OPINION/LETTER: During a crisis, we need leadership -- not partisanship

For the last 10 months, Republicans in the General Assembly have repeatedly failed to lead the commonwealth through a crisis yet have once again voted to usurp the governor’s executive power in emergency situations. 

The House and Senate rushed to pass S.B. 2, which would require legislative approval to extend emergency declarations beyond three weeks. This would limit the governor's authority in the event of a disaster. Yet, over the past year these same legislators have failed again and again to show that they have any capacity to lead a commonwealth in crisis. Under S.B. 2, legislators – many of whom have repeatedly shown that they will not heed the unbiased advice of health professionals, have not put Pennsylvanians’ lives first, and frankly, cannot even be bothered to wear a mask -- would actually be in control of our crisis response.

The majority party rammed this bill through the legislature for the sake of pure partisanship in a grudge match with the governor. However, the cost will be Pennsylvanians’ lives.

The timing and evolution of legislation can tell one a lot about the intent behind it. We vote our values, or at least we get to vote on what the majority party values. In this instance, it’s making sure that a governor, current or future, cannot act to help the residents of Pennsylvania navigate a disaster. Multiple bills that would help Pennsylvania’s small businesses, broaden access to food assistance and PPE, provide childcare resources, get students back in schools, or otherwise help families struggling to survive, continue to collect dust in committees. Yet we keep passing bills to limit the commonwealth’s response to this crisis.

Senate Bill 2 was one of the first bills the Pennsylvania legislature moved through committee and onto the House floor this session. Part of the rush on this measure is so that it can be on the ballot in time for the primary election this May, where there will be significantly fewer voters. The measure also has misleading provisions about equal protection meant to confuse the issue (the protections it allegedly provides are already constitutionally protected in the U.S.).

If approved by voters, S.B. 2 could take away forms of assistance that our commonwealth depended on to survive the COVID-19 crisis. This includes help from the National Guard. Last year, National Guard members filled staffing shortages at long-term care facilities and distributed food to those in need. We are now hoping to rely on them to help with vaccine distribution. Upon ending the emergency disaster declaration, we could immediately lose that support.

PEMA could also lose its capability to distribute resources across state agencies necessary to respond to the emergency disaster – places like food banks and long-term care facilities.

Prematurely ending an emergency disaster declaration could also impact how much financial relief Pennsylvania receives from the federal government. For instance, if Pennsylvania had ended the emergency declaration for COVID-19 under this three-week timeline, we could have potentially missed out on $1.9 billion in federal aid Pennsylvania has received to date.

Without the help made possible by the governor’s emergency declaration, Pennsylvania would be left to handle recovery efforts on its own -- and the Republican-led General Assembly has repeatedly proven that it cannot handle that responsibility, either.

The General Assembly’s Republican leadership has been committing legislative malpractice since the beginning of this pandemic. To fill a gap brought on by its long-term refusal to budget in a fiscally responsible manner, the majority party took $1.3 billion of CARES Act dollars away from Pennsylvanians in desperate need. This relief was intended to help families access affordable daycare, obtain and allocate PPE and hazard pay to frontline workers, ensure safe access to education, provide rent and mortgage relief, and help restaurants, small businesses, nonprofits and gig workers. 

The same legislators created a program to help address the housing crisis that was so difficult to navigate that $108 million went unspent. Rather than correcting the problems when they knew about it, they failed to fix the program for months. Instead, the majority party overwhelmingly supported reopening water parks, county fairs, zoos and NASCAR events, among others. Our constituents deserve to know that every federal relief dollar that comes into our state is spent on meaningful relief that helps control the pandemic and helps them weather the economic impact. They do not want, nor do they deserve, political posturing.

Pennsylvanians deserve competent, decisive leadership, especially in times of crisis. COVID-19 isn't partisan. The virus does not care how you voted. In early September, Rep. Russ Diamond stated, "the crisis part of the coronavirus is behind us." Since Rep. Diamond declared the crisis over, we have lost nearly 15,000 additional lives to this virus, accounting for more than 65% of all COVID deaths in the commonwealth. Today, the virus continues to spread and now has several variants.

The more people who fail to recognize the seriousness of this situation and continue to play politics, the more lives will be lost. Our residents cannot afford this, and our economy certainly cannot.