Pennsylvania’s COVID-19 disaster declaration nears termination

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The state House of Representatives voted Tuesday on a resolution to end the state’s 15-month COVID-19 disaster declaration.

If approved in the upper chamber, House Resolution 106 would reinstate hundreds of regulatory suspensions, most occupational in nature, and bring to an end the broad emergency powers awarded to Gov. Tom Wolf – the powers he used to enact sweeping economic and travel restrictions at the height the pandemic last year.

“The emergency is over,” said House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Bellefonte, during a news conference Tuesday. “Our hospitals are not overrun, successful vaccines are available and abundant, our schools are prepared to teach in person and Pennsylvanians are back to work. The time is now to end the declaration.”

The Senate scheduled HR 106 for consideration in its Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee on Wednesday, but a legislative source said a few details about the measure needed tweaking – with the input of both the House and the administration – to end the declaration and preserve specific waivers. The negotiations delayed committee action until 9:40 p.m. with a final vote scheduled for Thursday.

Minority Chairman Sen. Katie Muth, D-Royersford, urged fellow senators to "go home and get some sleep" and return "with a clear mindset" rather than pass the "reckless" resolution.

"We have no idea how this will impact our ability to ensure how resources are given to our constituents who are still in need," she said. "We have no idea what programs will still be accessible to our state."

Pennsylvania voters became the first in the nation to agree to limit a governor’s emergency powers via two constitutional amendments approved during the May 18 primary election. The Wolf administration said, at first, lawmakers agreed to extend a fifth 90-day declaration while the General Assembly put together bills that made some regulatory suspensions permanent.

The following week, the House State Government Committee approved a measure that edits the active declaration to reinstate work search requirements for unemployment claimants, prevent future capacity limits and revoke the administration’s ability to engage in “no-bid, single source contracting” – as it did with the disgraced Insight Global, the Atlanta-based contact tracing company that stored the private data of 72,000 residents on unsecured Google spreadsheets.

Committee Chairman Seth Grove, R-York, said what remained in the declaration would preserve federal funding and ensure “that we are able to continue some of the regulatory suspensions that have occurred,” until the General Assembly approves legislation making some of those policies more permanent. The edited declaration would expire on Oct. 1.

Some Republicans on the committee expressed doubts that “any part” of the declaration should be extended, but agreed to move it to the floor anyway.

Those doubts were addressed this week when the lower chamber amended the October deadline out of the resolution and sent it, on a party-line vote, to the Senate for consideration.

“Make no mistake,” Benninghoff said. “The governor’s ability to exercise unilateral rule over the Commonwealth under the existing emergency disaster declarations will finally be coming to an end. … We have listened to the voters and are turning their vote into action.”

Lyndsay Kensinger, a Wolf spokesperson, described the resolution as “extremely disappointing” and lamented the administration’s inability to consult with lawmakers on the risks that come with its passage.

“It's irrefutable that the … disaster declaration was critical in Pennsylvania’s fight to stop the spread of COVID-19,” she said.

Kensinger described some of the leverage the declaration provided in an email Wednesday, pointing to business waivers, regulatory suspensions that improved vaccine administration, boosted SNAP benefits for financially strapped families, and ongoing access to federal disaster aid.

“It’s unfortunate that the House Republicans are willing to eliminate the suspension of certain provisions of regulations and regulatory statutes that help Pennsylvanians, and are willing to forgo valuable resources that will help Pennsylvanians recover from the pandemic,” she said.

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Tags: States, News, Pennsylvania, Coronavirus

Original Author: Christen Smith, The Center Square

Original Location: Pennsylvania’s COVID-19 disaster declaration nears termination