A Pennsylvania county sued Wednesday to compel Gov. Tom Wolf to release $12.8 million in federal coronavirus relief funding that he withheld after county leaders defied his shutdown orders and sought to reopen on their own.
Wolf blocked funding for Lebanon County, where local Republican leaders voted in mid-May to lift pandemic restrictions in a direct challenge to the Democratic governor’s authority. Wolf’s decision to retaliate left Lebanon as the only eligible Pennsylvania county to be cut off from $625 million of federal coronavirus relief money distributed by the state.
The county’s lawsuit, filed in Commonwealth Court, cast the Board of Commissioners’ vote to unilaterally move Lebanon to the less restrictive “yellow” phase of Wolf’s reopening plan as symbolic. The lawsuit said Wolf had no legal right to withhold funding appropriated by the Legislature, accusing him of “gross abuse of power” and acting like a “de facto King.”
Wolf’s office didn’t comment on the lawsuit.
Wolf has repeatedly addressed his decision to withhold the funding, saying Lebanon County had to pay a price for its recalcitrance.
“Don’t come and say you want something from the state when you haven’t followed the rules. There are consequences,” he said at a news conference last week.
He stuck to his guns at a Tuesday appearance in York, predicting a court fight and saying of Lebanon: “They apparently didn’t feel they needed the money at that point.”
The Lebanon commissioners passed their resolution by a vote of 2-1 on May 15, four days after Wolf threatened to block COVID-19 funding to any county that defied him. At the time, several GOP-controlled counties were threatening to lift Wolf’s pandemic restrictions on their own, asserting that his shutdown of “non-life-sustaining” businesses was inflicting undue economic hardship.
The local chamber of commerce has said Wolf’s decision unfairly punishes small businesses, nonprofits and others. Lebanon County’s sole Democratic commissioner, Jo Ellen Litz, who voted against the county’s unilateral move to yellow, has been lobbying Wolf to release the money.
“I’d rather not see every man, woman, and child in our community of over 140,000 punished for a vote by two people who later tried to make amends,” she said via email last week.
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