Across America, state legislators have risen up to curtail the emergency powers that their governors amassed during the coronavirus pandemic. This national movement is as bipartisan as it gets. In Massachusetts, Democratic legislators are fighting to rein in a Republican governor. In Kentucky, a Republican legislature has taken on a Democratic governor. Even Democrats are constraining a Democratic governor in New York, while Republicans in Ohio have imposed restrictions on their Republican governor.
Altogether, 300 bills have been proposed in 45 states to limit the emergency powers of governors. Yet Pennsylvania – the home of the Declaration of Independence – stands as an outlier. Duly passed legislation to curb abuses was struck down by partisan state courts, leaving lawmakers few options.
Voting on constitutional amendments
The last hope for Pennsylvanians to restore democracy and preserve liberty comes next Tuesday, when the people will vote on state constitutional amendments: one to reduce the length of disaster emergency declarations from 90 days to 21 days with extensions subject to the approval of the state’s General Assembly, and a second to allow the General Assembly to terminate a disaster emergency declaration without the governor’s signature.
Barring these constitutional amendments, Gov. Tom Wolf and his successors will indefinitely retain the power to control citizens down to the most absurd details of their lives.
Over the one year and two months since Wolf unilaterally declared the first of a never-ending series of emergency disaster declarations, the rights of Pennsylvanians to gather, eat, earn a living, or even enjoy a handshake or a hug have not been treated as rights at all. They are now considered mere privileges sporadically granted and often revoked.
Under his emergency disaster declaration, Wolf may grant people the liberty to go out and get a drink, but only if they order a meal as well – snacks like chips or peanuts don’t count. He still claims the power to close and reopen businesses at a moment’s notice regardless of guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and based on his own definition of what constitutes a “life sustaining” business. Restrictions are lifted and imposed with no basis in science or logic.
This is the definition of arbitrary power. Yet under the governor’s forever emergency, this democracy-defying, one-man rule is still in place. Never before have Pennsylvanians been micromanaged down to their movements and meals – and citizens of all political stripes are chafing under the yoke.
Last year, a bipartisan majority of the people’s representatives in Harrisburg voted to rein in the governor and reimpose the checks and balances he so swiftly suppressed. However, the state Supreme Court – where the governor’s party holds a 5-2 majority – struck down the resolution.Now, it takes fewer votes to impeach the governor than it does to prevent that same governor from dictating what side dish you are allowed order at the bar along with your ice cold Yuengling.
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Perhaps Wolf’s stranglehold on Pennsylvania’s working families would be more tolerable if his actions actually helped. However, the governor’s thirst for power has caused immense collateral damage with no discernable benefit.
In the first months of the pandemic, only six other states saw a larger rise in unemployment than Pennsylvania.The food service industry alone saw employment drop over 31% as Pennsylvania faced more government-mandated business closures than every state but Michigan.
Paying the price for lockdowns
Tragically, if unsurprisingly, Pennsylvania lost nearly 200,000 more jobs between March 2020 and March 2021 than during the entirety of the Great Recession.
Even today, there are 415,000 fewer Pennsylvanians with jobs than in February 2020, and the state’s unemployment rate sits more than a point above the national average.
Pennsylvanians continue to pay a steep price for Gov. Wolf’s lockdowns while the state ranks in the top 11 of coronavirus deaths per capita. On the other hand, Florida, with its much more flexible pandemic restrictions, has had 20% fewer deaths per capita than Pennsylvania.
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The upcoming vote on the state constitutional amendments is really a referendum on the question at the heart of the American experiment: Who gets to decide how you live your life – You, or a politician? You, or somebody else?
Pennsylvania is poised to reaffirm its status as the birthplace of American independence. Next Tuesday, we will vote to reimpose checks and balances on unaccountable executive power. For all the small business owners, workers and families suffering under Wolf’s punitive shutdowns, that day cannot come soon enough.
Charles Mitchell is president and CEO of the Commonwealth Foundation.