The disastrous disaster-declaration changes

A misleading campaign mass mailer from the Commonwealth Foundation for Public Policy Alternatives, a Harrisburg-based think tank described as a “right-wing pressure group.”

An opinion

By David Loomis

INDIANA – In Pennsylvania’s May 18 municipal primary elections, only registered partisans can cast ballots for candidates.  But every voter – Democrat, Republican, No Affiliation, Other – can vote on four statewide ballot questions. 

Two of the questions (No. 3, regarding racial and ethnic non-discrimination, and No. 4, regarding lending programs for emergency services) are non-controversial and non-partisan.

But questions No. 1 and No. 2 — proposed constitutional amendments to restrict a governor’s authority to declare disaster emergencies for, say, a public-health crisis and an attendant economic crisis — are thumb-in-the-eye partisan. (Sample ballots for Democrats, Republicans and Non-Partisans in each Indiana County municipality are posted on the county’s website.)

The two disaster-emergency-declaration amendments will appear on Tuesday’s ballot not out of concern for the welfare of Pennsylvanians at risk of the double whammy. Rather, they appear because Republicans in Harrisburg dislike the popular Democratic executive. Gov. Wolf’s approval rating recently has slipped, but compared with the General Assembly’s ratings, the governor’s numbers are about double the legislature’s.

 

FOR GOOD REASON. A couple of days after the first two presumed cases of Covid-19 were reported in Pennsylvania, Gov. Wolf  issued an emergency disaster declaration on March 6, 2020. Two weeks later, as the first wave of infection grew, he ordered closure of all “non-life-sustaining businesses.” On April 1, he extended a stay-at-home order to all 67 counties in the commonwealth. (The order expired June 4.)

Yard sign, Indiana borough, May 13, 2021. Photo: David Loomis

The Republican legislature responded.

In June.

It passed a resolution to halt the governor’s emergency declaration. (Indiana County Republican lawmakers Rep. Jim Struzzi and Sen. Joe Pittman voted for it.) Republicans asserted that the measure did not need the governor’s signature; the emergency was over. The governor disputed that interpretation.

On July 1, the state Supreme Court ruled that the constitution empowers the executive to veto the legislative resolution. Gov. Wolf did so on July 14. On Sept. 2, the state House voted to override the veto; the effort fell short of the required two-thirds.

The constitutional system of checks and balances held – again – despite Republican assault. But to some conservatives, the governor’s exercise of constitutional executive authority is “something akin to monarchy,” calling for constitutional revision to curb perceived executive overreach.

The public calls are most persistent from the Commonwealth Foundation for Public Policy Alternatives, a Harrisburg-based think tank described as a “right-wing pressure group.” Its pressure on the proposed constitutional amendments includes a mass-mail campaign to deceive.

A flurry of recent campaign mailers from the foundation urges voters to cast “3 yes votes” for “equality.” Equality for whom? For the Black women depicted on the mailers? No, the affirmative votes are to “protect our children’s education,” “ensure equality for all Pennsylvania families” and “preserve our local communities.” What’s not to like about all that?

They are distortions, as a recent local letter to the editor accurately noted. The state chapter of the NAACP accurately separated the proposed non-discrimination amendment from the two emergency-declaration amendments, supported the non-discrimination amendment, and opposed the two emergency-declaration amendments.

 

WHO ELSE opposes the emergency-declaration constitutional amendments? Emergency management professionals.

Thomas A. Stutzman, director, Indiana County Emergency Management Agency, Photo: Indiana Gazette

In Indiana County, that’s Thomas A. Stutzman, director of the local emergency-management agency and administrator of the county’s 2020 pandemic emergency plan.

“The fact that these two disaster-related ballot questions appear seems to be a ‘knee jerk’ reaction to the ongoing Covid pandemic disaster declarations,” Mr. Stutzman wrote in a May 12 email interview. “In emergency management, politics can only slow the response and recovery process for the normally occurring disasters that plague the commonwealth.”

The General Assembly’s proposed constitutional amendments are a piecemeal approach to a wider problem, he added.

“If the General Assembly was truly serious about managing disaster planning, mitigation, response and recovery in the commonwealth, they would consider the whole law and not just a provision that will require legislative debate to determine if commonwealth residents are truly suffering from a disaster,” Mr. Stutzman continued. 

“The executive was given this authority to allow for quick decision-making during a disaster,” he wrote. “Allowing the legislature to debate after a declaration that the disaster is or is not impacting those who experienced it will influence the recovery and could potentially cause the loss of federal financial support in the post-disaster phases. Having a declaration expire 21 days after proclamation does not permit sufficient time to even tabulate damages.” 

Mr. Stutzman reported that Indiana County has experienced 17 federally declared disasters since 1972, but only one like the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Covid is primarily a public health emergency, and these ballot questions do not make changes to [the] secretary of health’s authority under the Disease Prevention and Control Law of 1955,” Mr. Stutzman wrote. “The impact of approving the changes outlined in the two ballot questions related to disaster declaration could be financially devastating to rural communities needing financial support to recover.” 

 

REPUBLICANS and the Commonwealth Foundation may have history on their side. The last time a proposed amendment to Pennsylvania’s constitution was rejected was in 1989.

But opponents to the two proposed emergency-declaration constitutional amendments have professionalism, non-partisanship and public safety on their side. On May 18, voters should make some history, reject ballot questions No. 1 and No. 2 and keep the state constitution’s delegation of emergency-declaration authority where it is currently balanced – in the executive branch, not in the hands of the legislature.

__________

An earlier version of this story contained an incorrect link to sample ballots posted on the Indiana County website. The reference has been corrected; the correct link is here.

David Loomis, Ph.D., emeritus professor of journalism at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, is editor of The HawkEye.

The HawkEye invites comments on this and other issues of community interest. Email doloomis@iup.edu

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