Gov. Tom Wolf, as promised, vetoed a bipartisan-backed bill on Monday that would have given local officials’ authority this year to decide whether to hold K-12 sports and activities and set crowd limits at events.
This action shows his determination to urge Pennsylvanians to adhere to his 25-person limit for indoor events and 250 for outdoor contests to control the spread of COVID-19, even though a federal judge has declared those limits along with other pandemic-related restrictions the governor ordered as unconstitutional. The Wolf Administration has requested a stay on that order while appealing U.S. Western District Court Judge William Stickman IV’s ruling.
In his veto message, the governor said, “We have been confronting extraordinary challenges with the COVID-19 pandemic. As we continue the fight against COVID-19, we need to continue to prioritize the health and welfare of Pennsylvanians and minimize public health risks. However, this bill does nothing to promote public health or ensure that our children have a safe learning environment.”
He pointed out that public and non-public school officials already have the authority to decide whether to hold sporting events and other extracurricular activities although he recommended against it until at least Jan. 1. He goes on further to say the bill “has constitutional infirmities as it attempts to take away executive authority.”
“Furthermore, to the extent COVID-19 cases may rise and spread during the fall and through the upcoming cold and flu season, the Department of Health must maintain the critical authority to limit exposure to COVID-19. Minimizing this exposure is paramount,” he stated. “Instead of unnecessary legislation, we need to focus on providing schools the tools and resources they need to be successful in educating our children and we need to help people impacted by the pandemic with legislation such as funding for small businesses and child care, and paid sick leave for employees.”
In reacting to the governor’s decision to veto, Republican leaders of the GOP-controlled General Assembly said a veto override vote would be forthcoming.
“For months, Governor Wolf has stubbornly refused to work with or trust anyone outside of his own administration – not legislative leaders, not healthcare professionals, not local government officials, not school officials, and now not even the members of his own party who supported this bipartisan bill,” said Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre County, in a statement. “The longer this go-it-alone approach continues, the more Pennsylvania communities will suffer.”
He said this bill earned bipartisan support because “it entrusts schools to make the best decisions possible for their students and communities. It includes safeguards to ensure any resurgence of the virus can be contained.”
The bill would have required school officials to ensure those attending sports and in-person extracurricular activities socially distanced and followed the protocols for sports consistent with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Considerations for Youth Sports.
Earlier in the day at a news conference about the state’s personal protective equipment stockpile to combat COVID-19, Wolf responded to a question about his intention to veto this bill. He did so by poking fun at lawmakers who supported it and who he said think “they can somehow wave a magic wand and suspend sort of reality…. I can’t. And I don’t think Pennsylvania’s can afford to ignore that reality.”
In light of Stickman’s court decision, the state Department of Education on Friday issued new guidance recommending public and nonpublic school officials’ voluntarily comply with the 25/250-person limits on school gatherings to “protect ourselves, our families, and our communities” during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Wolf said although school districts will make their own decision about whether to comply with that guidance, “there’s a virus out there and that virus really likes it when you bring a lot of people together. That’s what we know. And so you ignore that at your peril.”
State lawmakers, Republicans and many Democrats alike, say the decision as to how many parents, relatives and fans should be admitted to school events should be left up to local boards. And several opened up their stadiums to large crowds for this past weekend’s football games while requiring masks and social distancing.
Rep. Mike Reese, R-Westmoreland County, who sponsored the bill, said local officials “know their facilities and have no less commitment to public safety than Governor Wolf.”
“House Bill 2787 represents the good bipartisan work that has been done by the General Assembly to represent the voice of the people during this difficult time, despite the efforts of Governor Wolf to stand in our way,” said House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre County. “In vetoing this bill, Governor Wolf stands directly opposed to children and families looking for some semblance of normalcy and to receive the numerous invaluable benefits of fully participating in school sports,”
Benninghoff accused Wolf of upending lives and livelihoods with “confusing and inconsistent dictates” while refusing to work with lawmakers in combatting the virus.
The anticipated veto override vote would start in the House since it originated in that chamber. Corman said the Senate would follow suit after the House acts.
The bill passed both chambers with enough bi-partisan support to achieve the two-thirds’ majority (135 votes in the House and 34 in the Senate) needed for a veto override if the vote totals remain the same. It passed the House by a 155-47 vote and the Senate, 39-11.
Reese told the Morning Call that if a stay is issued in the federal court case and the override is successful, the law created by his House bill would take precedence, leaving it up to school officials to decide crowd size at sporting events.
The veto override vote will test some Democratic lawmakers’ allegiance to the Democratic governor. Some including Reps. Bill Kortz, D-Allegheny, and Pam Snyder, D-Greene, have publicly stated that on this issue, they side with their constituents and trust local officials to make the appropriate decision to keep their communities safe.
“I remain hopeful that lawmakers on both sides of the aisle will have the courage and conviction to do what is best for Pennsylvania, and not what is in the best political interests of the governor,” Corman said.
Others see this as another attempt by Republican lawmakers to express their mounting frustration with Wolf’s use of expanded powers under his COVID-19 emergency disaster declaration. They have passed bills and even attempted (unsuccessfully) a veto override to end the disaster declaration in an effort to assert the General Assembly’s role as a co-equal branch of government when it comes to policy-making.
Wolf, however, has stood his ground, saying the orders he has issued are based in science and data, emulate actions taken by governors in other states and have the singular goal of trying to save lives.
Here is the full text of the governor’s veto message:
“We have been confronting extraordinary challenges with the COVID-19 pandemic. As we continue the fight against COVID-19, we need to continue to prioritize the health and welfare of Pennsylvanians and minimize public health risks. However, this bill does nothing to promote public health or ensure that our children have a safe learning environment. As we reopen our schools, we need to continue to be vigilant and take precautions to keep ourselves, our communities, and our children healthy. These mitigation efforts not only help keep our children, teachers, and staff healthy, they also help keep our schools open.
“This bill is entirely unnecessary. While I recommended against holding school sports before January 2021, it was a recommendation and neither an order nor a mandate. Local school governing bodies have maintained the authority to decide how extracurricular activities, including school sports, proceed at the local level. Furthermore, to the extent COVID-19 cases may rise and spread during the fall and through the upcoming cold and flu season, the Department of Health must maintain the critical authority to limit exposure to COVID-19. Minimizing this exposure is paramount.
“This bill also has constitutional infirmities as it attempts to take away executive authority during the 2020-2021 school year. Instead of unnecessary legislation, we need to focus on providing schools the tools and resources they need to be successful in educating our children and we need to help people impacted by the pandemic with legislation such as funding for small businesses and child care, and paid sick leave for employees.”
* This story was updated to include the governor’s veto message.
Jan Murphy may be reached at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @JanMurphy.