Pa. House panel advances relief for abuse victims in opposition to Senate amendment bundle
‘I don’t like trying to use victims of childhood sexual abuse as pawns in in our legislative process,’ House Judiciary Committee Chairperson Tim Briggs said
Pennsylvania Capitol Building on Tuesday, May 24, 2022, in Harrisburg, Pa. (Photo by Amanda Berg for the Capital-Star).
Pennsylvania lawmakers on Tuesday took another step on the tortuous path toward long-sought legal relief for survivors of childhood sexual abuse, but the route to making it a reality remains to be mapped out.
The House Judiciary Committee advanced standalone versions of a proposed constitutional amendment that would give abuse survivors a two-year exception to the statute of limitations to sue their attackers for compensation.
Although the proposal has already passed four times with bipartisan support in each chamber, champions of the measure will need to break down a wall between the Republican-controlled Senate and the Democratically-controlled House before it can go before voters in November.
Leaders in each chamber disagree over how the amendment should be presented to voters.
House Democrats want the survivors’ amendment to appear by itself on the ballot. Senate Republicans have staunchly insisted they will only approve it as part of a package of amendments that includes proposals on voter identification, election audits and the power for lawmakers to veto executive branch regulations.
The majority-Democrat House panel voted 14-7 to send the standalone House version of the amendment and the Senate version – stripped of the other amendments – to the House floor.
Chairperson Tim Briggs, D-Montogomery, said the Senate Republicans’ insistence on passing the statute of limitations amendment only if their legislative priorities are included is, “an unfortunate position to take regarding victims of sexual childhood sexual abuse.”
“I don’t like trying to use victims of childhood sexual abuse as pawns in in our legislative process. So if the Senate wants to keep pursuing that approach that’s on them,” Briggs said.
He added that he’s hopeful sending the standalone versions of the amendment back to the Senate will open the door to a broader debate on election reform but he would not support voter identification as a constitutional amendment.
“I think that is a reckless way to legislate,” Briggs said. “Legislators should be legislating and the statute of limitations has to run clean, and we are going to demand that it gets done before the November ballot.”
Senate Republican leadership maintains that the upper chamber fulfilled a promise to pass the proposed window at the beginning of the current legislative session, urging the House to vote on Senate Bill 1 as presented.
In March, Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, and Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman, R-Indiana, told reporters that the three proposals in the constitutional amendment package reflect top priorities for GOP lawmakers.
“Those constitutional questions were passed by both chambers in previous sessions, and we felt it was important to advance all three of them as quickly as possible,” Pittman said. “And that’s what we did.”
Asked why voter identification and the regulation measure weren’t included in the initial constitutional amendment proposal, Pittman said it’s “typical” to see amendments added to a bill during the legislative process.
“It was included in [the] final passage, and that’s what matters,” he said.
Before the upper chamber voted to send Senate Bill 1 to the House for consideration, Pittman — who controls the chamber’s voting calendar — predicted in his floor remarks that the vote would be “the final time that the Senate of Pennsylvania addresses this matter.”
Speaking at a Pennsylvania Press Club luncheon on Monday, Pittman said it’s unlikely the upper chamber will vote on either proposal related to the statutory window from the House, adding that passing a “responsible” budget and transportation are caucus priorities.
“The House would be best served if they would pass Senate Bill 1 as we presented it to [them],” he said.
The statute of limitations window has been proposed since grand juries in Boston and Philadelphia revealed the systematic cover up of abuse of children by priests. Many adult survivors of abuse are barred by Pennsylvania’s statute of limitations, which requires claims to be filed in court within 12 years of the victim becoming an adult.
Efforts to legislatively change the statute of limitations to include an exception for such survivors were unsuccessful. Former House Speaker Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, and Rep. Jim Gregory, R-Blair, led an effort to put the statute of limitations reform on the ballot as a constitutional amendment.
To amend the constitution, the General Assembly must approve a proposal in two consecutive sessions before voters say yes or no in a referendum.The amendment was set to appear on the ballot in 2021, but an advertising error by the Department of State set the effort back to square one.
The amendment passed in both chambers again in last year’s session and in a special session in January, but changes in the House rules required the proposal to be the subject of a public hearing before the judiciary committee and the bill was sent back for reapproval.
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