By PA Senator Judy Ward (R-30)
Unfortunately, primary elections are usually treated as a rather ho-hum event by the electorate. All too often it is seen as an occasion that draws only the hard-core political party faithful to the ballot box.
This year, however, the May 18 primary Election has significant meaning as all voters – including those registered as independents – have the chance to vote on two important ballot questions that will shape the way our Commonwealth addresses future crises and disasters.
The year-long and counting COVID-19 pandemic has been a wake-up call on many fronts in Pennsylvania, especially in how we responded to the long-term crisis. At the onset, we tried to avoid the devastation that the pandemic wreaked in Italy and other nations, but Pennsylvania has been extremely slow in restoring personal freedoms since.
The Governor’s litany of disaster declarations has given the Wolf Administration nearly absolute power to take any action they want – regardless of the opinion of state lawmakers, local and county officials or the public.
As a result, an extraordinary number of employers endured shutdowns and restrictions that went far beyond the recommendations of national health experts. Displaced workers were thrust into an antiquated unemployment system that could not handle the volume of new claims.
The General Assembly attempted to give counties and local officials a greater say in the pandemic response efforts, but those bills were quickly vetoed by Governor Wolf who was unwilling to concede any control.
Our only recourse was to pass legislation that ultimately placed two proposed amendments to the Pennsylvania Constitution on the primary election ballot. This approach gives the voters of Pennsylvania the ultimate choice of how the state would handle any long-term future disasters, emergencies or pandemics.
The intent of these amendments is not to further divide state government. The goal is to require the Governor to work collaboratively with lawmakers to avoid the kind of negative consequences we have seen during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Under ballot question #1, a disaster emergency declaration could be terminated or extended by legislative approval without needing the Governor’s signature. Your YES vote means a majority of state lawmakers – elected by you and living in our communities – can vote to end emergency declarations and restrictions on citizens. A NO vote means a Governor retains the unrestricted power to continue emergency restrictions indefinitely – even if a legislative majority votes to end them.
Ballot question #2 limit disaster declarations to no more than 21 days unless approved by the General Assembly. Your YES vote means emergency declarations would be limited to 21 days unless the General Assembly – again elected by you and living in our communities – approves a longer duration. A NO vote means a Governor can unilaterally extend declarations, including “emergency” provisions, business closures and restrictions indefinitely.
To be clear, these amendments are intended to provide clarity and balance to the powers held by the Executive and Legislative branches during a long-term crisis. The amendments do not prevent a governor and state agencies from responding to any emergency. The governor could still declare a state of emergency following any sort of catastrophe. The Constitutional amendments simply ensure these powers would not be open-ended.
These amendments are not about partisanship. They are focused entirely on ensuring that Pennsylvania avoids the negative consequences of one person making all the decisions during a long-term emergency. They would apply to any governor and legislature in the future no matter what political party.
I voted yes to put these amendments on the ballot for your consideration because I strongly believe in the need to make these constitutional changes.
When it comes to emergency declarations and limits on civil liberties, I think more voices – representing the will of the people – make for better emergency response and a more enduring freedom.
I voted yes in order to give you a say. During the May 18 primary election, the choice is yours.
State Senator Judy Ward represents Pennsylvania’s 30th Senate District, representing all of Blair and Fulton counties as well as portions of Cumberland, Franklin and Huntingdon counties.