Commentary: Include legislators in deliberations on state of emergency

By Rep. Jesse Vanderwende

Gov. John Carney first declared a state of emergency March 12. Despite the passage of nine months, I find there are still many citizens who do not understand the current situation.

Rep. Jesse Vanderwende

Under Title 20, Chapter 31 (Section 3115), the governor has the ability to declare a state of emergency to safeguard the public safety and broad authority to issue orders that “have the force and effect of law.”

While the initial state of emergency can last for up to 30 days, the law gives the governor the option of renewing this declaration as many times as desired.

The governor has renewed his state of emergency declaration nine times thus far. It will undoubtedly be renewed again later this month.

None of these measures requires legislative approval, nor can the General Assembly prevent or amend the governor’s actions.

The state of emergency law was last updated 18 years ago. I believe none of the legislators at the time this statute was originally enacted or amended anticipated the way in which it is now being used.

While the governor will occasionally meet virtually with legislators, we have not been part of the decision-making process; we have not been informed of what the governor is planning; and we typically only become aware of his latest orders minutes before they are issued.

This fundamental disconnect was one of the main reasons I supported House Bill 330. Introduced in late April, the measure would have required legislative approval to renew any state of emergency declaration after the initial 30-day period lapses. This reasonable proposal would have given legislators a seat at the table and the ability to address our constituents’ concerns.

Unfortunately, the bill was killed for apparently partisan reasons in the House Administration Committee by Speaker of the House Pete Schwartzkopf, Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst and Majority Whip Larry Mitchell. These three members control that committee and refused to release the bill for action, even though they could have easily done so when the group met in person in June.

The intentional neglect of this legislation was a missed opportunity to provide governmental balance — for lawmakers on both sides of the aisle — in the form of a legislative check on our chief executive’s unrestrained authority.

I have agreed with some of the governor’s actions, disagreed with others and found many of the orders to be inconsistent or inequitable. I share the frustrations of many of my constituents, who feel they have been unable to impact these orders or otherwise make their voices heard. While COVID-19 poses a public health threat, addressing this challenge should never have resulted in exchanging our representative government for decisions made by one man, no matter how well-intentioned.

Rep. Jesse Vanderwende is a Republican representing Bridgeville.