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The issues that defined Gov. Tom Wolf’s legacy

Plus, explaining how a constitutional amendment gets on the ballot. 

This is The Investigator, a free weekly newsletter with the top news from across Pennsylvania.
A weekly newsletter by Spotlight PA, an independent, nonpartisan newsroom producing investigative journalism for Pennsylvania.

January 12, 2023 | spotlightpa.org
Wolf era, legislative standstill, 2020 recount, boroughs event, Penn State police, amendment process, phone bills, sky miles, and ballot blocks.

Gov. Tom Wolf is preparing to leave office and hand the reins of government to fellow Democrat Josh Shapiro next week.

Stephen Caruso and Katie Meyer report that the governor is leaving the state with a surplus and many wins under his belt, including boosting education spending by billions. He also will be remembered for his widespread use of executive powers and his chilly relationship with the GOP-controlled legislature, which will have an impact for years to come. 

Also this week, Caruso and Meyer report on the Pennsylvania House, which has come to a standstill amid a debate on the rules to govern the chamber. Such rules will decide which political party sets the agenda for the coming weeks.

As the disagreement continues, time is running out to pass for a final time a constitutional amendment that would provide relief to survivors of childhood sexual abuse. 

The state Senate passed that amendment this week but bundled it with three others — including one to expand voter ID requirements — that have little chance of winning widespread Democratic support in the lower chamber. (Read more about the process below.)

Finally, a Pennsylvania county is recounting all 2020 presidential votes by hand this week — an extraordinary step no other Pennsylvania county has taken, Carter Walker reports for Spotlight PA and Votebeat. 


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

—State Rep. Jim Gregory (R., Blair) on a constitutional amendment to provide legal relief to survivors of childhood sexual abuse like himself

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» What happened to the arrest, use of force data Penn State police promised to release?

How does a constitutional amendment get on the ballot?

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 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 contest this approach, saying it shuts them out of legislative conversations. Kate Huangpu, Spotlight PA

A full version of this story will appear on spotlightpa.org.

This week's top news story in PennsylvaniaPHONE BILLS: Dauphin County collected $3.4 million in commissions from jailhouse phone calls administered by a for-profit company and spent most of the windfall on contractors and staff perks, including nearly $300,000 for gun range memberships, PennLive (paywall) reports. The money fed a fund that is supposed to benefit incarcerated people and support jail operations, the outlet adds. 

This week's second top news story in PennsylvaniaON HOLD: The state Senate impeachment trial of Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner was set to start next week but has been postponed indefinitely. Senators unanimously voted for the delay on Wednesday on the heels of a Commonwealth Court ruling that said the articles of impeachment filed against the progressive DA fail to pass state constitutional muster. An appeal is possible.

This week's third top news story in PennsylvaniaSKY MILES: How did outgoing Gov. Tom Wolf's use of a taxpayer-funded airplane — one that's made available to the governor and other state officials — rate? PennLive (paywall) reports his annual plane use was "generally on par or far less" than that of his predecessors, totaling 256 flights at a total cost of nearly $642,000 since 2015. "It takes a long time to drive to Pittsburgh or Erie from here," Wolf said.

COUNTYWIDE: State Sen. Rosemary Brown (R., Monroe) has proposed a tryout of what would be a seismic change for Pennsylvania school governance. Brown is seeking a pilot of paid countywide school boards, a dramatic departure from the current hyperlocal patchwork, the Morning Call (paywall) reports. Brown's office predicts cost savings, but some worry school funding inequities would be amplified.

BALLOT BLOCKS: Of the more than 16,000 mail ballots disqualified for improper envelopes, signatures, or dates in Pennsylvania's most recent election, more than two-thirds belonged to registered Democrats, state data show. Prior reporting by Spotlight PA and Votebeat found that mail ballots rejected for missing dates disproportionately came from communities of color across the commonwealth.

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» THE HILLUS Sen. Bob Casey reveals cancer diagnosis

» WHYY: Fixing up homes could bring down Philly gun violence, per study

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HEAD COUNT (Case No. 183)Each son in the Smith family has just as many brothers as sisters, but each daughter has twice as many brothers as sisters. How many boys and girls are there in the family?
Feeling smart? Challenge a friend.
Last week's answer: A chain. (Find last week's clue here.) Also accepted, given the wording of the clue: a spider web. 
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