PA POST – A state Senate committee on Thursday approved a motion to subpoena records from Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration about its handling of the more than 42,000 applications filed by businesses seeking a waiver from the state’s coronavirus closure order.
The move escalates an already tense dispute between the Republican-controlled General Assembly and the governor over his use of emergency powers to respond to the coronavirus pandemic.
Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (R-Centre) said he wasn’t aware of a Senate committee issuing subpoenas against a governor in the more than 20 years he’s served in the chamber.
“Clearly, you know, it hasn’t been used very often,” Corman said. But he said it was appropriate now.
Republican senators said the Wolf administration has until 4 p.m. on May 8 to provide documents to attorneys for the Senate Republican Caucus. One subpoena is for Wolf, while another is for Dennis Davin, secretary for the state Department of Community and Economic Development.
Crystal Clark, a Senate attorney, said if the Wolf administration doesn’t provide the information, the court system would be asked to decide the issue.
“We don’t have control over the court’s timeline, unfortunately,“ Clark said. “So it could be a relatively lengthy process.”
During the senate hearing on Thursday, multiple Democratic lawmakers also criticized the waiver process, which is run by the Department of Community and Economic Development.
“Businesses in my district, like in yours, have fallen victim to the fallibility and inconsistencies in the DCED waiver process,” said state Sen. Maria Collett (D-Montgomery). “And I agree there is much we can learn from the failures in the process.”
But she said issuing subpoenas is burdensome and redundant and will take the administration’s attention away from more pressing public health priorities.
She said she supported the decision by Auditor General Eugene DePasquale (D) to review the Wolf administration’s handling of waivers.
State Sen. Mike Regan (R-York) said he supported DePasquale’s audit, but he said the Senate needed to conduct its own review.
“It’s important for us to look at what we can do, as we are in the middle of this pandemic,” Regan said.
One difference between the two reviews: DePasquale said he won’t name businesses that received the waivers. Senate Republican leaders say they plan to do so.
In a statement, Wolf’s press secretary, Lyndsay Kensinger, called the subpoenas an “unfortunate and counterproductive step.”
Kensigner said the Wolf administration will review the subpoena documents and determine its next steps. She said the administration has committed to disclosing the information about business closures and the waiver process.
But it has provided no timeline for when it will do so.
Business leaders and many GOP legislators have criticized the governor’s handling of his March 19 order shuttering 100 types of “non-life-essential businesses,” specifically the waiver process that was launched with the order. Critics say the waivers have been approved or rejected inconsistently, and the lack of transparency about which companies received them makes it impossible to discern if the process is fair.
PA Post is an independent, nonpartisan newsroom that covers politics and policy in Pennsylvania. Read their reporting at PaPost.org.