Pennsylvania Voters Restore Balance of Power

Voters Approved Two Constitutional Amendments Forcing Governor Wolf to Work with the Legislature

Voters in Pennsylvania approved two constitutional amendments restoring the Legislature’s role responding to emergencies. By a margin of nearly 54%, voters rejected Governor Wolf’s unilateral and inconsistent response to the COVID-19 pandemic, determining that all future governors must work with the legislative branch after 21 days and restoring the Legislature’s right to end an emergency without the Governor’s signature.

The success of the proposals marked the first time voters across the nation were able to weigh in regarding executive overreach. This also demonstrated voters’ frustration with Governor Wolf’s policies and may serve as a framework for other state lawmakers looking to restore the balance of power between legislative and executive branches of state government.

The Pennsylvania Legislature proposed the amendments to restore good, constitutional government practices. As to the former, Governor Wolf refused to work with the Legislature. His decisions to shut society down; to institute arbitrary rules regarding which businesses were, or were not, life sustaining; and to require nursing homes to accept, or accept readmissions of, COVID positive patients upset many in society. As the Legislature tried to represent diverse interests, the Governor shut them down at every turn. When the Legislature tried to assert its legal and constitutional role, a highly politicized state Supreme Court provided the Governor carte blanche to maintain the state of emergency.

As to the latter—restoring good, constitutional government practices—the Pennsylvania Constitution, just like the federal constitution, divides power between the three branches of government. The executive is responsible for enforcing the law. The legislature is responsible for drafting the law and determining critical policies. Throughout the emergency, Governor Wolf unilaterally criminalized conduct that, prior to the pandemic, was perfectly legal. This included serving alcohol without food and determining what constitutes food. It included gathering with more than a small number of people.

By not consulting with the Legislature, Governor Wolf ignored the additional people falling, or relapsing, into substance abuse; children and spouses suffering from domestic abuse; and the plight of those unable to make ends meet due to his emergency orders.

Restoring the constitutional balance of power does not mean an emergency ends. Instead, it means that the executive and legislative must work together to balance the interests of all society. One of the reasons many legislatures, including Pennsylvania’s Legislature, provide governor broad emergency authorities is the need to respond quickly, before a lot of data exists about the nature and scope of a crisis. After 21 days, though, according to the people of Pennsylvania, the Governor and Legislature have enough information to begin working together.

Governments, and governors, must have the ability to respond to emergencies. That duration must be definite, though, to allow the legislatures to fulfill their constitutional role to establish critical policies and laws. Society is far better off when both the executive and legislative branches work to protect their constituents and society. The people of Pennsylvania, by approving two constitutional amendments, have set an example for the rest of the country to follow.