Since last spring, many governors have used the pandemic to assume emergency powers, giving them wide-ranging authority to, among other things, shut down businesses, close schools, and enforce stay-at-home orders.
Unfortunately, many abused this authority, wielding unilateral powers while dismissing the checks and balances of state government. Throughout the United States, excessive lockdowns resulted, harming local economies and individual livelihoods. We’re only now beginning to understand the costs of these restrictions on jobs, mental health, education, and civil liberties.
But state legislatures are moving against governors’ arbitrary decision-making. The pushback, dating to last summer, has gathered increasing momentum as the rationale for lockdowns subsided. Just this year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 45 states have proposed more than 300 measures to limit governors’ executive authority. A bipartisan consensus has emerged among lawmakers to check excessive gubernatorial emergency powers.
In Arkansas and Utah, for example, Republican governors – welcoming legislation that limits their executive power – recently signed bills to restore legislative oversight. In Kentucky and Ohio, state legislators overrode their governors’ vetoes of similar legislation. A similar proposal is advancing in Indiana, while in Kansas, lawmakers voted to end existing emergency orders while providing legislative oversight of new ones. All six states have legislatures with Republican majorities.
Even in deep-blue New York, Democrats struck a deal to limit the powers of its embattled Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo. Limiting governors’ unchecked power isn’t a partisan fight; it’s about good governance.
The movement to limit a governor’s emergency powers is particularly evident in Pennsylvania, where lawmakers have pursued a year-long effort to restore checks and balances. Last summer, in addition to favoring numerous bills to reopen the economy, the legislature voted – with a bipartisan majority – to end Democratic governor Tom Wolf’s emergency declaration. The state Supreme Court, however, ruled that the governor could veto this resolution, and he did – a ruling that set the bar for overturning an emergency declaration even higher than the votes necessary for impeachment.
The Pennsylvania General Assembly’s efforts to restrict Wolf’s emergency declaration – renewed four times – has reached its endgame in the form of two constitutional amendments in a statewide voter referendum. In the May primary, Pennsylvania voters will decide whether the governor’s emergency declarations should be limited to 21 days, with legislative agreement required to extend them.
Pennsylvanians have suffered the social and economic consequences of Wolf’s emergency declaration, which passed the one-year mark last month. The governor’s extraordinary powers did not make the Keystone State’s pandemic response more efficient, as many had hoped. Instead, Wolf’s stewardship has proved short-sighted and erratic. His actions were among the most draconian, ineffective, and least transparent of any governor.
Today, Pennsylvania ranks among the top tier of states with COVID restrictions. The commonwealth fared worse before the legislature’s pushback forced Wolf to change course somewhat. Many states ordered business closures, and most governors applied similar metrics for making these determinations. But Wolf created his own standard for defining “life-sustaining” businesses, then enacted a selective and opaque waiver process so that he alone had the power to determine whether a specific business could remain open.
Wolf was especially tough on restaurants, though his own data showed that dining establishments were not a major source of spreading COVID. Yet he proceeded with nonsensical regulations, including ever-changing capacity limits and various alcohol restrictions, such as no drinking of alcohol without ordering a meal.
As a result, Pennsylvania ranked second in the nation in most jobs lost due to government action, as well as second in most businesses forced to close – behind only Michigan in both measures –according to Census data. As of February, Pennsylvania’s unemployment rate stood at 7.3%, among the highest in the United States, and it has continued to lag behind most states in job recovery.
Wolf claims that his restrictions have saved lives, but the data suggest otherwise. Last summer, Wolf blasted the governors of Florida and Texas for being less restrictive, yet Pennsylvania has far more deaths per capita than either Florida or Texas – about 26% more than Florida and 17% more than Texas. And Pennsylvania – like its neighbors New York and New Jersey – has seen new case counts exceed those of Florida and Texas, even while maintaining tougher restrictions.
Wolf’s extreme unilateral actions failed Pennsylvania’s communities, families, and small-business owners. As lawmakers pushed back, Wolf vetoed no fewer than 19 bills since last year. The governor has essentially sidelined the legislative branch. Amending the state constitution to require collaboration between the two branches is the only remaining option.
As this past year shows, Pennsylvanians should follow the lead of other states, including New York, by restoring a balance of power. It’s a nonpartisan precept that when facing a crisis like COVID, the executive branch should work with the legislature. The alternative to such cooperation is what happened in Pennsylvania, where recovery is only now beginning – slowly.