Pennsylvania Voters Approve Limits on Governor’s Emergency Powers
A majority of Pennsylvania voters approved constitutional amendments limiting the governor’s powers to declare and extend emergencies:
By slim margins, voters approved a pair of proposed constitutional amendments that took aim at Gov. Tom Wolf’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, which included several broad orders limiting public gatherings and economic activity during the past year. Both amendments will transfer significant power from the executive branch to the state legislature.
The first proposed amendment would allow the state legislature to end a governor’s emergency declaration with a simple majority vote—rather than the two-thirds vote currently required. The second would automatically end an emergency declaration after 21 days unless the state legislature votes to extend it. Under current law, an emergency declaration lasts for 90 days and the governor can extend one indefinitely.
With slightly more than 1 million votes counted in both contests as of Wednesday morning, when the Associated Press called the races, both proposed amendments were supported by about 53 percent of voters.
Placing more power in a state legislature’s hands is usually better than centralizing power in a governor. But such a shift is absolutely no guarantee a future emergency will yield better – or even different – results.
And let’s also not forget the politics behind the amendments:
While they are undoubtedly the result of a partisan grudge match in Harrisburg, the two ballot questions also represented the first time that voters have been asked to weigh in on state-level lockdowns and the unilateral power many governors exercised (to varying degrees in different places) during the pandemic. As America puts COVID-19 behind us, voters and policymakers necessarily must grapple with difficult questions about the powers that officials should have in an emergency. Even if there was conclusive evidence that broad economic lockdowns were a net positive by some all-encompassing metric, the legitimacy of a given policy is ultimately determined by the voters.
And in their first decision on emergency powers, the majority of voters sided with limits on executive power. The debate is just beginning.