The Pennsylvania Senate hit a brief pause on the Republican majority’s long-sought quest to end Gov. Tom Wolf’s pandemic emergency declarations Wednesday.
After several hours of closed-door discussions by the Republican caucus, Senate leaders postponed a possible vote on the full termination resolution passed by the state House Tuesday, and reset negotiations with the Wolf Administration on a more-limited measure closer to one initially proposed by the House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre County.
The Senate’s Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee gavelled into session shortly before 10 p.m. to pass an amended version of the resolution on a party-line vote. The final language - while ending the disaster declaration - leaves most of the regulatory changes taken under Wolf’s declarations intact through September.
That presumably gives both legislative leaders and the governor more than three months to determine what COVID rules they need to keep , which they want to keep to prevent federal funds from being blocked, which they want to keep for policy reasons, and which should be sunsetted.
But the Republicans claimed a win in barring Wolf “from closing employers, setting occupancy limits and issuing stay-at-home orders.”
Final votes are now expected in both chambers on Thursday.
By going back the bargaining table, however, the Senate rejected House Republicans’ push Tuesday to totally terminate of the disaster declarations on Tuesday.
Some GOP members privately worried the House-passed version represented a shoot-first, aim-later approach that could have unintended consequences like ending regulatory waivers that have, for example, temporarily increased Pennsylvanians’ access to telemedicine, or increased flexibility for businesses in remitting certain tax payments.
Even House Speaker Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster County, said after Tuesday’s House vote that his caucus would need to “work through the budget season on legislative action to ensure those and potentially other components that the constituents have requested are kept in place.”
In all, the Wolf Administration has waived or suspended nearly 500 regulations during the pandemic covering everything from medical care and dog kennel inspections to medical marijuana sales and work search requirement for jobless benefits. Those regulations will be phased back in during the coming months.
But enough Senators were apparently worried about a universal shredding of the emergency rules first, that the Senate Republican leadership decided to step back.
“With the health and safety of all Pennsylvanians at top of mind in our decisions, we are working to keep health care measures in place for a certain period of time,” said Erica Clayton Wright, press secretary to Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland County.
“This is a work in progress that will result in several voting measures tomorrow by the Senate and includes a vote to terminate the emergency declaration currently in place. The actions of the Senate are in alignment with the people of Pennsylvania voting ‘yes’ to end the emergency declaration in the primary election while supporting the necessary steps to transition out of crisis.”
Before Thursday’ night’s vote by the Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee on the scaled-back resolution, Sen. Katie Muth, a Democrat from Bucks County, castigated her Republican colleagues for spending a day on what she called the optics of taking credit for declaring the pandemic over, when, she argued, many related issues are far from resolved.
“I’m baffled that there’s been so much time spent on ending this and sticking it to the governor... and yet we have no plan to say: ‘This is how we’re going to prevent this from happening again,’ number one; or if another emergency occurs how do we improve our response?” Muth said. “Where’s that plan? Where’s that rushed-through at nine-forty p.m.?”
To illustrate, Muth cited questions about whether the state would extra federal funding for summer lunch programs at schools, or to pay for COVID-related deployments of the Pennsylvania National Guard.
“There’s no plan. Nothing. End it all, and we’re back to normal. This is an unrealistic approach. it’s negligence... I urge everybody go get some sleep tonight and come back tomorrow and have a different mindset about working together, and figuring it out,” Muth said.
The Republican majority proceeded to run the vote.
The Republicans’ moves are a follow-up to the May 18 ballot box victories for proposed Constitutional amendments that created more of a shared-power arrangement between the governor and Legislature when it comes to the declaration of disaster emergencies and the use of the powers that flow from them.
Those amendments put a 21-day limit on future disaster emergency declarations and gave lawmakers authority to extend them if both the House and Senate agree.
Wolf already has lifted pandemic-related businesses occupancy restrictions, and stay-at-home orders haven’t been in place since last spring.
Meanwhile, Senate Republicans did flex their muscles Wednesday in what will likely prove to be a less-substantive part of the legislative majorities’ “never again” crusade against what many in the caucuses saw as a drastic overreach of executive branch powers in Wolf’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic over the past year.
On a 29-20 party-line vote, the Senate passed legislation introduced by Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-York County, to bar state or local governments - or any colleges or schools that receive regular state appropriations - from requiring so-called “vaccine passports” for anyone wanting to make use of their facilities or services.
The bill was dramatically expanded Tuesday with language that would eviscerate much of the state Health Secretary’s powers to impose any future general restrictions on travel, public gatherings and business operations.
Those powers were applied broadly by Wolf and his health secretary, Dr. Rachel Levine, through dual orders last year as the coronavirus pandemic was in full spread, and the mitigation orders have been credited by some studies as helping to hold down the overall number of COVID-19 cases and deaths in Pennsylvania in the early stages of the pandemic.
“To me, this is one of those matters where it (the legislation) is truly seeking to take away something that is entirely there to prevent and control public health diseases from impacting all Pennsylvanians,” Geoffrey Roche, executive director of Strategic Healthcare Initiatives and Partnerships at Harrisburg University, said of the proposed rollback of the secretary’s powers. “Those specific orders saved lives.”
But the pandemic rules’ persistence as case counts started to tail off in the late spring infuriated many business owners and residents, who soon began holding regular rallies around the state calling for a more rapid reopening.
Many Republican lawmakers embraced these protests as their own, leading to last month’s passage of the Constitutional amendments resetting the balance of power with the governor in future emergency declarations. The amendment to the state’s Disease Prevention and Control law, sponsored by Sen. Judy Ward, R-Blair County, seeks to erase what administration officials had seen as a source of back-up power for their edicts.
The amended language specifically prohibits a health secretary from issuing any orders requiring people who have not been “exposed or potentially exposed to a contagious disease” to wear face coverings, practice physical distancing, or to shelter-in-place. Such restrictions would only apply to people directly affected by the disease in question.
Future secretaries could also not unilaterally order business closures.
“The amendment simply prevents one person from unilaterally throwing tens of thousands of citizens out of work, barring children from school and spending millions of taxpayer dollars,” Ward said this week about her proposal. “If the Department of Health truly believes that steps such as these are necessary, the secretary will need to make the case to the General Assembly as to why these things may be needed.
“When it comes to limits on civil liberties, I think more voices representing the will of the people make for better emergency response and for more enduring freedom,” Ward said Tuesday.
The bill passed on a straight party line vote, and now moves to the state House.
Democrats, while out-voted Wednesday, slammed the bill as an irresponsible overreach, and took consolation in the fact that it will ultimately face a veto by Wolf that Republicans likely won’t be able to get the two-thirds majorities needed to override.
“The amendment precludes the secretary of health from instituting protective measures to address future public health crises, and some that could be far more contagious, far more deadly, than COVID. And why are we doing this?” asked Sen. Lisa Boscola, D-Northampton County. “Just because some people in this building do not like Governor Wolf. And that makes no sense to me.
“We should never legislate off emotion. Tying the hands of future secretaries of health, future administrations and future legislators is political nonsense. It really is. And it doesn’t belong in this bill.”
Boscola noted she would have supported the original vaccine passport prohibition, but called the bill as amended “reckless, reckless policy.”