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Voters to get final say on limiting governor disaster powers

January 27, 2021 GMT

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Pennsylvania voters will likely soon get the final say about whether to limit the governor’s powers during a disaster emergency after a divided state House of Representatives endorsed a proposed constitutional amendment Wednesday.

House members voted 116 to 85 in the latest legislative approval vote. One more vote in either the House or Senate is needed before the constitutional amendment can be considered in a statewide referendum, as early as the May 18 primary election.

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The amendment would cap disaster declarations at 21 days unless lawmakers extend them. It would also give lawmakers the ability to end a disaster declaration with a two-thirds vote.

House Democratic Leader Joanna McClinton said the amendment was a case of “politricks.”

“There are people who are hurting, they’re depending on us to stand up and be leaders,” she said. “But all we want to do is strip away the powers of another institution.”

Republican lawmakers have repeatedly tried to overturn pandemic response policies undertaken by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf over the past year.

Lives have been destroyed, said Rep. Seth Grove, R-York, “either through the virus itself or through the actions of the government, eviscerating entire industries.”

Wolf’s actions have saved lives, said Minority Whip Jordan Harris, D-Philadelphia.

“Let’s call a spade, a spade, today. This is highly political. It’s very political,” Harris said, noting the national death toll from COVID-19.

“I wonder what would have happened had our governor not had those emergency powers,” Harris said.

The people of Pennsylvania will decide if the amendment is warranted, said Rep. Russ Diamond, R-Lebanon.

“This is not political at all. You can laugh all you want, but this is practical,” Diamond said. “This is in response to the businesses we’ve heard from all year who are now bankrupt and closed.”

The House vote came less than 24 hours after the Senate, 28-20, approved an identical measure with just one Democrat crossing party lines. A House Republican spokesman said it’s likely that the House will vote on the Senate bill as the final OK, possibly as early as Tuesday.

The Wolf administration argues that lifting the emergency disaster declaration will not affect powers the governor has exercised under Pennsylvania’s Disease Prevention and Control Act.

Wolf’s first pandemic emergency order was issued in March for 90 days and has since been repeatedly extended.

Under state law, an emergency disaster declaration gives governors the authority to issue or rescind executive orders and regulations, access stockpiles of emergency supplies and equipment and suspend laws or regulations that govern state agencies.

Executive orders have the force of law, under emergency disaster law.