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Panel reviews emergency code

House discussion focuses on governor’s powers

HARRISBURG — A House committee on Wednesday examined the scope of gubernatorial emergency powers invoked during snowstorms and other natural disasters, man-made catastrophes, terrorist at­­tacks and health emergencies, like the opioid crisis and, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee heard testimony from the executive director of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, two emergency management agencies and two business advocacy groups during an information-gathering meeting.

Those testifying raised issues concerning providing worker’s compensation and insurance for emergency responders, lawsuit protection for businesses and the state price gouging law that are potential fodder for a proposed rewrite of Title 35, the emergency management services code enacted in 1978.

House Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Majority Committee Chairman Stephen Barrar, R-Delaware, criticized Gov. Tom Wolf’s use of emergency powers in recent months during opening remarks. He said the governor has put restrictions on public activity that are not rational for the entire state.

Barrar also questioned the multiple renewals of the opioid crisis emergency declaration, which he pointed out has lasted for 1,000 days. Noting he’s retiring at session’s end, Barrar expressed hope changes to Title 35 can be taken up by the panel’s new chair in the 2021-22 legislative session.

The panel’s minority chairman, state Rep. Chris Sainato, D-Lawrence, said Pennsylvanians have dealt with many floods and disasters, but the pandemic is new territory.

“Actions taken by the governor have resulted in lives being saved,” claimed PEMA director Randy Padfield, adding that state officials are dealing with an evolving threat to human life while working on an economic recovery.

In one exchange, state Rep. Torren Ecker, R-Adams, said there’s a need to respect the legislative process, and asked when it can be restored.

The emergency declaration allows the administration to be proactive and respond to events like the current COVID-19 outbreak among college students before it leads to a spread in the community, Padfield said.

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