No Way to Handle the PA Constitution

In 2022, the PA General Assembly passed five constitutional amendments as part of one bill, Senate Bill 106, with late night votes weeks after the normal start of summer recess. After voter outcry about one of those amendments, the PA Senate has struck again, unbundling the five, then putting a different mix of three together in just three legislative days.

We expressed concern about the Senate Bill 106 from last session: Omnibus bill demonstrates broken legislative process. Senate actions on January 9, 10 and 11 suggest equal disrespect for the PA Constitution, the authority of PA Governor, and the voters of Pennsylvania.

Governor Wolf and House Speaker Mark Rozzi had called for a special session beginning on January 9 to address a proposed constitutional amendment providing a two-year window on the statute of limitation for survivors of childhood sexual abuse. That amendment, already passed twice in the PA General assembly, was not advertised as required in 2019 and so was reintroduced in 2021. It would now need to pass again in both chambers quickly to be advertised in time for the 2023 primary.

Cavalier approach to amending the PA constitution

On January 9, the Senate convened, stating no special session was needed. A Senate State Government Committee meeting was scheduled on the calendar “off-the-floor” in the Senate Rules Committee Room to consider two Constitutional amendments: SB 1, a Voter ID bill, and SB 130.

For those who follow senate meetings, this is not the normal procedure. Most committee meetings are held in large hearing rooms with ample space for public and press and the ability to livestream as meetings take place. The Rules Committee Room is a smaller space, with no regular livestream.

Senate General Operating Rule 14 states:

(1) The following apply: (i) The Chair of a committee or, in the absence of the Chair, the Vice Chair, with the approval of the Chair, shall provide each member of the committee with written notice of committee meetings, which may be done electronically. The notice of a meeting shall include the date, time and location of the meeting and the number of each bill, resolution or other matter which may be considered. During session, notice of meetings of standing committees shall be published daily. Notice shall be delivered by the Chair to the Secretary-Parliamentarian’s office on a form prescribed by the Secretary Parliamentarian of the Senate by the end of the session on the day preceding its intended publication.

While “off the floor” scheduling is too often used for quick committee meetings on non-contentious topics, addressing Constitutional amendments off the floor in the first days of session is a clear violation of that rule’s intent. Even members of the committee itself had no idea of the time of the meeting until shortly before it took place.

At the meeting itself, Senate Bill 1 was amended to include another constitutional amendment SB 2, part of the package of five in 2022: “disapproval of a regulation.” That amendment would add just four words to the PA Constitution, but those words would overturn the balance of power in the PA regulatory process.

The four minority members of the committee were not aware that amendment was planned until it was introduced in committee by Committee Chair Cris Dush (R). When asked, the rationale he offered was brief, unclear, and suggested little understanding of the PA regulatory process or of the impact of the proposed amendment. As Minority Chair Amanda Cappelletti (D-Montgomery) said, “Introducing this amendment a little over an hour before we’re supposed to vote on it seems a little bit unconscionable,” especially since it made it impossible to invite constituent feedback.

Following the affirmative vote to amend Senate Bill 2 into SB 1, the committee also considered and passed SB 130, another constitutional amendment, which would provide for the auditing of elections and election results by the Auditor General.

The entire meeting took 24 minutes, with no response to concerns raised by minority party members, and nothing approaching real deliberation. There is no official livestream or transcript of this meeting, so voters looking for rationale, discussion or more information about why these amendments are needed will find no public record from the committee charged with doing that important work. The sole record official record is available here. Fortunately, committee member Senate Katie Muth asked one of her staff to livestream the meeting from her phone. That record, available here, is a testament to the cavalier approach to amending the PA constitution.

Second committee meeting and passage

The next day, the Senate Rules Committee announced a similar off-the-floor meeting, again in the Rules Committee Room, again to address SB 1. In that meeting, Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman introduced yet another amendment to SB 1: the bill to provide the window on statutory limitations for victims of sexual abuse. Senate Minority Leader Joe Costa expressed concern that such an amendment, supported strongly by Senate Democrats, be saddled with two amendments the Senate Democrats oppose. Despite those concerns, the amendment was added and meeting concluded in just 12 minutes. Again, there no official transcript, but an unofficial recording is available here. It provides another testament of disrespect for the PA Constitution and the abuse survivors who have waited so long for legislative relief.

On Wednesday, January 11, the Pennsylvania Senate passed the package of three constitutional amendments, despite strong objection from Senate Democrats and no real discussion of potential implications. That full session is available here, with discussion of SB 1 beginning at 29:56. At no time did the process include public input or expert testimony or any statement of rationale for bundling the bills together.

Constitutional amendment or legislation?

In reality, NONE of these issues should be addressed by Constitutional amendment. The abuse survivor issue could have been addressed quickly through the normal legislative process. Senate Republicans blocked a bill to do just that several sessions ago. Such a bill could have been reintroduced and passed in the last session. The same could be done in this.

The other two bills have never been adequately discussed. Any voter attempting to find a trail of evidence explaining the need for the bills, or potential implications, will give up in frustration. Apart from hurried committee votes, there is no evidence of adequate deliberation.

The bundling and unbundling of all these bills is a cynical exploitation of legislative process.

Pennsylvania Constitution Article A § 3.states clearly: No bill shall be passed containing more than one subject, which shall be clearly expressed in its title, except a general appropriation bill or a bill codifying or compiling the law or a part thereof.

While constitutional amendments addressing different aspects of election law have sometimes been considered, by no stretch of imagination could SB 1 be seen as containing only one subject. It is not an appropriations bill, or a bill codifying or compiling law. While legislators protest that voters will vote on individual questions, the reality is the bill itself defies the PA constitution and makes it impossible for voters to know their own legislators’ views on the various subjects contained within the bill.

What happens next?

SB 1 moves to the PA House for consideration. The current impasse may keep that from happening. The deadline for passage to put the bill on the ballot in the May primary is January 27, 2023.

There are questions of concern in every part of this, but those of greatest interest to Fair Districts PA are these:

  1. Constitutional amendments should not be used as a way to avoid or dismantle constitutional checks and balances.
  2. Off-the-floor committee meetings and small committee rooms should not be used as a way to avoid public scrutiny.
  3. Committee should be required to hold public meetings on proposed constitutional amendments, testimony from experts and opportunity for public input.
  4. There should be a clear, easily-accessed public record of all deliberation and testimony for any constitutional amendment.

Is frustration the goal?

Following these proceedings is complicated, time consuming and can easily frustrate or discourage voters. That often seems the goal.

Join us in letting our PA Senators know: we ARE paying attention, we do care deeply about our Constitution, and we expect better from committee chairs and majority leaders.

Contact those leaders to express your concern: