By John Finnerty
Capitolwire.com Bureau Chief
Reprinted with permission from Capitolwire.com
House Speaker Bryan Cutler and Sen. Ryan Aument announced Tuesday that they plan to introduce legislation that would ask voters whether to amend the state Constitution to subject executive orders by the governor to the same 21-day limit in place for emergency declarations.
In addition, another proposed Constitutional change would make it easier for the Legislature to reject proposed regulatory changes without getting a two-thirds super-majority to override a veto by the governor.
The length of emergency declarations had been 90 days and the governor had the ability to repeatedly renew them until voters approved a ballot question in May that changed the state Constitution to limit the length of disaster declarations without approval from the General Assembly.
Beth Rementer, a spokeswoman for Gov. Tom Wolf, dismissed the new proposal as a “naked power grab” by Republican lawmakers.
“This is nothing more than a distraction from the real issues Pennsylvanians are facing that Republicans should be addressing; namely, ending the pandemic by encouraging their constituents to get vaccinated, supporting our workforce and growing our economy. While they focus on legislative overreach, the governor has prioritized getting all eligible Pennsylvanians vaccinated and protecting and supporting our workforce because these are the issues that will protect and strengthen our commonwealth,” Rementer said.
Cutler said the proposed Constitutional amendments would:
Add a new section providing that any executive order or proclamation issued by the governor, which purports to have the force of law, may not be in effect for more than 21 days, unless extended by concurrent resolution of the General Assembly.
Exempt the disapproval of a regulation by the General Assembly from the presentment requirement for the governor’s approval or disapproval.
Cutler, R-Lancaster, said that the proposal is a response to the dramatic increase in the number of executive orders issued by the governor compared to his predecessors.
Cutler said that Wolf has issued 52 executive orders, while his four predecessors averaged 16.
“The legislative process requires debate and consensus. Whereas a unilateral approach By the executive branch silences the voice of the people, stifles debate, and sets aside the need for consensus and collaboration,” said Aument, R-Lancaster. “This creates disunity and polarization, and prevents us from moving forward with good policies,” he said.
Republican lawmakers and the Democratic governor have been engaged in power struggle through much of the COVID pandemic as Wolf has enacted controversial mitigation measures and Republicans have sought to undo those measures.
While many of the most controversial executive actions by the Wolf administration have been in response to the COVID pandemic, Wolf has used his authority to tackle a wide variety of issues.
Wolf’s executive orders included an order announced last month establishing the Office of Environmental Justice, within the Department of Environmental Protection.
Another mandated that state contractors pay their employees at least $13.50 an hour and provide workers paid sick leave.
Wolf also used an executive order in 2019 to begin the process of enrolling the state in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative.
The state Senate voted last month to express its disapproval of the state’s entry into RGGI. The House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee voted on a party-line vote to express its disapproval, as well. If the resolution passes the full House, it will go to Wolf, who can veto the resolution.
Wolf also used an executive order to combat gun violence, creating a new office of Gun Violence Prevention within the Commission on Crime and Delinquency and a Division of Violence Prevention within the Department of Health. Another executive order created an action team to examine the threat posed by the toxic chemicals, PFAS.
More recently, after Acting Health Secretary Alison Beam signed a public health order in August mandating mask-wearing in schools and day care centers.
“Gov. Wolf has exercised his authority to take executive actions on commonsense, widely supported issues that Pennsylvanians want and deserve,” Rementer said.
Wolf announced Monday that the mask mandate will be coming to an end but not for another two months.
It’s not the only way Wolf has been more aggressive about asserting his authority in dealing with a General Assembly with Republican majorities.
Wolf has vetoed more legislation in less than seven years than the prior two governors combined did in 12 years in office.
Wolf vetoed 19 bills last year, most of them in response to legislation aimed at limiting or undoing his administration’s COVID mitigation measures.
Wolf’s vetoes by year:
2021 — 3 (HB 1300, which would have made changes to election law; SB 516 (which focused on collecting court costs from defendants) and SB 618 (which would have been vaccine passports).
2020 — 19
2019 — 4
2018 — 5
2017 — 3
2016 — 8
2015 — 10 (including a line item veto of a budget bill).
In Republican Gov. Tom Corbett’s four years in office, he vetoed just four bills. Republicans held the majority in both chambers of the General Assembly while Corbett was governor.
During former Gov. Ed Rendell’s eight years in office, there were four years in which Democrats held the majority in the House and Republicans held the majority in the Senate, and four years in which Republicans held the majorities in both chambers.
Rendell, a Democrat, vetoed 38 bills.
Confronted by Wolf’s repeated vetoes, lawmakers have increasingly considered using ballot questions, which can’t be vetoed by Wolf, to change the Constitution.
In May voters approved two Constitutional changes — one limiting emergency orders to 21 days and the other allowing the General Assembly to vote to end emergency orders.
Based on those Constitutional changes, the General Assembly voted to end the state’s COVID emergency order in June.
Cutler said that those changes were intended to provide the public with an opportunity to say whether the emergency order should remain in place.
“It’s not about bypassing the process of the detail. It’s about ensuring that the people actually have a voice in the process itself,” he said.
Cutler said that the proposals announced Tuesday are “continuation” of the changes approved by voters in May.
The Constitutional changes limiting the governor’s emergency powers passed with 52 percent of the votes cast.
Cutler said that level of support is typical for recent proposed Constitutional changes put before voters.
However, a third proposed Constitutional change on the ballot in May passed with far greater support with 72 percent of voters supporting an amendment that adds anti-discrimination language to the state Constitution.