More States Rein in Governors’ Emergency Powers

By: - June 17, 2021 12:00 am

Sara Kennely cleans a dining table at Max’s Allegheny Tavern in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania voters opted last month to limit Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s emergency powers. Keith Srakocic/The Associated Press

State lawmakers proposed a flood of bills this year that would limit governors’ power to declare and respond to an emergency, with more than 300 bills filed across 47 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NSCL), an organization that advises state legislators. 

Such laws have been enacted in 12 states, according to NCSL. Some of the new laws give legislators more control over the duration of an official emergency declaration. Others give them oversight of federal emergency aid spending or allow them to call the legislature into session in an emergency. 

Governors have wielded extraordinary powers during the COVID-19 pandemic. All 50 governors last spring declared a state of emergency because of the virus. Under those declarations, they could shut down businesses, order residents to stay home, require mask-wearing and limit gatherings. 


Lawmakers say they want to make sure they have more control over the response to future long-running crises. But opponents, including many governors, say efforts to limit executive authority will make it harder for states to quickly respond to emergencies. 

The debate over emergency powers has been particularly acrimonious in states that have a Democratic governor and a Republican-controlled legislature, such as Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania voters last month approved constitutional amendments that limit emergency declarations to 21 days, allow lawmakers to extend or terminate the declarations and empower legislators to pass laws to manage a disaster. The GOP-controlled legislature placed both measures on the ballot.


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Sophie Quinton

Sophie Quinton writes about fiscal and economic policy for Stateline. Previously, she wrote for National Journal.