By Danielle Ohl of Spotlight PA
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HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania voters could face at least five ballot questions about changing the state constitution next year after House Republicans added four controversial revisions to a single proposal.
Republican lawmakers have increasingly relied on constitutional amendments to pursue policy initiatives that Gov. Tom Wolf would otherwise reject and that most Democrats don’t support. Bundling together several amendments represents an escalation of that tactic, as the combined measures eliminate the need to advance and pass separate proposals.
The resulting omnibus bill is packed with initiatives that Republicans hope to send directly to voters all at once as separate ballot questions.
“It’s very partisan in nature and really reflects the attempt to advance an agenda that was unsuccessful through typical, ethical democratic means,” said Khalif Ali, executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania, a good-government organization. “It’s a process in place for a reason and to go around that erodes democracy.”
The original bill, introduced by state Sen. David Argall (R., Schuylkill), seeks to modify the way Pennsylvania elects the lieutenant governor — an idea that has wide bipartisan support.
But in December, shortly before breaking for the holidays, GOP state representatives amended the bill to include four new constitutional revisions. Those alterations passed along party lines, before the House passed the entire bill the next day with nearly every Democrat voting against it.
Republicans in both the House and Senate have argued the constitutional amendment process ultimately gives voters the ability to set policy.
“I believe that at the end of the day that people always have the right to decide how to be governed,” House Speaker Bryan Cutler (R., Lancaster) said last year.
Democrats, meanwhile, have said the growing reliance on constitutional amendments circumvents established checks and balances. Per the Pennsylvania Constitution, the legislature is able to overturn Wolf’s vetoes with a two-thirds majority, which requires both Republicans and Democrats to be in agreement.
“The House Republicans have taken this approach of amending the constitution as a way to govern,” said Nicole Reigelman, a spokesperson for House Democrats.
Two of the proposed amendments would send voters ideas Wolf has already rejected and that Democrats and good-government groups have decried as unnecessary or potentially harmful to marginalized groups. One would require “government-issued identification” to vote, and another would require the state auditor general to review elections and voter rolls for accuracy.
“[The bill as amended] has very little if nothing to do with any factual issue that we’re facing as a state,” Ali of Common Cause said.
Another proposed amendment would give a simple majority in the legislature power to override executive orders and administrative regulations, a reaction to Wolf’s actions during the pandemic as well as his announcement that Pennsylvania would join a coalition of states in regulating carbon emissions.
The Pennsylvania Constitution requires both the state House and Senate to pass proposed amendments in two concurrent sessions before they appear on the ballot.
Typically, lawmakers introduce proposed changes in separate resolutions, a system that gives each revision its own platform for legislators to debate, amend, and consider. But as a bundle, lawmakers are forced to vote for all or none of them.
“From a procedural point of view when you do this — when you throw a lot of amendments into one bill — you don’t have hearings, you don’t have discussion, no one knows they’re coming,” said Marc Stier, director of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, a progressive research group that studies the state’s economy and government.
While the timeline for amending the constitution is designed to be slow, Republicans, who control the legislature, have favored the process in recent years to circumvent Wolf and curtail executive power. The Democrat has vetoed more bills during his time in office than any other Pennsylvania governor since Milton Shapp, who served from 1971 to 1979.
Last year, voters approved two ballot measures that limit the governor’s power to declare and renew a state of emergency — advanced by Republicans angry over Wolf’s response to the pandemic — as well as another that guarantees equal rights to residents regardless of race.
“I would say that anytime that a branch of government circumvents the function of another branch of government, we have some real concerns about the constitutionality and legality of that move,” Ali said.
Presenting a measure as a ballot question nearly guarantees it will be approved. Voters have rejected only six of 49 amendments dating back to 1968, the year the current state constitution went into effect. The overwhelming majority were approved in off-year elections, when only a small fraction of eligible voters go to the polls.
The amendments curtailing Wolf’s emergency powers were passed during the 2021 primary, when just over 25% of registered voters at the time cast a ballot.
The amendment omnibus is back in the state Senate for a vote on the changes. If it passes this year, the amendments would need to pass again in the 2023-24 session before appearing on the ballot as separate questions.
Argall said Wolf “refuses to negotiate” with the Republican caucuses, making it necessary to use the constitutional amendment process.
The governor “has the worst relationship with the House and the Senate in generations,” he said.
While Argall supports the individual measures now tacked onto his bill, he hopes his initial effort to update the lieutenant governor election process won’t fail to pass the legislature because of the other measures now attached to it.
Republicans in both chambers are pursuing a number of other amendments to Pennsylvania’s constitution, including one that would end statewide elections for appellate judges in favor of races in districts drawn by the legislature, and another that would give state lawmakers the final say over their own political boundaries in the redistricting process.
That bill, sponsored by state Rep. Seth Grove (R., York), was scheduled for a House floor vote this week, just six days after Grove introduced it. But Democrats, mirroring their GOP colleagues’ actions before the holiday break, introduced dozens of amendments seeking changes to the constitution that would provide free college education, raise the minimum wage, eliminate property taxes, and more.
The House, controlled by Republicans, adjourned Wednesday without bringing the previously fast-moving bill up for a vote.
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