As masked kids return to class, Pa. House plots early return to challenge Wolf order

PA House of Representatives
Members of the Pennsylvania House walk to a ceremony at Grace Methodist Church in Harrisburg, Pa. on Sept. 28, 2020. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

by Stephen Caruso, Pennsylvania Capital-Star
September 7, 2021

The Pennsylvania House of Representatives is coming back early from its summer recess to challenge the Wolf administration’s new school mask mandate.

The move by the Republican-controlled lower chamber is the latest legislative challenge to Gov. Tom Wolf’s health orders.

The lower chamber scheduled four new session days for next week and the week after, according to House Republican spokesperson Jason Gottesman.

Gottesman declined to go into specifics of the chamber’s legislative plans. But he did say that Republican lawmakers had received “complaints and concerns” about the Democratic Wolf administration’s Aug. 31 order that all students and staff wear masks in school. That order took effect Tuesday.

A school mask mandate takes effect in Pa. this week: Here’s what to know

Rep. Russ Diamond, R-Lebanon, added that it’s “kinda common knowledge that attempting to do something about [Wolf’s mask order] is why” the body was returning to session.

“The chatter amongst members was very loud,” Diamond added.

Republican legislators in the state Senate have already filed legislation seeking to limit the secretary of health’s emergency powers. The proposed legislation would only allow the secretary to issue orders within the 21-day limit on emergency declarations, or longer with legislative consent.

Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre, as well as state Rep. Jesse Topper, R-Bedford, also signed on to a lawsuit challenging the masking order in state court filed Friday.

A poll released by the Associated Press last month found that six in ten Americans support school mask mandates. There are scattered media reports in western Pennsylvania and the Lehigh Valley of protests opposing the order outside of schools (including one outside the Warren County School District central office Tuesday).

What legislators could do in the short term is unclear. Wolf would be able to veto any bill rolling back the mask orders. A constitutional amendment, which would avoid Wolf’s desk, couldn’t be implemented until 2023 at the earliest.

Diamond suggested that the General Assembly attempt to override Wolf’s July veto of a bill stripping the secretary of health’s powers. 

However, the Republican-controlled General Assembly has consistently failed to reach the two-thirds majority to overcome Wolf. In fact, Wolf has never had a veto overridden since taking office in 2015.

Wolf vetoes bill banning Pa. primary schools, colleges from requiring COVID vaccines

The House was originally scheduled to return to session in the last week of September. The General Assembly is also expected to tackle health care, lobbying reform, and redistricting when it returns to session.

Lawmakers are also returning to session as COVID-19 cases once again climb in Pennsylvania, though rates are lower than in other parts of the country.

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