If you were watching for evidence that the PA House and Senate are listening to voters, you now know you were waiting in vain. After weeks of lofty language about elevating the voices of voters and listening to the people, our legislative leaders proved beyond a tiny shadow of a doubt that partisan games are still the order of the day.
On the House floor on Monday, July 13, Representative Steve Samuelson and others attempted to offer amendments to Senate Bill 1166, a constitutional amendment to limit the governor’s emergency powers to just 21 days. Rep. Samuelson’s amendment would have added House Bill 22 to that amendment, permissible under the rules governing constitutional amendments. Before any debate, discussion or chance for amendment, Representative Russ Diamond called the previous question.
According to Roberts’ Rules of Order, a motion to move the previous question should only be done after discussion or debate becomes repetitive, and only with a two-thirds majority, to protect the right of the opposition to express their concerns.
PA House rules are based on Mason’s Manual, which permits discussion to be ended, with a move to call the previous question, with just a majority vote. Even so, that motion, according to long-time legislative observers, was in the past used sparingly. Yet Republicans voted, 107 to 94, to shut down any discussion or amendment. Just one Republican, Representative Todd Stephens, voted NO on that motion.
Immediately after ending debate, the House voted on Senate Bill 1166. 201 representatives voted on a bill that would alter our PA Constitution without a single public word of debate. Surely our founders are turning in their graves.
House Bill 22, the bill Rep. Samuelson hoped to add as an amendment, had more co-sponsors than any in this session and resolutions of support from local governments representing 70 percent of the state’s population. Letters and op-eds in support have appeared in more than 100 publications in every corner of the state.
Senate Bill 1166 was drafted hastily just last month and flew through the Senate in just FIVE days, pushed along by State Government Committee Chair John DiSanto, Majority Leader Jake Corman and President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati. After the vote in the House on Monday, it will now wait until the next session. If it passes then, it will go to voters in a public referendum.
Monday’s speedy dispatch of SB 1166 in the House was matched by a similar drama in the Senate State Government Committee. House Bill 196, a constitutional amendment to create judicial districts introduced by Rep. Diamond, was voted out of committee with just minutes of discussion.
On the Senate floor on Wednesday, July 15, Democratic senators rose to express concern about the potential for judicial gerrymandering and spoke of opposition from good government groups including Fair Districts PA. The final vote was 26 to 24, with most Republican senators voting to allow legislative leaders to draw judicial district lines, a move that would remove any remaining roadblock to extreme gerrymandering in Pennsylvania. Two Republican senators, Dan Laughlin and Tom Killion, joined Democrats and Independent John Yudichak in voting no.
Our attention will now shift to the transparency and criteria bill, House Bill 2638, recently introduced by Representative Wendi Thomas. It will also shift to the November election. While our legislators are pushing forward amendments to gerrymander judicial districts, we will be doing our best to hold them accountable. PA voters want fair districts. We will be working hard to make clear who helped and who harmed our efforts for reform.