opioid epidemic’s emergency status until May—the same month that voters will be deciding the fate of this practice.

According to Spotlight PA, such declarations “greatly expands the executive’s powers, allowing the governor to suspend regulatory provisions, control travel from certain areas and suspend the sale of guns.”

“The opioid and heroin epidemic is an ongoing public health crisis, one that requires immense coordination of staff and resources to save lives and promote healing,” Wolf said in a statement. “The work done by the Opioid Command Center continues to change lives and communities in the commonwealth, and it is only possible because of this disaster declaration.”

The governor has been renewing the opioid disaster declaration since 2018. There’s also a newer one for the COVID-19 pandemic, which Wolf has extended three times so far.

Wolf defends his liberal use of these declarations, saying that they simply help loosen regulations and expedite aid to those most affected by the crises. But some PA leaders, most notably state Republicans, want the measure reigned in, saying that it diminishes authority from the other branches of state government.

“It is an issue of consolidated power in our government, where you’re supposed to have three branches of government,” said Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward of Westmoreland County. “These emergency declarations essentially cut out us.”

The General Assembly is now looking to Pennsylvanians to vote through two constitutional amendments during the Primary Election in May that would limit a governor’s ability to declare and renew emergencies. One would require legislative approval to extend an emergency disaster declaration past 21 days, the other would grant legislators the ability to end a declaration at any time, without requiring approval from the governor.

While speaking to the River Reporter during his run for re-election in 2020, Wayne and Pike counties’ Rep. Mike Peifer criticized the governor’s use of emergency declarations.

“Is it really effective after three years?” Peifer asked of the opioid crisis. “I think the emergency part is over. We know what we’re up against.”

Since the offset of the pandemic, Pennsylvania Republicans have made numerous efforts to end the governor’s COVID-era emergency declarations. In June 2020, the state’s General Assembly passed a resolution terminating the emergency declaration. With Wolf promising to reject the resolution and Republicans contending that the resolution was legally binding with or without the governor’s approval, the case went to the courts. By July, the PA Supreme Court ruled that the legislature lacked the authority to force the governor to end his disaster declaration.

Conversations about the governor’s emergency disaster declarations often revolve around disapproval of his orders through the health department for businesses to close temporarily in order to curb the spread of COVID-19. Republicans have consistently chastised the governor for hurting small Pennsylvania businesses with shutdowns and restrictions. However, the governor and Department of Health have consistently stated that emergency disaster declarations would have no bearing on their ability to mandate such restrictions, whose authority is rooted in the state’s Disease Prevention and Control Act.

Wolf maintains that removing his powers to declare emergency disasters would harm the health of Pennsylvanians during this pandemic.

“Premature termination or nonrenewal of the current COVID-19 disaster emergency will be disastrous for the commonwealth,” Wolf said. “It will undo all of the progress that has been made in combating the spread of COVID-19 and saving the lives of Pennsylvanians, and put the commonwealth in a poor position to address another resurgence.”

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