The Lead

After advertising error, Pa. Legislature moves to bring amendment process in-house

By: - May 3, 2021 1:24 pm

State Rep. Jason Ortitay in fall 2019. (Pa. House photo)

In a near-unanimous vote, a Pennsylvania House panel has passed a proposal to cut Gov. Tom Wolf — and all future governors — out of the process for approving constitutional amendments in the commonwealth.

Right now, the governor’s administration has only a small role in the process: It advertises the amendment, and it writes the ballot question that voters face when they must approve a new amendment in a referendum. Unlike a bill, the governor cannot veto an amendment.

The exact wording of the ballot question is usually hotly debated. Earlier this year, Republicans accused Wolf of slanting the wording against two amendments limiting his and future governor’s executive powers. 

Regardless of the exact syntax, Pennsylvania voters historically have approved constitutional amendments when they’re put before them.

Under the proposal, sponsored by state Rep. Jason Ortitay, R-Washington, the chamber where an amendment originates will instead be charged with writing and advertising the ballot question, included covering the cost of the ads.

The House State Government Committee passed the proposal Monday, along with a resolution to establish a special committee to study what went wrong in advertising the statute of limitations amendment.

The investigatory committee proposal passed along party lines. A report by  the state’s Inspector General, who is under Wolf’s purview, is still pending. 

“Maybe it’s a one-off problem, maybe it’s not,” Ortitay said of the advertising issue. “We don’t know because we don’t really know what happened that caused that. But moving forward, we need to do something.”

The measure gained traction after the Wolf administration failed to advertise, as is required by law, a proposed amendment allowing survivors of childhood sexual abuse to sue the perpetrators, even if the statute of limitations for such cases had expired.

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Such individuals typically have until age 30 to file suit. 

The topic has a long history in the Pennsylvania Legislature. Victim advocates have pushed for lawmakers to approve such a window for lawsuits for years, over the objections of the Catholic Church, insurance companies, and its legislative allies.

The amendment was a compromise agreed to in 2019, and was set to bear fruit this spring on the May primary ballot, when voters would have a final say. But the Wolf administration’s advertising error pushed the timeline back to at least 2023.

A similar error occurred in Iowa in 2019, when the state’s elected secretary of state failed to advertise an amendment that would have guaranteed gun rights into the state’s constitution.

Just one Democrat voted against the proposal. Ortitay said he expects to clarify his proposal further before it passes.

Changing how amendments are implemented itself requires a constitutional amendment. Ortitay’s legislation must pass both House and Senate in two, straight legislative sessions, and then be approved by voters to take effect.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.