Wolf administration accused of writing biased questions
State legislators seek to have amendment for disaster edicts on primary ballot
HARRISBURG — Gov. Tom Wolf has not hidden his disdain for a proposed constitutional amendment that would limit any Pennsylvania governor’s authority to extend disaster declarations, but legislative Republican leaders say Wolf’s opposition to the proposal has now crossed the line.
“This is not a partisan issue, it’s a people issue — we need to give the people a voice, and they’ll get that in May and we’ll do our best to educate them, but we are not happy with the language that they have put forth because it’s clearly slanted to scare the voters a little bit,” said Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, during a Wednesday morning state Capitol news conference.
“It uses words that were not part of our [legislative] language, and it’s clearly slanted to try to encourage voters to vote ‘no’ on this amendment,” said Ward.
The General Assembly during the prior two-year legislative session that ended on Nov. 30, and early in the current two-year session, approved measures seeking to amend the Pennsylvania Constitution seeking to insert provisions regarding a governor’s ability to declare a disaster emergency. Specifically, a governor would be allowed to declare a disaster emergency, but the length of that declaration would be limited to no more than 21 days. Should the governor wish to extend the declaration, he’s incapable of doing so “without the passage of a concurrent resolution of the General Assembly expressly approving the new disaster emergency declaration.”
The next step in the amendment process is to put to the voters on the primary ballot.
Ward, along with Senate President Pro Tem Jake Corman, R-Centre, and House Majority Leader Rep. Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, said the wording of the ballot question is politically charged.
“No one envisioned when we put the constitution together and the Act 35 powers [to declare disaster emergencies] to the executive branch that we would be living under the unilateral control of this length of time,” said Corman of the need for SB2 and the constitutional amendment, noting the exercise of these powers is an issue across the nation, and lawmakers are grappling with it in states with Democratic and Republican governors.
The Wolf administration and many legislative Democrats have maintained the General Assembly already has the ability to terminate a gubernatorial disaster emergency declaration by way of approving a concurrent resolution.
“The ballot questions fairly, accurately and clearly apprise the voter of the issue to be voted on,” said Wolf spokeswoman Lyndsay Kensinger. “The proposed amendment removes the existing check and balance – already contained in the PA Constitution — of presenting concurrent resolutions to the governor for approval or disapproval.”
Despite the assertions of the governor’s office, it wasn’t until this summer that the “check and balance” mentioned by Kensinger was defined as stated by Kensinger.
The Democrat-controlled state Supreme Court this summer chose to interpret the plain language within state law — which asserts once the General Assembly approves a concurrent resolution to terminate a disaster declaration, the declaration must be terminated — to require such a concurrent resolution be presented to the governor for his approval. If the governor vetoes the resolution, the General Assembly still has the option of overriding the veto, though two-thirds of each legislative chamber – not a simple majority – must agree to reject the governor’s veto.
Republicans argue that was never the intent of the disaster emergency law.
SB2 was separated into three ballot questions with two of the questions focused on the disaster emergency matter.
Question 1 as written by the Department of State reads, “Shall the Pennsylvania Constitution be amended to change existing law and increase the power of the General Assembly to unilaterally terminate or extend a disaster emergency declaration — and the powers of Commonwealth agencies to address the disaster regardless of its severity pursuant to that declaration — through passing a concurrent resolution by simple majority, thereby removing the existing check and balance of presenting a resolution to the Governor for approval or disapproval?”
Question 2 is written to ask, “Shall the Pennsylvania Constitution be amended to change existing law so that: a disaster emergency declaration will expire automatically after 21 days, regardless of the severity of the emergency, unless the General Assembly takes action to extend the disaster emergency; the Governor may not declare a new disaster emergency to respond to the dangers facing the Commonwealth unless the General Assembly passes a concurrent resolution; the General Assembly enacts new laws for disaster management?”
“They clearly wrote it in a way for it to fail,” said Corman of the ballot questions.
“This is shameful. I’m just dumbfounded by the way this was written, and frankly, Pennsylvanians deserve better,” added Benninghoff.
“The governor is allowing his partisan political beliefs to get in the way of the voters … and using the official resources of the State Department to craft inappropriate, difficult to understand and over-the-top rhetoric to put to voters on the ballot in May,” Benninghoff said.
Corman saiss legislation will be pursued to remove the executive branch from writing future ballot questions, and instead put that responsibility in the hands of an independent body, such as the Legislative Reference Bureau, which prepares all the legislation and amendments considered by the General Assembly.