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What was once considered a nuclear option detonated in the Pennsylvania legislature this week, as Republican lawmakers — and a handful of Democrats — gave final approval to a resolution terminating Gov. Tom Wolf’s coronavirus emergency declaration.
The outcome of this apparently unprecedented move is unclear. Top Democrats have repeatedly said the state Constitution grants Wolf the power to reject such a measure, which the governor said in a letter to lawmakers would have “disastrous” consequences should it take effect.
Republicans say state law requires Wolf to end his declaration, now that a majority of lawmakers have approved the resolution. They’ve threatened legal action if he does not do so.
It appears the governor will test that threat. A spokesperson for Wolf said Wednesday he will disapprove the resolution once it reaches his desk.
“Until then, no action will be taken,” the spokesperson, Lyndsay Kensinger, said. “The disaster proclamation has not been terminated by the House or Senate’s actions. Only the governor can terminate the disaster emergency.”
Wolf will discuss the matter at 1 p.m.
The resolution, introduced by Rep. Russ Diamond (R., Lebanon), targets the disaster emergency Wolf declared in March, as Pennsylvania began reporting cases of COVID-19. The declaration greatly expanded Wolf’s powers, allowing him to suspend regulations, command military forces, and order mass evacuations.
Coupled with the state’s disease prevention law, Wolf and Health Secretary Rachel Levine also ordered residents to stay home and the closure of all businesses except those deemed “life-sustaining.” Those restrictions have been at least partially lifted in every county across the state.
Public health experts agree the shutdowns were necessary to prevent deaths and keep hospitals from being overwhelmed by patients. Researchers estimate the lockdown in Philadelphia alone saved 6,200 lives.
But from the beginning, Republicans decried the closure order as unfair to small businesses and confusing.
They also criticized a Wolf administration program that allowed shuttered businesses to apply for waivers to reopen, saying the process was secretive and seemingly arbitrary. Senate Republicans last month took court action after the governor failed to comply with a subpoena for documents related to the waiver process. That case is still pending.
As Wolf urged caution and a measured approach to reopening, the GOP-controlled House and Senate passed several bills to reopen certain sectors of the economy, which were all met with the governor’s veto pen.
These tensions came to a head Tuesday as Republicans and some Democrats in both chambers gave final approval to Diamond’s resolution.
Democrats and some legal scholars have pointed to a section of the Pennsylvania Constitution that gives Wolf the power to approve or disapprove “every order, resolution, or vote,” except on the question of adjournment, before it goes into effect.
But Republicans say a single word in state law — “shall” — doesn’t give Wolf a say in the matter.
“The General Assembly by concurrent resolution may terminate a state of disaster emergency at any time,” the statute reads. “Thereupon, the governor shall issue an executive order or proclamation ending the state of disaster emergency.”
“The governor will be statutorily required to issue an order terminating the declaration,” Senate lawyer Crystal Clark said Tuesday. “He has no discretion in this matter.”
The Senate could take court action “if the governor fails to act,” Clark said.
This story will be updated.
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