Pennsylvania’s General Assembly and governor are going head-to-head in a battle of partisan politics over a resolution that aims to terminate Tom Wolf’s COVID-19 disaster declaration.


On Tuesday, the commonwealth’s Republican-controlled legislative branch passed concurrent resolutions to end the disaster emergency declared by the Democratic governor on March 6, with the Senate passing the measure in a 31-19 vote, followed by the House approving the resolution in a 121-81 vote.


Locally, the vote for the resolution fell along party lines, with Senator Mario Scavello (R-40) and Representatives Rosemary Brown (R-189) and Jack Rader (R-176) in favor of the resolution, whereas Senator John Blake (D-22) and Representative Maureen Madden (D-115) voted against the measure.


That Tuesday evening, Wolf’s administration released a statement on the matter, noting that "when the concurrent resolution is presented to him, as the Constitution requires, he will disapprove it."


During a Wednesday press conference, Wolf made it clear that he does not plan to accept the resolution.


"I’m going to continue focusing on protecting Pennsylvanians and navigating our recovery, but I’ll tell you one thing: ending the disaster declaration is not part of that plan," Wolf said. "It would not end the orders signed by Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine under the Disease Prevention Act that would include provisions for business reopening and worker and building safety."


The governor went on to highlight a number of actions that would come to a halt if the resolution managed to pass, including the end of telehealth visits with physicians, licensing waivers for medical professionals to work during the pandemic, adjustments to unemployment compensation requirements, and the moratorium on utility shutoffs and evictions.


According to Wolf’s administration, the state could also lose federal public and individual disaster assistance, and any additional state funding sources available through the transfer of unused General Fund dollars.


In a June 9 statement, House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler (R-100) cited several points of contention with Wolf and the disaster declaration, maintaining that that greatest grievance was the shutdown of non-essential businesses in the commonwealth.


"The governor has used the power afforded to him under this declaration without input from the Legislature, suspending state laws, spending money without legislative approval, and his most unfair action of all, shutting down the family-sustaining careers of millions of Pennsylvanians," Cutler said in defense of the need to end the declaration.


However, on Wednesday, Wolf countered that the resolution would not undo those business closures, or any of the orders signed by Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine under the Disease Prevention Act.


"But, and this is important, ending the disaster declaration would not reopen anything," Wolf said. "It just wouldn’t, and anybody who says differently is wrong."


General Counsel of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Gregory G. Schwab suggested that the General Assembly was "never going to present this to the governor, thereby taking away his ability to approve or disapprove the resolution, which the constitution requires that presentment."


Schwab and Wolf both said that the matter will be taken to court, though when questioned on what legal grounds they could dispute the resolution, Schwab noted the unique nature of the issue at hand, and a need to explore options.


"I think you can understand my reluctance to get into a lot of specifics, but I think that there are a number of different things that we’re looking at," Schwab said. "It’s obviously very unusual. Not that we’ve done exhaustive research, but it’s not clear that this type of dispute has ever arisen, so we’re looking at it very carefully."


Schwab said that as the resolution has not been presented to the governor, there is no option to veto, as per the state’s constitution.


The resolution specifically notes that it should be presented to the Secretary of the Commonwealth and the director of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, though it makes no mention of Wolf having to sign off on the measure. Wolf called this into question on Wednesday.


"I don’t know anywhere in the constitution that says a General Assembly can unilaterally pass a law and put it into place," Wolf said.


According to a lawsuit filed against Wolf by Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R-25), Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (R-34) and the Senate Republican Caucus, Wolf is obliged to honor the resolution.


"Section 7301(c) of the Emergency Management Services Code provides that if the General Assembly terminates a state of disaster emergency by concurrent resolution, then the Governor must immediately act, without discretion, to formally end his prior proclamation, stating as follows: ‘Thereupon, the Governor shall issue an executive order or proclamation ending the state of disaster emergency,’" the filing reads.


According to Wolf, Schwab and PEMA Director Randy Padfield, "a number of critical components of the response to COVID-19" have required the rights and powers provided under the state disaster declaration, making it a necessary measure for managing the pandemic response.


Padfield noted the ability to execute emergency purchase orders for items like personal protective equipment, providing equipment and supplies for alternate care sites and community-based testing sites, providing assistance to long-term care living facilities that were shorthanded due to infected staff, and the waiver of certain licensing requirements for out-of-state health care workers to work in the commonwealth.


"State disaster declarations also give the authority to agencies such as ours to command, control and coordinate the greater response across all state agencies, and leverage the physical and personnel resources from other state agencies to support counties and municipalities," Padfield said.


Examples of this include using incident management personnel from the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to support the management of COVID-19 testing sites, calling on Department of Human Services and Department of Agriculture workers to help support mass feeding operation, and utilizing the Pennsylvania National Guard for numerous reasons, including assisting staff at long-term care living facilities such as Gracedale Nursing Home in Nazareth.


"All these operations require a high degree of coordination across not only state agencies involved, but all levels of government and other stakeholders," Padfield said. "In absence of the authorities under a state disaster declaration, these complex operations would become increasingly more difficult to accomplish, would be less coordinated, and would take significantly longer to achieve, which in the case of the COVID-19 crisis would jeopardize the lives of those most vulnerable to the impacts of the crisis."


Though Wolf said that he could effectively ignore the resolution, he wishes to "do the right thing" and show that no branch of Pennsylvania’s government can unilaterally "impose their will on the people of Pennsylvania."