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Wolf, lawmakers in legal clash over emergency declaration

MARK SCOLFORO and MICHAEL RUBINKAM
The Associated Press

HARRISBURG — The executive and legislative branches neared a legal clash Wednesday over the emergency disaster declaration Gov. Tom Wolf issued at the beginning of the pandemic, with the majority Republicans voting to end it, the Democratic governor insisting he holds veto power and business owners left in limbo.

The Legislature late Tuesday declared an end to Wolf's 3-month-old emergency declaration when members voted largely along party lines.

Republicans asserted their resolution paved the way for businesses shut down by Wolf's order to reopen. Wolf said that it did no such thing, that the shuttering of non-life-sustaining businesses had been authorized by his health secretary under a different law. 

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Their dispute quickly landed in court, with Senate Republicans suing to compel Wolf to issue an executive order officially ending the coronavirus emergency.

"State law allows for the temporary suspension of civil liberties under dire circumstances," Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati said in a written statement. "We allowed the governor that time initially to flatten the curve. The need to suspend civil liberties in the interest of public health and safety has clearly passed."

Wolf, who has beaten back previous legal challenges on his actions to combat the virus, welcomed the chance to argue that Republicans had overstepped their authority.

"I'm going to continue to focus on protecting Pennsylvanians and navigating our recovery, but I'll tell you one thing: Ending the disaster declaration is not part of that plan," Wolf said at a news conference Wednesday.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf meets with the media at The Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency (PEMA) headquarters, Friday, May 29, 2020 in Harrisburg, Pa. (Joe Hermitt/The Patriot-News via AP)

He ticked off a list of things he said would end if the Republicans get their way, including relaxed eligibility requirements for unemployment compensation, moratoriums on evictions and utility shutoffs, and emergency food distribution networks that serve needy children.

"The choice we have is whether we prioritize safety by reopening carefully with precautions in place, or whether we just create chaos and confusion through carelessness," Wolf said.

Supporters of the resolution — which they asserted would do away with many, if not all, pandemic restrictions — said that state law authorizes the Legislature to end the emergency declaration unilaterally. House leadership also threatened legal action.

With about 2 million Pennsylvania residents filing unemployment claims since mid-March, Republicans have been pressing Wolf to reopen the state's battered economy more quickly and more broadly.

Wolf's gradual easing of pandemic restrictions has allowed retailers and many other types of businesses to reopen on a limited basis, but others, including barber shops and gyms, remain shut down in the most populous parts of the state. 

Republicans argued they had the right and responsibility to check Wolf's power.

"It has become apparent that for the entire state, these decisions are being made by one man, the governor," argued Sen. Judy Ward, R-Blair. "How can we allow one man to continue to make poor decisions for millions?"

Wolf's office said he will "disapprove" the resolution if it makes it to his desk, but argued that much of the shutdown would not be affected. 

The Senate also voted 44-6 on Wednesday to add a provision to the state constitution that would limit governors' disaster declarations to 30 days. After a month, both chambers of the General Assembly would have to vote to extend them.

That amendment was bundled with a separate section that would prohibit "denial or abridgment of equality of rights" based on race or ethnicity.

As a constitutional amendment, it requires passage by the House before December, approval by both chambers in the next session, and then passage of a statewide voter referendum.