The Pennsylvania House (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)
By Patrick Beaty
As I began to write this piece, the Pennsylvania Senate had just voted 28-22 to approve a bill containing five separate and un-related changes to the state Constitution. Less than 10 hours later, at 10 p.m. on a Friday night, the House of Representatives concurred by a vote of 107-92. Only one Democrat in each legislative chamber voted for the bill.
Parts of the proposal, SB106, had been previously introduced as separate bills, but never subjected to public hearings or meaningful debate in committee.
Most of the floor debate in both chambers was focused on one provision of Senate Bill 106 that declares there is no constitutional right to abortion or public funding for abortion. That particular amendment would be added to Article I of the Constitution which contains our fundamental rights as citizens and imposes limits on the power of government in relation to the people government is supposed to serve.
What’s different in this case is that Article I – our state-level “bill of rights” – is being abused as the means to “protect” citizens from the courts. If the proposed new section 30 is adopted, the people will acquire the fundamental right not to have their Constitution interpreted to include a right to abortion.
What’s next, a fundamental right not to have adequate funding of public schools? A right not to be protected against murder by assault weapons?
The legislation also adds to the list of qualifications every citizen must meet to be allowed to vote. Except that the new requirement isn’t really a qualification, it’s a burden. Because even if you meet all the other qualifications of age, citizenship and residency, you won’t be allowed to vote unless you can prove your identity by producing a valid government-issued ID. Never mind the fact that you had to provide identification to register in the first place.
And you’ll have to prove who you are every time you vote, whether in person or by mail. No exceptions. And no provisional ballots either. So much for the right to vote.
If SB 106 passes again in the 2023 session of the General Assembly, voters will soon have the opportunity to decide on another priority of Republican lawmakers – stripping away power from the governor. Specifically, the Republican majority in the legislature proposes to give themselves the power to block any administrative regulation they don’t like, which for Republicans means most regulations.
The bill’s other proposed changes to the Constitution would give the Auditor General authority to audit election results and allow party nominees for governor to select their running mates for lieutenant governor rather than have those individuals run separately in primary elections. Again, these items have been on Republican wish lists for some time now.
All five constitutional questions will appear on the same ballot. If passed early next year, that means they will be on the same ballot as another proposed constitutional change that would allow adult victims of child sexual abuse a two-year window in which to sue their abusers regardless of any statute of limitations. That amendment is clearly distinguishable from the grab-bag of changes stuffed into SB106 – both on the merits of the proposal and because the civil suit window passed the legislature by strong bi-partisan votes.
How are voters supposed to decide which of the six changes should be added to their Constitution? One thing is certain. Voters will be inundated with mailers and other forms of advertisement from advocates on both sides of each question, particularly on the abortion and election-related questions, and maybe the civil window as well. It’s a recipe for chaos.
And if Republicans succeed on most or all of their proposed changes, we can also expect to see more of the same in the future.
The trend is pretty clear. More constitutional amendments are coming to deny the existence of rights that may or may not exist in the first place. Or to limit or even remove rights that we thought never were in doubt. Like the right to vote. Or the right to choose candidates for lieutenant governor.
Maybe we’ll even see a constitutional amendment denying the people’s right to place their own constitutional amendments on the ballot. After all, Article I, section 2, says the people have the fundamental “right to alter, reform or abolish their government in such manner as they may think proper.”
But the Constitution doesn’t say how the people can exercise that right. What’s to stop the courts from finding an implied right to use direct voter initiatives as the means necessary to reform Pennsylvania government?
Republican lawmakers might want to add that to their list of future amendments before the courts get an opportunity to address that question.
Patrick Beaty is the volunteer legislative director of Fair Districts PA. His work appears frequently on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.
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