As primary nears, Wolf administration campaigns against emergency powers ballot questions

Professional and Occupational Affairs Commissioner Kalonji Johnson is one of several Wolf administration officials advocating for keeping the state's current emergency powers rules in place. (Commonwealth Media Services)

Professional and Occupational Affairs Commissioner Kalonji Johnson is one of several Wolf administration officials advocating for keeping the state's current emergency powers rules in place. (Commonwealth Media Services)

Later this month, voters will decide whether a governor should get three weeks — instead of three months — to act on a disaster before coming to the state legislature for an extension.

They’ll also decide whether lawmakers should be able to extend or cancel state disaster declarations without the governor’s input.

That’s left several members of Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration less than thrilled. Over the last few weeks, they’ve made several public attempts to promote the benefits of keeping in place the current rules surrounding state disaster declarations.

“No two disasters are exactly the same,” Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency Director Randy Padfield said last month. “[But] many of these disasters, while often short-lived, have long and complex recovery periods lasting weeks, months, and in some cases, years or decades.”

The Department of State joined that effort during a Wednesday press event.

Professional and Occupational Affairs Commissioner Kalonji Johnson said the current emergency powers rules have been both flexible and helpful. He pointed to the roughly 100 healthcare rules regulators were able to quickly waive during the early days of the pandemic.

That action, Johnson argued, allowed more professionals to treat COVID-19 patients and helped get mass vaccination sites up and running.

“So if you or a loved one rolled up your sleeve at a drive-in site, or visited a health system site, then you benefited from these waivers,” Johnson said. “If the disaster declaration ends, these waivers would end.”

The recent power struggle between the governor and legislature was borne out of the long and complex nature of the pandemic.

State law, and the emergency power it delegates, was designed to handle more commonplace, short-term disasters like floods and hurricanes. Since the pandemic has lasted for well over a year and has carried with it restrictions on public life, the Republican-controlled state legislature has grown more and more impatient with Democratic Gov. Wolf, who has wielded the sole power to add or remove those restrictions.

The executive and legislative branches have been working together recently under the COVID-19 Joint Vaccine Task Force, which some have held up as an example of a more cooperative emergency government.

If the emergency powers ballot initiatives are approved, they argue that cooperation would happen more often.

“[It] works best when all branches are involved and all parties work together,” state Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward said in a statement this week. “The General Assembly is willing and able to contribute in a positive way to emergency response.”

Acting Physician General Denise Johnson said if another long-term emergency strikes the commonwealth, the healthcare industry will need to be as quick on its feet as it’s been during the pandemic. She said changing the disaster declaration rules to require more back-and-forth between lawmakers could slow it down.

“We had amazing flexibility to be able to extend licenses and get more providers to take care of patients, and because of those flexibilities, we were able to continue to offer high-quality care to Pennsylvanians,” she said.

Legislation like House Bill 1011 aims to make a lot of those temporary health care regulation changes permanent, and proponents have held that up as another way lawmakers can be as responsive to emergencies as the executive branch.

They’ve also repeatedly pointed out that if voters approve either of the amendments this month, the current COVID-19 disaster declaration would still technically be in effect.

“Legislators would still have to vote to end it and Gov. Wolf could spend time speaking with them (something he rarely does) to convince them why it’s necessary to continue it for their constituents,” Commonwealth Foundation Michael Torres wrote in an email.

Get daily updates from WHYY News!

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal