Pennsylvania lawmakers want control of constitutional amendment process after administration's error

The House State Government Committee convened for a voting meeting in Harrisburg on May 3.

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HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania’s Legislature wants control over the writing and advertising of proposed constitutional amendments after a series of failures and perceived aggressions within the Department of State undermined two different efforts this year.

The House State Government Committee voted 24-1 on Monday in favor of House Bill 1010, which would change advertising procedures for proposed amendments, giving the responsibility instead to lawmakers.

The measure comes after the department admitted in February it forgot to advertise a proposed constitutional amendment that would have opened a two-year civil litigation window for childhood sexual abuse survivors when it passed the General Assembly for the first time back in 2019.

The error forced the resignation of Secretary Kathy Boockvar and derailed the two-year effort to put the issue to voters in the May 18 primary election. Lawmakers, instead, started the process over in March, delaying the voter referendum until at least 2023, and are negotiating another measure that would authorize the two-year window through statute and deliver a more immediate path for survivors to seek justice, they said.

The committee also approved a legislative probe into the incident via House Resolution 91 on a vote of 15-10. Democrats opposed the measure because of the partisan motivation at its core, they said, and in deference to a pending report from the Inspector General’s Office.

“I personally filed two Right To Know requests, neither provided any transparency into what transpired,” Prime sponsor Rep. Jason Ortitay, R-Bridgeville, said Monday. “We deserve answers and, more importantly, victims deserve answers.”

HB 1010 also leaves the task of writing voter referendums for proposed amendments to either the chief clerk of the House or Representatives or the secretary of the Senate. This, after, Republican leaders accused Boockvar, in “a final act of aggression” of misrepresenting two proposed amendments that would require legislative approval for disaster declarations extending beyond 21 days.

Lawmakers accused the former secretary of using phrasing that destined the amendments to failure. The department refutes this narrative and said “the ballot questions fairly, accurately and clearly apprise the voter of the issue to be voted on.”

“The constitutional amendment process is the one process where the General Assembly works directly with the people to change our most fundamental law,” said Rep. Russ Diamond, R-Lebanon. “It’s that way by design. We should absolutely remove any executive actor from the process so that our people of Pennsylvania can decide what the law will be.”

Sen. Joe Webster, D-Collegeville, said he worried about the general pattern arising out of recent attempts to strip executive offices of their duties every time a problem is discovered.

“When we don’t like something about the State Department or the DEP, we want to take our oversight role and get into the day-to-day operations of government,” he said. “We are playing a lot of games where we want to be in control of the executive department in the decision making on a day-to-day basis, so I do harbor some concerns about that pattern.”

HB 1010 and HR 91 now move to the full House for consideration.

This article originally ran on theprogressnews.com.

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