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HARRISBURG — In 2020, Pennsylvania Republicans grew deeply frustrated with the normal legislative process.
Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf had rejected several of their attempts to roll back decisions his administration made during the pandemic to close businesses, implement a mask mandate, and order schools to provide classes online rather than in person.
They moved the bills through committees, voted on them, and sent them to Wolf, who responded with vetoes.
Their solution? Constitutional amendments.
Constitutional amendments are a way of advancing policy by sending decisions to voters in the form of a ballot measure, an approach that circumvents the executive branch.
As Wolf prepares to leave office in less than a week, legislative Republicans continue to push priorities like expanded voter ID requirements and additional election audits through this avenue.
However, the process itself is as complex as the politics driving its increased use.
Any lawmaker can introduce a constitutional amendment, but the chair of the committee it is referred to must agree to bring it up for a vote. If a simple majority in the committee votes for the amendment, then it moves to the floor of that chamber for consideration. The other chamber must then repeat the same steps.
Once the state House and Senate have both passed the amendment, the Pennsylvania Department of State advertises the exact language of the amendment and the changes it makes to the Pennsylvania Constitution in at least two newspapers in each county.
However, that’s only the first half of the process.
The constitutional amendment then has to be introduced in the following session with the exact same language and go through the cycle again — both chambers must pass the amendment in committees and on the floor.
Next, at least three months must go by before the amendment can appear on ballots in order to allow the Department of State enough time to publicize the proposed text.
After this step, the amendment appears as a referendum on ballots in the next statewide election. The Department of State writes the language of the referendum, and then voters decide its fate.
Once an amendment is placed on the ballot, it has a high chance of succeeding. Nearly 90% of proposed amendments have been approved by voters since 1968. Many have been put in front of voters in off-year elections, which typically have lower turnouts.
Some good-government groups criticized the legislature for its frequent use of constitutional amendments last session, calling it a strategy that sidesteps checks and balances and lacks public oversight. Democrats, the minority party in recent years, also contested this approach, saying it shuts them out of legislative conversations.
Republicans, with support from a handful of Democrats, advanced extremely controversial amendments last session, including ones that would expand voter ID requirements, declare there’s no constitutional right to abortion in the state, and further scale back the governor’s executive powers.
Some of those measures could reach voters this May.
In early January, the state Senate, in a 28-20 vote, passed three amendments bundled together in one package:
a provision to give the General Assembly more power to override regulations;
and a long-sought amendment that would extend the statute of limitations for survivors of childhood sexual abuse to file civil suits.
But in order to reach the ballot in May, these proposals would have to clear the state House by the end of this month so the Department of State has time to fulfill the advertising requirements.
That outcome seems unlikely given the status of the chamber.
Though lawmakers gathered in early January for a special session called by Wolf, a riff over rules has brought the chamber to a standstill.
Wolf asked the legislature to consider only the amendment to provide relief to adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse. The proposal has been championed by the new state House Speaker Rep. Mark Rozzi (D., Berks), who called the amendment his sole priority and pledged that no other issue would be addressed by the state House until it is approved.
However, Democratic and Republican leaders were unable to come to an agreement about operating rules for the special session, leading Rozzi to send legislators home.
To find a way forward, Rozzi organized a group of three Democrats and three Republicans to negotiate operating rules. They are set to meet for the first time Tuesday, Jan. 17.
A call for Rozzi to resign from state Rep. Jim Gregory (R., Blair), one of Rozzi’s closest allies on this issue and the representative who first nominated him for the speakership, has upped the uncertainty of the amendment.
In a statement, Gregory urged Rozzi to step down because the Democrat had yet to change his party registration to unaffiliated — a condition that was a part of the deal that gave Rozzi the Republican support he needed to be elected speaker.
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