By Rep. Clint Owlett
Pennsylvania voters will finally have a say this spring in the state’s handling of extended disaster emergencies.
At the upcoming primary election, on May 18, voters will be asked to vote on a proposed amendment to the state Constitution that would limit the duration of an emergency declaration by a governor to a maximum of 21 days. Under the proposed amendment, the declaration could be extended, but only with legislative approval.
“Legislative approval” means you, the citizens of this Commonwealth, would have a voice in whether or not a disaster emergency declaration should be extended. Under current law, the governor has the authority to declare disaster emergencies and can continue to renew those declarations as long as he or she sees fit. Requiring a governor to seek legislative approval to extend an emergency means he or she would have to be more transparent about the situation facing the Commonwealth and share data and information about why he or she believes the extension is needed. Limiting power and increasing transparency is a win-win for the citizens of the Commonwealth.
Emergency declarations have their place and can help free up resources for an immediate response to situations such as natural disasters. However, they should not be used to circumvent the state Constitution, the separation of powers or – most importantly – the will of the people for extended periods of time. Upholding our Constitution and maintaining the system of checks and balances in our government is far from a partisan issue.
U.S. District Judge William S. Stickman IV said it best in an opinion he wrote on a lawsuit involving several western Pennsylvania counties challenging the Wolf administration’s shutdown orders: “Defendants’ actions at issue here were undertaken with the good intention of addressing a public health emergency. But even in an emergency, the authority of government is not unfettered. The liberties protected by the Constitution are not fair-weather freedoms- in place when times are good but able to be cast aside in times of trouble. There is no question that this Country has faced, and will face, emergencies of every sort. But the solution to a national crisis can never be permitted to supersede the commitment to individual liberty that stands as the foundation of the American experiment. The Constitution cannot accept the concept of a ‘new normal,’ where the basic liberties of the people can be subordinated to open-ended emergency mitigation measures. Rather, the Constitution sets certain lines that may not be crossed, even in an emergency. Actions taken by Defendants crossed those lines.”
There is currently no effective way for the Legislature to end a governor’s disaster declarations. We tried last summer, only to have the governor veto the effort and the state Supreme Court to rule in his favor. The effort was not about taking COVID-19 seriously – we did and still do. It was about the governor’s complete lack of willingness to work with – or even communicate with – the elected members of the General Assembly. We are a separate but equal branch of government that is the closest to the people of this Commonwealth and you deserve to be heard.
Pennsylvania is currently under two long-term disaster emergency declarations: one regarding the opioid crisis, which has been in place for more than three years, and the other regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, which has been going on for more than 10 months. Both of these are serious matters that require our collective attention. We should all be working TOGETHER to develop policies that will better protect the health and safety of the people we serve.
I believe this proposed constitutional amendment – if approved – will facilitate more cooperation and better representation for you, the people of the 68th District.
Representative Clint Owlett
Pennsylvania House of Representatives
Media Contact: Patricia Hippler