Omnibus amendment SB 106 demonstrates broken legislative process

On July 8, 2022, the PA House and Senate recessed until September after voting on a constitutional amendment that would rearrange the balance of power in PA and call multiple rights into question.

The 2022-23 budget was due on June 30. On July 7 the PA House finally approved a negotiated budget. That evening, in a meeting beginning at 10:35 pm, the Senate Rules Committee passed an omnibus constitutional amendment (SB 106) that had been sitting around since December 2021.

SB 106 started out in the Senate State Government Committee as a bill to say candidates running for governor should choose their lieutenant governor, and we should no longer elect that position. Reasonable. Not too controversial. Bipartisan.

Next, it was considered by the House State Government Committee. It passed there in April of 2021, but then was referred back to Committee where three new constitutional amendments were added in December 2021:

Since the bill was changed, it had to go back to the Senate. And there it sat from December until July 7, 2022. No discussions, no hearings, no expert testimony.

Then, at 10:35 on Thursday evening, a week after both chambers were scheduled to recess, with the budget still to approve, the Senate Rules and Executive Nominations Committee took out SB106 and added one more amendment on a deeply controversial policy issue - abortion. Democratic senators attempted to introduce other constitutional amendments. All were tabled on a party-line vote. After heated discussion on the bill, the timing, the rules, and the tabling of amendments, the bill was passed by party line vote. Watch the meeting here.

The next morning, July 8, it passed the full Senate with no amendments allowed. Then, the Senate passed the negotiated budget, already passed by the House, and adjourned for the summer. SB 106 had changed since previous passage in the House, a concurrence vote in the House was needed. So on Friday, at 4:55 pm, in the fourth House Rules Committee meeting of the day, the committee passed it by party line vote, after tabling other proposed amendments introduced by Democrats. Later that evening, the House gaveled into session. After several hours of increasingly heated discussion and impassioned pleas to allow Democratic members some voice in the process, the bill passed. You can watch that here (starting at abou 8:20:00)

In summary: legislative leaders manipulated procedural rules to ram through a bill with multiple contentious topics late in the day, just before summer recess, with no public hearings, no genuine minority party input, and little opportunity for the public to engage or even see what was taking place.

Transparency, collaboration, compromise and bipartisan solutions were sacrificed.

Clearly, the goal in passing the bill before the summer recess was to meet the archaic PA constitutional requirement that PA constitutional amendments be advertised for three months before the next election. The exact same language would then need to be passed in the subsequent session (beginning January 2023) and could then go to the ballot in a low turnout primary election.

GOP apologists for the bill and process insisted, repeatedly and with fervor, “We need to trust the voters. We need to let the voters decide. Let’s put these questions to the people of PA.”

That plea to let the people decide falls hollow when so many Pennsylvanians asked to be allowed to decide on an independent citizens redistricting commission. Bills to address the redistricting process have been introduced across the last three decades, and several times have had more cosponsors than any others in their session. All have been gutted or blocked.

States with citizen initiative have seen overwhelming support for citizen redistricting commissions. If the goal is to let the people decide, then perhaps it’s time for PA to pass proposals to provide for citizen initiative and referendum.

Beyond those concerns, Senate Bill 106 raises significant questions about Pennsylvania’s legislative process:

This is emblematic of the broken process in Harrisburg and strongly illustrates the need for the Fix Harrisburg campaign. The thoughtful diligence and exchange of ideas that citizens want from our legislature does not happen in Harrisburg. We need to reform the rules, require hearings on constitutional amendments and stop our legislators from ignoring their colleagues and the public.