EDITORIAL: Fight efforts to hamstring Pa. governor

York Dispatch editorial board
Gov. Wolf speaks to media during a visit to Family First Health in York City, Thursday, March 11, 2021. Gov. Wolf praised the health center for their diligence during the COVID-19 pandemic as well as for their efforts to get the COVID-19 vaccine to the members of the eligible and sometimes vulnerable members of the community. Dawn J. Sagert photo

Democrat Roy Cooper was elected governor of North Carolina in 2016, defeating an incumbent Republican. It was a clear mandate from voters for a new direction. The state’s Republican-led Legislature, however, had other ideas.

Legislators called a special session in late 2016 to pass a number of measures that substantially curtailed the incoming governor’s powers. They cut the number of state employees under the governor’s control by two-thirds and limited his authority over the state’s elections and education systems.

It was an extreme and unseemly power grab — one that voters overturned resoundingly two years later. But that hasn’t stopped Republicans from adopting the playbook in other states, including Pennsylvania.

A year-long GOP effort to curb Gov. Tom Wolf’s emergency authority to address the coronavirus pandemic crescendos next month with a constitutional amendment that would give the state’s General Assembly unilateral power to end disaster declarations.

If Republicans wanted to end disaster declarations, they could have started with this bill, because it could easily be declared a disaster in terms of what it would mean for state policy and public safety.

The last thing Pennsylvania’s residents need is a political response to a statewide emergency. Consider the ongoing pandemic; political responses are virtually all Republican lawmakers have offered. Never mind medical guidance about masks, mass gatherings and social distancing, GOP leaders far too often were more concerned with parroting party talking points about government overreach and downplaying the seriousness of the virus. All while COVID-19 claimed the lives of more than 25,000 Pennsylvanians.

Republicans led neither by legislation nor example, belligerently refusing to wear facemasks on the floor of the Capitol and going so far as keeping positive cases among their own ranks from their Democratic counterparts.

“We’re not afraid,” said Republican state Rep. Russ Diamond of Lebanon County during a mask-free GOP news conference in November.

They’re not very wise, either. Officials who don’t take public-health threats seriously enough to protect themselves, their families and their staffs can hardly be trusted to safeguard the general public.

Of course, protecting the public is not what’s driving next month’s amendments; political predominance is.

“The way our government in Pennsylvania is functioning right now has created a backslide of our representative Republic,” state Sen. Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, complained last summer. “From at-home orders, to school closings and business shutdowns, all of these decisions have been made unilaterally without legislative input.”

Gibberish about a backsliding representative Republic aside, that’s what governors do; they make decisions. Wolf has had plenty of input from informed parties: medical experts, state Department of Health advisers and the like. His administration’s handling of the pandemic has been clear and consistent, if not always popular.

But true governing, unlike playing to a partisan base, is not a popularity contest. It requires decisiveness and accountability.

Removing emergency responsibilities from the governor’s office in favor of the General Assembly would, at best, muddle and delay action when it’s most needed. At worst, it would reward a power grab and infuse partisan considerations into public-safety decision-making.

Pennsylvania’s voters would serve themselves well next month in following the lead of North Carolina’s residents and turning a decisive thumbs-down on constitutional efforts to limit gubernatorial authority in times of emergency.