Pennsylvania Republicans vote to end governor's coronavirus emergency, setting up battle

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Republicans in the Pennsylvania legislature and Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf appear to be hurtling toward a constitutional battle over whether lawmakers have the power to override Wolf's coronavirus restrictions and get the state back to business-as-usual.

The Pennsylvania House and Senate, both controlled by Republicans, passed a resolution Tuesday purporting to override Wolf's coronavirus disaster declaration and directing the governor to "issue an executive order or proclamation ending the state of disaster emergency."

"The Senate voted on a resolution to end Governor Wolf's statewide shut down, which has been hurting families and doing irreparable harm to employers," Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman said Tuesday. "People need to have the freedom to return to normalcy and decide for themselves the level of engagement with society that they are comfortable doing... It is time to allow people the freedom to decide for themselves – to control their actions and decisions."

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But Wolf, according to multiple reports, does not believe the resolution, without his approval, ends the disaster declaration or mandates him to take any action ending Pennsylvania's state of emergency.

"The disaster proclamation has not been terminated by the House or Senate’s actions," a spokeswoman for Wolf said, per PennLive. "Only the governor can terminate the disaster emergency."

Republicans are pinning their argument to one section of the Pennsylvania law, while Wolf cites another.

Specifically, the law that governs how the Pennsylvania executive may act during emergencies appears to indicate that the legislature has unilateral authority to end a disaster emergency.

"The General Assembly by concurrent resolution may terminate a state of disaster emergency at any time," the law Republicans say backs their argument reads. "Thereupon, the Governor shall issue an executive order or proclamation ending the state of disaster emergency."

Corman's press secretary Jenn Kocher elaborated on Twitter.

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"Nothing in the statute requires the resolution to go to the Governor for signature/veto," she said. "A concurrent resolution ending a disaster declaration is not an exercise of the legislature’s lawmaking authority that the Gov can sign/veto... He has no discretion in this matter."

But, according to PennLive, Wolf cites the process for passing resolutions as outlined in the Pennsylvania constitution to support his stance.

"Every order, resolution or vote ... shall be presented to the Governor and before it shall take effect be approved by him, or being disapproved, shall be repassed by two-thirds of both Houses according to the rules and limitations prescribed in case of a bill," the constitution reads.

Further confusing matters, Democratic Sen. Jay Costa said on the Senate floor Tuesday that the measure would not affect the state's coronavirus restrictions either way.

"If it passes, and whether you believe the governor has no input on it or the governor does something with or does nothing and let it become law, it doesn't impact the order that was executed by [Pennsylvania Health] Secretary Rachel Levine under her authority. That is where the closures come in," Costa said. "More importantly, the emergency declaration is not a precedent to her being able to make sure that she can do the order."

All of this has the effect of making it unclear whether or when, under the law, Pennsylvania businesses may reopen without coronavirus-related precautions. The issue appears primed to head to the courts.

House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, a Republican, maintained that the state's coronavirus restrictions are now gone.

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"Since early March, Pennsylvanians across the Commonwealth have dealt with the heavy hand of government as a result of this declaration," he said. "Under the Pennsylvania Constitution, the General Assembly has the authority to terminate a state of disaster emergency at any time... Today’s vote reflects the actions of millions of Pennsylvanians who are already back at work, social distancing and making their own choices to protect themselves while also providing for their families and promoting equality for every resident of the Commonwealth."

Meanwhile, Democrats in the Pennsylvania legislature railed against Republicans, saying that the action to terminate the emergency declaration could have the effect of foreclosing federal assistance to citizens of the commonwealth.

"Ending the Emergency Declaration doesn’t end the virus," Democratic Sen. Lindsey M. Williams said in a statement. "It doesn’t put people back to work. It doesn’t open more businesses. It doesn’t provide Pennsylvania with more PPE or other needed supplies– in fact, it makes it harder for us to obtain those from the federal government and to coordinate with other states."

Wolf in a letter to the legislature issued a similar warning about the consequences of ending the disaster declaration as they relate to federal funds.