PA constitutional amendment

Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Benner Twp., leads a press conference in support of proposed constitutional amendments appearing on the May 18, 2021 primary ballot.

(The Center Square) – Pennsylvania Senate Republicans said this week the state’s improving vaccine rollout shows why Gov. Tom Wolf’s unilateral decision-making on pandemic restrictions failed, urging voters to instead approve constitutional changes that prevent the situation from repeating itself.

“We have now moved into the top 10 as far as percentage of people receiving a vaccine,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Benner Twp., as he spoke Tuesday on the effectiveness of the bipartisan COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force the administration formed in early February. “Again, working together collaboratively, we were able to solve a problem of immense importance. That is an example we should move forward with, not an example of one person working alone.” 

“Voting yes is a way to restore balance, is a way to restore collaborative work moving forward,” he added. 

The May 18 primary ballot will include two questions that would change the way the state handles its 90-day disaster declarations. The referendums, if approved, would require legislative approval for any emergencies extending beyond 21 days.

Wolf has renewed the state’s 90-day disaster status four times since the first cases of COVID-19 appeared in Pennsylvania on March 6, 2020. He said the declaration affords him broad emergency powers to leverage state and federal resources to respond to emerging outbreaks and administer vaccines. The amendments, he said, would hamper the administration’s ability to respond in an emergency and risk the state’s access to federal disaster aid.

He also leaned on those powers to implement statewide restrictions on travel and economic activity last year – an action state courts ultimately supported. But Republicans argue this approach ignored the concerns of their constituents and left the administration to make less-informed choices about how to mitigate the spread of the virus. 

“We’re on the ground floor, so to speak, listening to the people of Pennsylvania,” Corman said. “We’re not at PEMA. We are out in the community and listening to their frustrations.”

“If we were able to have a seat at the table earlier on, things might have been different,” said Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Greensburg. “We are the closest to the people and we’d like to have a seat there with the governor, working with him, to represent those people.”

Sen. Ryan Aument, R-Lititz, said the task force shows just how well the state can respond when the administration accepts input from lawmakers. He was tapped as the Senate Republican Caucus’s representative to the task force on Feb. 12, when the state ranked second-to-last in the nation for vaccine administration.

In the two months since, the state has deployed the Army National Guard to support mass vaccination clinics, prioritized Johnson & Johnson’s one-shot vaccine for essential workers and mandated vaccine providers to set up online and telephone scheduling services, among other changes, to speed up administration efforts statewide. 

The latest data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows the policies worked, Aument said.

“We’re now in the top 10 for shots given and number one among the most populous states,” he said. “I think we have demonstrated we are capable of collaborative governing and that we can work together in times of an emergency.” 

The supportive messaging comes after the Department of State unveiled the amendments for public review on Feb. 24. Corman, at the time, accused former Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar of wording the referendums in a hostile and confusing way that destined the proposals to failure. 

Boockvar resigned on Feb. 2 after her department botched advertising for another constitutional amendment that sought to open a civil litigation window for child sex abuse survivors.

Wanda Murren, a spokesperson for the Department of State, said in an email to The Center Square that "the ballot questions fairly, accurately and clearly apprise the voter of the issue to be voted on."

Staff Reporter

Christen Smith follows Pennsylvania's General Assembly for The Center Square. She is an award-winning reporter with more than a decade of experience covering state and national policy issues for niche publications and local newsrooms alike.