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Wolf asks court to hear dispute

The question of whether Pennsylvania’s Legislature can unilaterally end Gov. Tom Wolf’s March 6 disaster declaration is headed to the courtroom for an answer.

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf asked the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on Friday to intervene in his dispute with legislative Republicans who are trying to end pandemic restrictions he imposed in March to slow the spread of the new coronavirus.

Wolf asked the state’s high court to uphold the shutdown.

He said that his gradual reopening plan is working, pointing to a downward trend in the number of new virus infections in Pennsylvania even as cases rise in nearly half the states.

After a resolution to bring the emergency disaster declaration to an end passed both chambers Tuesday, Senate GOP leaders Joe Scarnati and Jake Corman sued Wolf in Commonwealth Court, seeking the terminating proclamation they feel he is now required to make under Title 35 of the state code.

At a press conference on Wednesday, however, Wolf dug in his heels, telling reporters hew views the law as being on his side.

“The constitution is pretty clear on this, but just to make sure we are going to take it to the courts to make sure we are not missing something,” Wolf said.

Locally, Republican senators Mario Scavello and David Argall have taken strong stances supporting the measure passed Tuesday by the General Assembly. In the meantime, however, everything in place as part of the disaster declaration, including Wolf’s color- coded county reopening stages, remains in place.

“The Senate filed in the state’s Commonwealth Court urging the court to command the governor to terminate the declaration in accordance with the law,” Scavello said.

“Now we have to wait for the process to play out in the courts. What that means to all of our local employers, workers and families is that, unfortunately, until that process is complete all of the existing orders, color codes etc. from the Governor remain in effect.”

According to the lawsuit filed against Wolf, “Section 7301 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.”

Wolf said the resolution would still need to come to the governor for approval or disapproval, and that the disaster declaration is separate from the orders signed by Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine under the Disease Prevention Act.

If the disaster declaration were ended, Wolf said, eligibility requirements for unemployment compensation claimants would go back into effect, utility assistance for thousands of families and individuals would end, mortgage foreclosure and eviction moratoriums would end, and the state could stand to lose federal public and individual disaster assistance, among other things.

Scavello, however, said ending the disaster declaration would not jeopardize Pennsylvania’s ability to access federal funding or respond to any possible resurgence of COVID-19.

“It would only prevent the governor from continuing to suspend state laws, spend money indiscriminately, and keep businesses shut down indefinitely,” he said.

Argall called the resolution to end the disaster declaration a “short-term fix to ensure that we can get people back to work safely so that they can provide for themselves and their families.”

“Unfortunately, the Governor has stated that he will not abide by the resolution which means the courts now need to be involved in the matter,” he added.

Also passed Tuesday was a bill that would limit the length of an emergency declaration to 30 days unless approved for a longer duration by the legislature.

“This bill that we passed will be a long term fix to preserve our system of checks and balances,” Argall said. “No one individual should ever have the vast power of this state entrenched in their hands.”

State Rep. Doyle Heffley, R-Carbon, also said he believes Wolf is violating state law by not following through after the General Assembly’s resolution.

““As a result of his refusal to follow the law, the issue is now headed to court, where I hope for a quick review and resolution,” Heffley said. “No one wanted to get to this point. The House has tried many, many times to engage the governor and work with him to create a path forward through this pandemic, but he has refused to work together and continues to act unilaterally, without regard for the General Assembly and the people we represent.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.