Research & Commentary: Pennsylvania Voters to Gov. Wolf: No More Emergency Powers

Published May 21, 2021

On May 18, Pennsylvania held its customarily scheduled municipal primary elections. Following the example of previous municipal primary elections, Keystone State voters were faced with a myriad of statewide questions and ballot initiatives. This year, these prompts included a new genre of questions: those related to the governors’ emergency powers. Two questions specifically targeted the abuse of emergency powers during a disaster emergency declaration given to the governor. The results from these ballot questions show that Pennsylvania voters have fatigued from overreaching executive authority and they have chosen to strip Gov. Tom Wolf of his pandemic emergency powers.

The first ballot question asked if voters felt the state constitution should be amended to provide additional checks on the governor’s emergency powers. More specifically, by allowing the General Assembly the authority to terminate a disaster emergency declaration, effectively removing the governor as the sole decisionmaker when it comes to emergency declarations. Currently, under the Pennsylvania Constitution, any action by Commonwealth agencies to address statewide disasters requires the governor’s approval.

The second ballot question asked voters if the Pennsylvania Constitution should also be amended to place time restraints on emergency declarations. After Gov. Wolf extended the emergency declaration in Pennsylvania several times over the past 15 months, voters have chosen to make emergency declarations automatically terminate after 21 days. Under the provisions of this ballot question, a state of emergency may be extended, however, only with support from the General Assembly.

According to The Morning Call, both questions had margins of approximately 54 percent in favor to 46 percent opposed. Overall, Keystone State voters rejected Gov. Wolf’s heavy-handed gubernatorial emergency powers, which shows their desire to rightfully inject the people and the legislative branch back into the decision-making process when it comes to prolonged emergency declarations.

Yet, this is not only happening in Pennsylvania. The sudden onset of the coronavirus pandemic, coupled with a plethora of governors who abused their pandemic emergency powers, has left several states reevaluating the statutes in their constitutions pertaining to state of emergency provisions and powers granted to the governor during a state of emergency. Moreover, many states have terminated their pandemic emergency protocols entirely.

However, some states, and more precisely, some governors, have provided us with the worst example of what can happen when one person is given unlimited and unchecked power. Unfortunately for the people of Pennsylvania, Gov. Wolf is one of the primary examples of this. The news broke on the aforementioned results of the ballot questions on May 18. Yet, on May 20, Gov. Wolf chose to renew his COIVD-19 disaster declaration. The original disaster declaration was enacted on March 6, 2020. This will revive his onerous emergency powers through yet another extension while blatantly ignoring the will of the Pennsylvania people.

Throughout 2020, The Heartland Institute developed a set of principles that legislators could reference when governors began abusing their newfound powers. The decision by Pennsylvania voters to rein in Gov. Wolf’s executive emergency powers is in line with Heartland’s principles, which include:

  1. Resolutions to immediately nullify an emergency proclamation.
  2. Time certain duration of an emergency order (renewed by legislature).
  3. Pass a resolution that requires the governor to call a special session to approve of an emergency proclamation if the legislature is out of session.
  4. Permit an interim committee, or group of legislative leaders, to extend or reject emergency proclamations.
  5. Impose specific limits to executive authority during an emergency proclamation. (i.e., restrict the governor from unilaterally closing businesses, closing houses of worship, etc.)

There is a clear appetite among the people of Pennsylvania to restrain Gov. Wolf’s emergency powers while ensuring safeguards to prevent future gubernatorial tyranny under the guise of emergency declarations. Coequal governance, checks and balances, and the decentralization of power are bedrock American principles. Yet, these fundamental principles have been AWOL in Pennsylvania since the pandemic. Wolf’s power-hungry policies, unchecked by the legislature and courts, have led to substantial negative socioeconomic effects for the people of Pennsylvania.

Fortunately for the cause of freedom, Pennsylvania voters are standing up to their out-of-control governor by reasserting their rightful place as a much-needed check against the executive branch. As more Americans become vaccinated and the pandemic recedes, the vast majority of Americans are demanding their pre-pandemic liberties be respected once again. It is time Gov. Wolf listen to his constituents and follow the example of Gov. Asa Hutchinson in ending the state of emergency and relinquishing those accompanying executive powers.


The following documents provide more information about executive authority in a state of emergency.


Testimony Before The Georgia House Committee on Judiciary, Scoggins Subcommittee, On House Bill 358, Restoring The State Legislature’s Role In Emergency Management 

Testimony Before the Georgia House Judiciary Committee regarding legislative and executive authority in a state of emergency.

Andrew Cuomo Is Just a Governor, Not a God

Cuomo has issued multiple statements in an attempt to quell the backlash and frustration of New Yorkers and lawmakers in Albany to no avail.

Governors, Not Gods – A Heartland Institute Webinar

The Heartland Institute hosted a webinar on Aug. 27, 2020 for state legislators to discuss how they can rein in governors, who wield seemingly unlimited powers in the wake of COVID-19. For many months, Americans have been abhorred by out-of-control governors who have imposed draconian lockdowns, which have decimated small businesses and people’s livelihoods. For instance, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has been roundly criticized for his heavy-handed and ineffectual response to the coronavirus outbreak in New York, which has drawn substantial blowback. Cuomo has also attempted to coverup his disastrous policy of forcing elderly patients with COVID-19 to return to nursing homes, where they spread the deadly diseases like wildfire among New York’s most vulnerable. As the days grow shorter and the temperatures dip lower, now is the time to begin exploring oversight over dictatorial governors and restore power where it rightfully belongs: With we the people, not I the governor.


Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this and other topics, visit the Budget & Tax News website, The Heartland Institute’s website, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database.

The Heartland Institute can send an expert to your state to testify or brief your caucus; host an event in your state; or send you further information on a topic. Please don’t hesitate to contact us if we can be of assistance! If you have any questions or comments, contact Heartland’s Government Relations department, at [email protected] or 312/377-4000.