Deflection by Constitutional Amendment: On HB 55

Marc Stier |

Republicans this week will seek to advance a constitutional amendment that would enable the General Assembly to act by a concurrent resolution to override a governor’s emergency order after 21 days. In doing so they are doubling down on their false narrative about COVID-19 and the economic crisis it created.

That crisis remains severe. New cases and hospitalizations have fallen to about half of their peak in mid-December—but they are far greater than the first wave of March and April. Meanwhile, COVID-19 deaths per day have just reached their peak.

The economy of the state remains in bad shape especially for small businesses and those with low incomes. Small business revenues are down by more than 25% from January 2020 and, shockingly, by more than 40% in high-income neighborhoods, where many people with low incomes work. As a result, employment remains at 6.7% below the January 2020 level and for low-wage workers, 20.6% below that level.

Pennsylvania’s working people and small, locally owned businesses need help. President Biden and the new Congress may provide it soon. But there is no reason Pennsylvania cannot step up and provide it immediately. In December, Governor Wolf proposed an additional $225 million in funding for small businesses. Senate Democrats proposed an even bolder plan to borrow $4 billion at historically low-interest rates to provide immediate help to the unemployed, as well as $800 million to local small businesses.

Republicans in Harrisburg neither supported—nor even discussed—this proposal.

Instead of addressing Pennsylvania’s small business crisis, Republicans are trying to deflect attention from their own inaction by continuing to blame the economic crisis on Governor Wolf’s emergency orders.

That charge is economically illiterate and absurd. Economic activity dropped in most states before the beginning of government shutdown orders. Small businesses have been hurt mainly because their owners and customers are rightly afraid of either getting COVID-19 themselves or spreading it to friends and family members. Government orders only affect business owners and customers too foolish to understand the danger to themselves or too irresponsible to care about spreading the disease to their employees, customers, and others. By limiting the spread of COVID-19 caused by irresponsible people, Governor Wolf’s orders have not only helped our economy to recover but have sharply reduced deaths in Pennsylvania from COVID-19.

Republicans say they would have preferred that Pennsylvania followed the model of Sweden and have minimal government shutdowns of business. But Sweden’s mortality rate from COVID-19 is now triple that of neighboring Denmark, its economy is barely any better, and it is suffering the same end-of-the-year spike in cases and deaths as the rest of the world. Its approach to COVID-19 is widely considered a failure that has left death and economic destruction in its wake.

A Republican Party that truly cared about small businesses would work with Governor Wolf to help them. But just as Pennsylvania Republicans are mostly still unwilling to admit that Joe Biden won a fair election in Pennsylvania, they will not turn away from the dishonest narrative that wrongly blames Governor Wolf for our economic crisis.

Instead, in moving a constitutional amendment to restrict the governor’s powers, they are doubling down on their false narrative.

This constitutional amendment will have no impact on the COVID-19 current situation which is likely to be mostly over by the time the amendment takes effect. But it could be extremely dangerous in a future emergency when, as in this one, we need strong executive action to protect us. So I urge legislators to reject it.

And more importantly, I urge them to reject the false narrative about COVID-19 they have embraced, stop blaming Governor Wolf—who has taken the same responsible steps other governors, both Democratic and Republican have taken—and get to work on helping small, locally owned businesses and working people survive the economic crisis created by the pandemic.