Op-Ed: Collaboration Should Start At Home

I have consistently said that now is not the time for partisanship. Pennsylvanians need their elected leaders to unite against this virus and in the best interest of the residents of this Commonwealth, now more than ever.

It is for this reason that I have advocated for the COVID-19 Cost and Recovery Task Force, which would provide the opportunity for all three branches of Pennsylvania’s government to work together, in a bipartisan fashion, to address the issues created by the coronavirus and develop a plan to rebuild Pennsylvania in a safe and effective manner.

But to my disappointment, Governor Wolf and members of his party only questioned or criticized the idea of beginning to plan for the eventual reopening of the economy.  Instead of embracing an opportunity to work together, they called such a proposal an attempt to usurp the Governor’s authority. 

Then yesterday, to the surprise of many, Governor Wolf announced a multi-state council to combat the spread of the coronavirus and create a plan to re-open our region. While I’m glad that he’s finally acknowledged that a plan is necessary, I am frustrated by the fact that he is coordinating with other states before he coordinates with elected leaders in his own state – the state he was charged with governing.

Make no mistake – coordinating with other states is certainly prudent, because as many have pointed out, this virus knows no boundaries and our economy is inherently intertwined with those of our neighbors. But we must have a plan to get our own house in order to ensure the needs of our citizens and our communities are understood and met before we can begin to have productive conversations with other states.

Let me be clear: I don’t disagree with the intent behind many of the actions the Wolf Administration has taken to combat this virus. These are unprecedented times and therefore require unprecedented policies to overcome this threat.

However, I don’t think there’s any question that many of the Governor’s actions, while well-intentioned and critical to controlling the spread of COVID-19, have been executed poorly, and that poor execution has hurt Pennsylvanians.

Botched rollouts in the last month alone range from crippling flaws in our state’s Unemployment Compensation system, to the confusion associated with the arbitrary nature of the business closures and the subsequent waiver process, to the extremely inadequate capacity of online liquor sales.

Again, I believe most people agree with the intent behind his decisions.  But if those decisions were first discussed and considered with others through a body such as the COVID-19 Cost and Recovery Task Force, perhaps we wouldn’t be dealing with the harsh reality that closing down the auto-industry in Pennsylvania has only forced our citizens to buy cars in neighboring states, where such businesses are considered essential.  Or that closing down the construction industry would leave residents with half-finished homes and in many cases, two mortgages.  Or why it is safe for a person to go out fishing but that same person cannot safely do their job as a surveyor – a job completed outside and alone.

In my district alone, we have a retirement community looking to upgrade its facilities specifically to protect vulnerable residents from COVID-19. They’ve enlisted the help of a local mechanical engineer to do the upgrades, but the engineer has yet to receive a waiver and therefore cannot physically visit the site to complete this life-saving project. Governor Wolf has so far ignored calls to include construction as an essential business or provide any insight into how waivers are approved.

There is also a local business that grooms service dogs for individuals with disabilities. The grooming is essential to the health of the dogs which in turn is essential to the safety of the humans they are protecting. The grooming business has been deemed non-life-sustaining, and therefore cannot provide these critical services to another vulnerable Pennsylvania population. Is this the type of issue that will be discussed with governors from other states?

This is not an attempt to unnecessarily criticize Governor Wolf to win cheap political points or to point out flaws without offering solutions. If you know anything about me in my capacity as a legislator, you know that that is a game I have no interest in playing.  I have successfully worked with Governor Wolf and his administration on a number of issues and intend to continue to work with him in the future. Because working with people we don’t always agree with is what it often takes to get changes made and legislation passed.

But there is an obvious need for coordination at the state level if we are to exit from this disaster in an effective and efficient manner. Input from and coordination with other branches of Pennsylvania government is critical to getting our economy back on track in a way that won’t jeopardize public health.

Governor Wolf and Secretary Levine should not be the only officials at the table making decisions on behalf of Pennsylvanians. Including the General Assembly and Judicial branch will help ensure smooth implementation of solutions and provide a forum for officials to coordinate as we plan to re-open Pennsylvania in a data-informed manner.

Again, while coordinating with other states in our region is certainly necessary moving forward, we should focus on a Pennsylvania-based solution through a Pennsylvania-based task force before we broaden our scope to include the needs of other states and their constituents. The time will come to seek input from surrounding states, but Governor Wolf should first work with the General Assembly and coordinate with local leaders to solve local problems, because the fact of the matter is, the governors of New Jersey or Rhode Island won’t be concerned with our local issues, as their focus will be broad to cover the whole region. 

We must put on our own oxygen mask before we help others put on theirs.