Virus Outbreak Pennsylvania

A sign is posted in the window of a closed business in Philadelphia, Friday, March 20, 2020. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf directed all "non-life-sustaining" businesses to close their physical locations in March.

(The Center Square) – Unofficial election returns show that nearly 54% of voters in Pennsylvania support constitutional amendments that limit the governor’s emergency powers.

Some 1.9 million ballots have been counted, according to the Department of State, as of Wednesday morning. The official tally likely won’t come until next week as county election officials process 550,000 mail-in ballots. Turnout in prior primary elections in 2017 and 2019 ranged from 1.4 million to 1.6 million voters, the department said.

Still, supporters of the amendments began celebrating early Wednesday. Guy Ciarrocchi, president and CEO of the Chester County Chamber of Business and Industry, released a statement on Twitter claiming victory for “regular citizens” on “Main Street” who “overcame the power of the governor’s mansion.

“It’s morning again, in Pennsylvania – and the hard work begins now,” he said as he cautioned that rebuilding the economy after 15 months of pandemic restrictions will take time.

The amendments will require legislative approval for disaster declarations extending beyond 21 days and allow lawmakers to terminate existing emergency orders with a concurrent resolution passed by a simple majority.

The latter provision addresses a legal challenge legislative Republicans lost last summer after both chambers passed a concurrent resolution ending the state’s COVID-19 disaster declaration that Gov. Tom Wolf refused to sign.

The State Supreme Court ruled in a 4-3 decision that because legislators didn’t present the resolution to the governor for a signature, the emergency orders would stand. 

When the governor received the concurrent resolution on July 8, he rejected it. The General Assembly passed the proposed constitutional amendments the following week.

Wolf’s administration championed against the amendments as dangerous for public safety and detrimental to the state’s ability to respond quickly in an emergency event.

The governor has renewed the state’s 90-day COVID-19 disaster declaration four times since the first two virus cases were identified on March 6, 2020.

The declaration afforded the governor broad emergency powers that he used to direct the Department of Health to issue statewide restrictions on social and economic activity that critics insist went above and beyond guidance from the federal government, spiking unemployment and crushing small businesses.

Wolf said his orders prioritized public safety while health officials learned more about how the virus spread.

Randy Padfield, director of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, also doubted that the legislative process could move fast enough to address emergencies.

“The citizens of Pennsylvania deserve something better than a knee-jerk reaction that will only serve to adversely impact the state’s ability to respond to emergency situations in a timely and efficient manner,” he said.

House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Bellefonte, said last week, however, that the amendments weren’t about “settling sour grapes over a few vetoes.”

“Nothing can be further from the truth,” he said. “The handling of this pandemic by this administration has been a case study in how our current emergency authority laws can be exercised by any Pennsylvania governor to completely shred the rule of law and our legal norms.” 

Election results must be certified, according to the department, by June 7.

Wolf said Wednesday he looks forward to working with the legislature to follow the "new rules" chosen by voters.

"We’ve never had something like this [pandemic]," he said. "It was a great experiment and a great time to see how the system we had worked and a lot of people had a sense we could do it better.

"It's up to us to make this work," he added. "That was the message from last night: let's make this work."

Benninghoff and House Speaker Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, released a statement late Wednesday morning claiming victory after the Associated Press called the races in favor of adopting the amendments.

“The people of Pennsylvania have exercised their vote and resoundingly reaffirmed their desire for a government with strong checks and balances that works in their interests and not for its own power," the lawmakers said. "In doing so, they have rejected the mutation of emergency authority into unilateral, one-person control that seeks expediency over the rule of law."

The leaders cautioned against legal action to stop enforcement of the constitutional amendments, saying "to use the courts to continue to grasp on to power is to ignore a fresh mandate from those you represent and will confirm the worst fears of a public that wants to change course in the management of emergency periods."

“We stand ready to reasonably and responsibly manage Pennsylvania through this ongoing global pandemic, the scourge of opioid addiction, and other long-term challenges that may come to face this Commonwealth," the leaders said.

Senate Republicans weighed in on the results Wednesday afternoon, including Scott Martin, R-Strasburg, and Judy Ward, R-Holidaysburg.

"Adopting these two constitutional amendments begins the process of restoring checks and balances to the decision-making process of how we as a state deal with long-term emergencies," Martin said. “Residents of this Commonwealth knew that a yes vote meant a return of communication, collaboration and transparency in the handling of future emergencies.”

“The passage of the amendments makes certain that Pennsylvania avoids the negative consequences of one person making all of the decisions during a long-term emergency," Ward said.

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.