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From the archives 2023

Pa. House at a standstill as deadline nears to get relief for child sex abuse survivors on May ballot

by Stephen Caruso of Spotlight PA and Katie Meyer of Spotlight PA |

Pennsylvania House lawmakers will not be in the state Capitol this week, after the speaker canceled sessions.
Kent M. Wilhelm / Spotlight PA

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HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania’s closely divided state House has recessed indefinitely, throwing the chamber’s agenda, including a number of far-reaching constitutional amendments, into limbo.

Speaker Mark Rozzi (D., Berks) sent lawmakers home without taking a single vote Monday after Democratic and Republican leaders failed to reach an agreement on rules needed in order to advance any legislation.

State House lawmakers briefly met to honor Gov. Tom Wolf’s request for a special session aimed at passing a constitutional amendment that would provide relief for survivors of childhood sexual abuse. The amendment is Rozzi’s chief priority and he has said that as long as he’s speaker, “the House will consider no other legislation” until it’s done.

Leadership from both parties previously agreed to prioritize the passage of the amendment, which would open a two-year window in which survivors of childhood sexual abuse could sue their abusers and the institutions that covered up the crimes.

If the state House and Senate both approve the amendment before the end of the month, it will appear on the May ballot.

But a razor-thin partisan split in the lower chamber has effectively brought the state House to a standstill as Democrats and Republicans vie for control of committees and the power to set the agenda.

Rozzi, who was abused by a priest as a child, is now at the center of the struggle after his surprise ascent to the speakership.

“History will not judge us based on how many Democratic Party wins or Republican Party wins we achieve, but we will be judged based on what we did for the children of this Commonwealth,” Rozzi said in a statement Monday.

The state Senate, firmly in Republican control, also met Monday but did not take up the civil relief amendment. Instead, GOP lawmakers advanced constitutional amendments that would expand voter ID rules, mandate additional election audits, and make it easier for the General Assembly to override the governor’s regulations.

Caught in the middle of the legislative dysfunction is a dedicated community of childhood sexual abuse survivors, who called Monday a disappointing continuation of emotionally taxing inaction. Still, their trust in Rozzi appears unshaken.

”It’s all hands on deck. It doesn’t matter,” said James Faluszczak, a 53-year-old survivor from Erie. “We just want this legislation.”

A vocal advocate for survivors, Rozzi became speaker less than a week ago in a bargain engineered by Republican leaders.

In exchange for their support, Republican leaders said Rozzi would declare himself independent and formally change his voter registration, state House Republican Leader Bryan Cutler (R., Lancaster) told reporters Monday. Rozzi has yet to comment on the deal, and has only communicated with the public and press through a handful of written statements.

If Rozzi drops his affiliation, Democrats will likely be denied the majority in the chamber even after three special elections the party is expected to win are held. One is scheduled for Feb. 7, but the dates of the other two are pending a court decision.

State Rep. Jim Gregory (R., Blair), a survivor of childhood sexual abuse and the main sponsor of the relief amendment, formally nominated Rozzi for speaker. He said he and Rozzi had been concerned in recent months that a speakership deadlock could derail their hopes of getting the proposal on the May ballot.

But as of Monday, Rozzi had not changed his affiliation, and Gregory had lost confidence he ever would. In a letter first seen by Spotlight PA, he asked Rozzi to resign as speaker.

“I placed great belief and faith in you that you would live up to the words I spoke in my nomination speech for you. I placed greater faith and belief that you would live up to the words you delivered in your acceptance speech,” Gregory wrote in a letter Monday. “However, it is with great sadness for me as your friend that you would admit to me Saturday that you are only thinking about switching.”

Running out of time

Late last week, Wolf called a special session to address the sex abuse amendment.

Proposed amendments must pass the legislature in two consecutive sessions before going to voters statewide for consideration.

Both chambers passed Gregory’s abuse amendment during the previous two-year session, and Democratic and Republican leaders have said they intend to pass it a second time so that it can go to voters.

The question is when they will do so.

If lawmakers don’t pass the measure soon, it won’t appear on the May ballot and will have to wait until at least November. Rozzi, Gregory, and other survivors have said that wait would be unacceptable.

While Rozzi and Democrats want to consider the amendment during Wolf’s special session, Republicans in both chambers said they would prefer to pass it in a regular session alongside other priorities.

State House Republicans did, however, propose rules to govern the special session.

According to a draft shared by a House Republican spokesperson, the rules would set up three committees to consider legislation and give Republicans a partisan advantage on each. This could allow the party to pair the amendment on childhood sexual abuse with their other priorities, such as an amendment to require all voters present ID whenever they vote by mail or in-person.

“Our top priorities were the three constitutional amendments — statute of limitations, voter ID, and the ability to talk about regulatory reform,” Cutler said Monday. “That continues to be our goal. We believe that they aligned with Speaker Rozzi’s goals as well.”

Democrats planned to offer rules that would give Rozzi control over the special session, according to a summary viewed by Spotlight PA and confirmed with Democratic lawmakers.

Rozzi would appoint the three members of the only committee under the proposed rules. Any changes to a bill would need to be approved by a two-thirds vote, as opposed to a simple majority, and the topic of the session would be restricted to child sexual abuse.

At the moment, there are more Republican lawmakers serving in the chamber than Democrats, and Cutler said Monday he believed the caucus had the votes to pass the GOP’s rules. Instead, Rozzi recessed the chamber before canceling future session days.

In a statement, Rozzi said he would convene a work group of six lawmakers — three Democrats and three Republicans — to hammer out operating rules. These rules govern how bills are introduced, debated, and approved by the full chamber.

As the state House grappled over the rules, the state Senate advanced a number of constitutional amendments — but not the one related to childhood sexual abuse.

The chamber’s State Government Committee approved amendments that would expand voter ID requirements, give the legislature more power to override the governor’s regulations, and require the auditor general to perform annual election reviews. One Democrat, state Sen. Lisa Boscola of Lehigh County, voted yes with all Republicans.

State Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward (R., Westmoreland) declined to say when the abuse amendment would move in her chamber.

A lack of action would be another chapter in a series of demoralizing setbacks for supporters of the proposal.

In 2021, when it appeared the amendment had cleared its many legislative hurdles and would appear on the May ballot, the Wolf administration announced that due to “internal systemic failures,” the measure had been insufficiently advertised and could not legally go to a vote. The process to pass it had to begin anew in the legislature.

Early on Monday, Gregory said he had no idea what would happen with the amendment.

“For the sake of my recovery and my sobriety, I have to put it in God’s hands,” he said.

This story has been updated to replace a quote from James Faluszczack that better reflects his feelings toward how Rozzi gained the speakership.

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