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‘The next chess move:’ Emergency powers ballot questions set the stage for a balance-of-power showdown in Pa.

If voters approve one of the amendments on the ballot, the governor would get three weeks to do that. Once that time is up, he or she would have to go before state lawmakers and justify the emergency response. With a simple majority vote, they could keep the emergency rules in place or toss them out.

Under the other proposed amendment, both Republicans and the state Attorney General’s Office agree lawmakers would be able to essentially cancel emergency declarations outright.

Ryan Costello, a former Republican congressman who’s eyeing a U.S. Senate run, is lobbying for yes votes. He argues those changes would keep the two branches better in check.

“This does not kneecap the governor such that the governor isn’t able to operate as an executive,” Costello said. “It just requires that after a certain period of time, he has to go to the legislature to explain the who, what, where, why and when aspects of it.”

Costello and others haven’t clearly answered why lawmakers chose 21 days as the magic number. But for him, it’s not important.

“If this referendum were 28 days instead of 21, I’d still be for it. If it were 14 instead of 21, I’d still be for it,” Costello said.

State Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa (D-Allegheny) said the measures would make emergency response more complicated. Legislators would have to meet every three weeks and agree on the emergency, both of which have been difficult to do consistently during the pandemic.

“There’s significant compromise that would have to occur, and everytime you compromise emergency situations, you lessen the public safety in my view and I think it lessens the ability for them to do what needs to be done,” Costa said.

Senate President Corman said, in a way, compromise is already happening.

He points to the COVID-19 Vaccine Joint Task Force — something lawmakers and the Wolf administration created so they could collaborate on how to speed up vaccine distribution and access.

“Working together collaboratively, we were able to solve a problem of immense importance together,” Corman said. “That is an example that we should move forward with, not an example of one person making all these decisions.”

Lawmakers can already overturn the governor’s emergency declarations with a resolution. Though he or she can veto it, they can press ahead with a two-thirds vote.

House Democratic Leader Joanna McClinton said that acts as a safeguard, and for good reason: the legislature, she says, needs to stay out of the governor’s way in an emergency.

“We are not 253 governors,” she said. “I don’t have state troopers. I don’t have the ability to declare an emergency and get National Guards, so I respect the governor’s process.”

Many states give their chief executives between five and 60 days to tackle emergencies. That makes Pennsylvania an outlier in offering 90 days. But as PEMA head Randy Padfield argues, that timeframe works well for the commonwealth in getting people and supplies to where they’re needed most.

Changing it now could affect more than the pandemic rules.

“It also has the potential to adversely affect the landscape of emergency management operations for years to come, at a time when disasters and emergencies are becoming increasingly complex and the threats and hazards continue to evolve,” Padfield said.

Sen. Ward said the looming threat of future emergencies is a reason to involve the legislature more.

“If you look at the situation and how it can happen again, you want the legislature which is closest to the people at that table,” she said. “We want to help. We want to have a seat.”

If you want to vote on these and the two other ballot questions up for consideration, you’ll need to register to vote by May 3. To vote for a political party’s candidates in a primary, you have to be registered as a member of that party. But anyone, regardless of party affiliation, can vote on the ballot amendment questions.

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