(The Center Square) – Republican leaders in Pennsylvania’s General Assembly expressed outrage Wednesday at the “slanted” and “prejudiced” language used to craft a ballot referendum appearing before voters in May.
The language in question describes a constitutional amendment that would limit the governor’s ability to extend emergency declarations beyond 21 days without legislative approval. It’s a last-stand effort from state Republicans who say Gov. Tom Wolf left lawmakers out of the discussion on how to curb the pandemic with economic and social restrictions.
The governor has extended the COVID-19 disaster declaration four times in Pennsylvania since the first cases emerged on March 6.
“It uses words that are not part of our language, and it's clearly slanted to try to encourage voters to vote no on this amendment,” said Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Greensburg. “The governor only has one thing to lose if this amendment wins in May, and that’s unilateral power. But the people win because there will be more voices at the table.”
The leaders shared the proposed referendum questions, written by the Department of State, in an email with reporters.
The first question reads “Shall the Pennsylvania Constitution be amended to change existing law and increase the power of the General Assembly to unilaterally terminate or extend a disaster emergency declaration – and the powers of Commonwealth agencies to address the disaster regardless of its severity pursuant to that declaration – through passing a concurrent resolution by simple majority, thereby removing the existing check and balance of presenting a resolution to the Governor for approval or disapproval?”
A second question reads “Shall the Pennsylvania Constitution be amended to change existing law so that: a disaster emergency declaration will expire automatically after 21 days, regardless of the severity of the emergency, unless the General Assembly takes action to extend the disaster emergency; the Governor may not declare a new disaster emergency to respond to the dangers facing the Commonwealth unless the General Assembly passes a concurrent resolution; the General Assembly enacts new laws for disaster management?”
“They clearly wrote it in a way to fail,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Benner Township. “There’s no question. … We respect the voters and hope they will see through this.”
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."
"The proposed amendment removes the existing check and balance – already contained in the PA Constitution – of presenting concurrent resolutions to the governor for approval or disapproval," she said. "A long series of court cases has emphasized it is necessary for voters to have sufficient context related to the question being presented to them for a vote."
Wolf has said the constitutional amendment will not stop the Department of Health from issuing orders that close businesses or ban public gatherings in the event of an emergency. What it will do, he said, is hamper the governor’s ability to access federal disaster aid or respond quickly, endangering lives in the process.
House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Bellefonte, expressed disappointment with what he described as the latest in a string of the administration’s failures to perform basic functions of government.
“It’s a shame,” he said. “All we’ve asked for is to have a voice, and all we’ve asked for with the constitutional amendment is for the people to have a voice.”
Corman said the amendment addresses something that transcends partisanship, noting that it's not Republican versus Democrat.
"Even a benevolent dictator is still a dictator," he said. "This is not about how this has been handled, this is about how we move forward as a government, and do we want one person making all the decisions."
He blamed the tone of the language on former Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar, who stepped down earlier this month after her department failed to advertise a different constitutional amendment that impacted survivors of childhood sexual abuse.
"She has politicized this Department of State to a level it has never been politicized before," Corman said. "Her final act, at least while she was secretary … she sends out this language that clearly was written in a way that would fail … in a way that would scare voters away from this resolution."
The leaders said they won't pursue a change to the language, but instead will let the voters make the choice.
"I'm confident once they learn the real initiative behind this constitutional amendment, they will vote in the affirmative and bring checks and balances back to the General Assembly and get rid of the unilateral control of the executive branch," he said.