Opinion

Pennsylvania Voter Alert: Dangerous Constitutional Questions on the Primary Ballot

Unmasked Pa Rep. Dan Moul speaking on behalf of the constitutional amendment on the May 18 ballot.

By Larry J. Schweiger
Pittsburgh Current Columnist
info@pittburghcurrent.com

Trump’s well-documented mismanagement helped sicken over 30 million Americans and killed over a half million people. Statewide, Pennsylvania had 1,045,400 reported cases of coronavirus since the start of the pandemic with 25,200 deaths. We must learn lessons from the mishandling of the COVID health emergency.

Trump and sycophantic followers took masks, social distancing, and other emergency measures from the realm of prudent healthcare measures to a rebellious macho-political statement. In the face of a raging pandemic, MAGA governors ignored CDC guidance. They derailed responsible science-based community actions causing the U. S. to lead the world in unnecessary deaths. A self-defeating checkerboard of inadequate and inconsistent responses across America overwhelmed many hospitals and funeral homes and exasperated health experts’ efforts to contain the virus. Even when surges were out of control, politicians dismissed the CDC, opened commerce, encouraged tourism, and suspended mask mandates amplifying the viral spread. Intent on helping restaurants and bars, their reckless actions increased and extended the economic pain and suffering of impacted businesses and workers.

At the Pennsylvania capitol, mask-wearing quickly became partisan with MAGA lawmakers opposing the Governor’s best efforts to contain the virus with emergency mandates on mask-wearing and other actions consistent with CDC guidelines. They expressed extreme frustration with Wolf’s shutdown orders and his refusal to bend safeguards. Triggering a political backlash in June 2020, the General Assembly passed a resolution arbitrarily terminating the coronavirus emergency declaration. On July 1st, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that the constitution provides the Governor with veto power nullifying the concurrent resolution.

After the Court decision, the Legislature proposed two troublesome constitutional amendments to limit the Governor’s authority to declare emergencies. State Representative Dan Moul (R-Adams County) said, the lawmakers on “our side of the aisle are basically telling him to shove it because they’re sick of his draconian rules and regulations that he does without any thought and all of the businesses he’s destroying without any documentation, data, or evidence.” Many state legislators like Moul think they are invincible, flout the rules, and ignore medical scientists. They put constituents at greater risk with demands to prematurely open businesses in the face of more virulent variants.

If the amendments are approved on May 18th, the politically charged General Assembly would take control of all emergencies. The law will limit emergency declarations by a governor to a maximum of 21 days without legislative approval. These amendments would also fundamentally change how a legislative action can become law by creating a perilous precedent that bypasses the Governor’s signature. 

The proposed Emergency Declaration Amendment asks voters:

“Shall the Pennsylvania Constitution be amended to change existing law so that: a disaster emergency declaration will expire automatically after 21 days, regardless of the severity of the emergency, unless the General Assembly takes action to extend the disaster emergency; the Governor may not declare a new disaster emergency to respond to the dangers facing the Commonwealth unless the General Assembly passes a concurrent resolution; the General Assembly enacts new laws for disaster management?”

After 21 days, the second amendment would, allow the Legislature to pass a resolution to extend or terminate the Governor’s emergency declaration. The Governor cannot veto this action and is powerless if the Legislature fails to extend the emergency declaration. By a simple majority vote, the legislators could bypass executive checks vital for our democracy. The amended Constitution would also empower the General Assembly to limit the “manner in which each type of disaster shall be managed.”

The proposed language is dangerous. It limits every future Governor’s ability to address unforeseen emergencies. I worked for the Pennsylvania legislature during two of the state’s most challenging emergencies-Hurricane Agnes and the TMI nuclear meltdown. From that experience, I am confident that the Legislature cannot possibly know in advance the “manner in which each type of disaster shall be managed.” Allowing the Legislature to blindly write emergency management rules and placing an arbitrary time limit on such emergencies is without merit. Managing an emergency during a nuclear accident, massive flood, destructive hurricane, or a deadly pandemic by their very nature are executive functions, not legislative. The climate crisis will create increasingly complex and unpredictable emergencies. The duly elected governor and professionals under the governor’s authority, should have the unfettered capacity to take whatever steps may be necessary to protect people during these times.

MAGA lawmakers have repeatedly displayed contemptible and reckless behavior and should not be in charge of any emergency. Many refused to wear masks despite some members getting COVID. According to the Associated Press, maskless Senator Doug Mastriano led a “Stop the Steal” meeting in Gettysburg then tested positive for COVID-19. He later attended the January 6th coup but said he did not go into the capitol. Another House member, Mike Reese died just weeks after testing positive for COVID-19 at the age of 42 from an apparent aneurysm.

Encouraged by lawmakers, MAGA supporters waving “Don’t Tread on Me” flags gathered at the state capitol to oppose mandates. Representative Russ Diamond vehemently opposed wearing masks and fueled many transphobic posts about former Pennsylvania Health Secretary Rachel Levine for her role in statewide mandates. He was criticized on social media for cheering on anti-mask protesters at the capitol and responded mocking the transgender secretary challenging “hateful comments toward [the] unmasked community.” Adding, “your actions perpetuate a spirit of intolerance and discrimination against unmasked individuals and specifically individuals like myself who are outspoken about it.”

Last summer, after much controversy over maskless members’ reckless behavior, the House approved a policy requiring face coverings on the House floor. Yet many members continue to reject the mask-wearing mandates. On January 26th, House Democratic Leader Joanna McClinton counted over 30 unmasked members on the House floor. Far too many legislators ignore CDC advice, state health rules, and encouraged others to do the same. We should never empower the legislature to override any governor’s emergency declarations. Many lawmakers suffer from a cognitive bias believing that they are more intelligent and more informed than they are. Hubris and the Dunning-Kruger effect are far too common among politicians. They often do not possess the self-awareness needed to recognize their incompetence. 

The temptation to override experts would be contrary to good government and jeopardize many. Trump is gone, but indifference and neglect continue to damage our response to what is now becoming the fourth wave surging with new variants and premature relaxations. Mask-wearing continues to be intensely partisan, with MAGA lawmakers opposing the unpopular but necessary steps to prevent the spread of the virus with heated political rhetoric and anti-science nonsense. Given the chance, they will outlaw responsible future emergency restrictions.

Trust in health experts and a sense of community suffer when mask-wearing becomes a partisan wedge issue. While vaccines are rolling out at an unprecedented pace, many are still at risk by those who flaunt the health guidance and refuse to wear a mask in a perverse loyalty to flawed ideology and a reckless disregard of others. 

America can stem the fourth wave if we work together and listen to the CDC to stop the spread. This will not be our last pandemic. With globalized trade and travel on an over-populated and ecologically-degraded planet, we will see more. Let us not allow House and Senate members who disregard science, to politicize future emergencies. On May 18th, vote “NO” on the two proposed Constitutional Amendments.

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