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Research & Commentary: Pennsylvania Special Session Senate Considering Creating Limitations on Declaration of Disaster Emergencies

August 4, 2022

In this Research & Commentary, Samantha Fillmore examines a Senate Bill in Pennsylvania that would create limitations on declaration of disaster emergencies.

The Pennsylvania legislature is currently in special session and considering Senate Bill 231, legislation that would amend Title 25 of the Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes relating to declaration of disaster emergencies.  

SB 231 first designates that a declaration of disaster emergency shall continue until the governor finds that the threat or danger has passed or the disaster has been dealt with to the extent that emergency conditions no longer exist. However, no state of disaster emergency by executive order or proclamation may continue for longer than 30 days unless renewed by the governor with majority approval by each chamber of the general assembly via concurrent resolution.

Further, the Office of the Governor shall notify the president pro tempore, majority leader, and minority leader of the Senate, and the speaker, major leader, and minority leader of the House of Representatives when a specific statute or regulation is suspended, modified or waived under the authority of the order.

SB 231 also requires that within five days of the declaration of a disaster emergency by the governor, the Disaster and Recovery Task Force shall be established. The task force would consist of: the governor, each of the aforementioned six legislative leaders, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and a member appointed by the two major political parties in the commonwealth to achieve equal party representation on the task force.

The task force shall meet at least once per week and additional meetings may be called by the chairperson as necessary. The first meeting shall be convened within 10 days of the declaration of disaster emergency issued by the governor. For a disaster due to a health emergency, the task force shall adhere to safety recommendations issued by the Secretary of Health or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The task force would be fully accessible by the public to view or listen to an advisory committee meeting through recordings and may hold public hearings if necessary.

During the pandemic, many Americans saw their respective governors wield unprecedented power with seemingly unlimited emergency declarations. This overnight shift in governance, coupled with a plethora of governors who abused their pandemic emergency powers, has left several states reevaluating constitutional statutes pertaining to emergency provisions and powers granted to the governor during a state of emergency. With SB 231, Pennsylvania is no exception.

This change to the current Pennsylvania statute is paramount to prohibit Gov. Tom Wolf (D)—and future governors—from excessively extending state of emergency powers long past the point of necessity, as seen time and time again across the country throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

Simply put, SB 231 creates commonsense restrictions and limitations on gubernatorial powers. Furthermore, it reintegrates the legislature into the governing process during states of preparedness and states of emergency. It aligns with many of the principles developed by The Heartland Institute during the pandemic, which legislators can reference upon any gubernatorial abuses of power.

Some of these ideas and principles include:

  1. The ability to immediately nullify an emergency proclamation via resolution.
  2. The creation of time limitations for an emergency order, renewable by the legislature.
  3. The ability to pass a resolution that requires the governor to call a special session to approve of an emergency proclamation if the legislature is out of session.
  4. Permitting an interim committee or group of legislative leaders to extend or reject emergency proclamations.
  5. The imposition of specific limits to executive authority during an emergency proclamation (i.e., restrict the governor from unilaterally closing businesses, closing houses of worship, or shutting down freedom of the press, and the right to bear arms).

There is a clear appetite among lawmakers and constituents to restrict gubernatorial overreach, especially after the coronavirus pandemic. Via this legislation, Pennsylvania lawmakers can catch up to their peers in other states who have already taken measures to rein in executive authority.

Co-equal governance, checks and balances, and the decentralization of power are bedrock principles of American democracy. Yet, these fundamental principles have been AWOL in Pennsylvania since the pandemic.

Fortunately, lawmakers in the Keystone State are beginning to stand up to gubernatorial overreach by reasserting their rightful place as a much-needed check against the executive branch.

 

The following documents provide more information about executive authority in a state of emergency.

 

Testimony Before The Georgia House Committee on Judiciary, Scoggins Subcommittee, On House Bill 358, Restoring The State Legislature’s Role In Emergency Management 

Testimony Before the Georgia House Judiciary Committee regarding legislative and executive authority in a state of emergency.

Andrew Cuomo Is Just a Governor, Not a God

Cuomo has issued multiple statements in an attempt to quell the backlash and frustration of New Yorkers and lawmakers in Albany to no avail.

Governors, Not Gods – A Heartland Institute Webinar

The Heartland Institute hosted a webinar on Aug. 27, 2020 for state legislators to discuss how they can rein in governors, who wield seemingly unlimited powers in the wake of COVID-19. For many months, Americans have been abhorred by out-of-control governors who have imposed draconian lockdowns, which have decimated small businesses and people’s livelihoods. For instance, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has been roundly criticized for his heavy-handed and ineffectual response to the coronavirus outbreak in New York, which has drawn substantial blowback. Cuomo has also attempted to coverup his disastrous policy of forcing elderly patients with COVID-19 to return to nursing homes, where they spread the deadly diseases like wildfire among New York’s most vulnerable. As the days grow shorter and the temperatures dip lower, now is the time to begin exploring oversight over dictatorial governors and restore power where it rightfully belongs: With we the people, not I the governor.

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Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this and other topics, visit the Budget & Tax News website, The Heartland Institute’s website, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database.

The Heartland Institute can send an expert to your state to testify or brief your caucus; host an event in your state; or send you further information on a topic. Please don’t hesitate to contact us if we can be of assistance! If you have any questions or comments, contact Heartland’s Government Relations department, at governmentrelations@heartland.org or 312/377-4000.

Author
Samantha Fillmore is a State Government Relations Manager for The Heartland Institute.
sfillmore@heartland.org @GRHeartland