Pa. House stalemate stops constitutional amendments from appearing on May ballot
A Department of State spokesperson said that the General Assembly must pass the constitutional amendment by Friday for a proposed change to appear on the May ballot
Inside the hallways of Pennsylvania’s Capitol Building on Tuesday, May 24, 2022. (Photo by Amanda Berg for the Capital-Star)
When Pennsylvania House Speaker Mark Rozzi gaveled out the lower chamber this week, he also stopped a series of proposed constitutional amendments from appearing on this spring’s primary election ballot, including long-awaited relief for survivors of childhood sexual abuse.
Since the General Assembly opened its new two-year session this month, Rozzi, D-Berks, has found himself in the middle of a partisan battle over operating rules, leaving the House unable to vote on — let alone pass — any legislation.
Meanwhile, the state Senate approved a three-part constitutional amendment package that includes a two-year window for survivors to sue their abusers and institutions that covered up their crimes in civil court.
Rozzi, who was abused by a priest as a child, vowed to prioritize the window before anything while serving as House speaker, a post he won after a nomination from Rep. Jim Gregory, R-Blair, also a survivor of abuse. For years, they advocated for creating an exception to the statute of limitations on civil lawsuits, and both oppose grouping the amendment into a legislative package.
But the House stalemate, also influenced by Rozzi’s neglect to formally register as an Independent and embark on a listening tour to “break partisan gridlock,” has run out the clock on a Department of State advertising deadline to appear before voters on the May 16 primary election ballot.
A department spokesperson told the Capital-Star that the General Assembly must pass the constitutional amendment by Friday for a proposed change to appear on the May ballot. Amendment language has to be advertised in newspapers for the first time by Feb. 16.
As of Friday, the House is scheduled to return in late February after three Feb. 7 special elections to fill vacant seats in Allegheny County. With Democrats expected to win the races, their party would hold the majority for the first time in more than a decade. Currently, House Republicans have 101 members, still holding power, but with Rozzi controlling the chamber, their options to circumvent his leadership are limited.
This means that the earliest the window — and other proposed amendments — could appear on the ballot is the November general election.
Rozzi, meanwhile, has appointed a panel of three House Republicans and three Democrats to negotiate rules that each party can agree on in an effort to break the impasse. The “Workgroup to Move Pennsylvania Forward” held a listening session this week in Pittsburgh, and another was scheduled for Friday evening in Philadelphia to gather public input.
The lack of organization in the House is just the latest roadblock to possible relief for survivors of childhood sexual abuse, following years of reluctance, a failure by the Wolf administration to advertise amendment language in time for the May 2021 primary election, and a refusal by a Senate Republican to open a statutory window through legislation.
“In Pennsylvania, there just seems to be a knack for traumatizing and re-traumatizing victims again and again,” Marci Hamilton told the Capital-Star earlier this month. “This was a moment when it looked like Pennsylvania was finally going to do the right thing.”
Hamilton, the founder and CEO of CHILD USA, a nonprofit think tank, has spent nearly two decades advocating for statute of limitations reform in Pennsylvania and nationwide, saying that limited timeframes and institutional protections make it harder for survivors to seek justice.
“This is hard; this is triggering. Is this ever going to end?” Hamilton said, recounting reactions from survivors.
In remarks prepared for the workgroup session in Philadelphia, Center for Children’s Justice founder Cathleen Palm said the debate on the statutory window has been “ugly, manipulative, and deeply wounding.”
Palm noted that Rozzi’s declaration that the survivors’ amendment is the only order of business has been celebrated by some and vilified by others.
“No matter where one falls, it is not the first time we have seen the ugly [statute of limitations] debate harm survivors or be leveraged to derail other policy discussions,” Palm said.
In 2019, the General Assembly passed legislation to eliminate the deadline to file criminal charges for sexual abuse of a minor and extend the window to file civil lawsuits until a victim’s 55th birthday.
Entrenched proponents of the window delayed passage of the changes because they did not apply to abuse survivors for whom the deadline to file a lawsuit had already passed, leaving thousands who had not confronted their abuser until later in life without recourse, Palm said.
Similarly, Palm said, efforts to comprehensively review Pennsylvania’s child welfare laws in the wake of the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State University more than a decade ago and a move to create a child protection task force were hampered by ultimatums regarding the lookback window.
Calling the shutdown of all legislative business over frustration about a single policy issue a dangerous precedent, Palm called on Rozzi to end the gridlock by calling a vote on the survivors’ amendment alone.
“Given the complications of constitutional amendments, insulate the proposal from legal challenges by advancing the window constitutional amendment (through the PA General Assembly and then to the voters) on its own merits distinct from any other proposed constitutional change,” Palm said in her remarks.
A PACKAGE DEAL
Nearly every Senate Democrat voted against the three-part constitutional amendment package — including voter identification for every election and expanded legislative disapproval powers — but not because they opposed the proposed window. Instead, they wanted to consider the proposals as individual bills, just as voters would if they appeared on the ballot.
When efforts to separate the amendments failed, Democrats accused Republicans of using survivors to advance their legislative agenda and questioned whether a package would violate Pennsylvania’s single-subject rule for legislation, which stops lawmakers from grouping multiple unrelated subjects into one bill. A constitutional amendment proposing a bill of rights for crime victims, which voters approved in 2019, was ruled unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court in 2021 for this very reason.
Hamilton raised concern about grouping the proposals together ahead of the Senate vote, adding that anyone creating additional challenges to passing the window “is acting immorally.”
Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman, R-Indiana, noted that three ballot questions — two about the executive branch’s emergency powers and one prohibiting discrimination based on race and ethnicity — appeared on the May 2021 primary ballot. Voters approved the proposed amendments, which passed the General Assembly in one bill before making it on the ballot.
He identified the two-year window as “an important issue, but it is not the only issue.”
“While I cannot predict the future, I believe that this will be — this should be, this must be — the final time that the Senate of Pennsylvania addresses this matter,” he said. “There is no reason for the House of Representatives to reject Senate Bill 1 — unless whoever is running the House of Representatives seems to think there’s a political reason that two of the three questions should not be put before the voters.”
In an op-ed circulated earlier this week, Pittman said it’s “unfortunate” that the House hasn’t been able to organize, urging the lower chamber to “swiftly move the process forward” and pass the constitutional amendment package.
Rozzi has pledged to keep the doors to the House locked until lawmakers reach a compromise on the operating rules and vow to pass the window.
“If it gets on the ballot, it’s going to be on the ballot by itself, not with these other constitutional amendments,” Rozzi said during a stop in Pittsburgh this week as part of the listening tour.
Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Franklin, said during a Jan. 11 interview on a conservative radio show that Senate Republicans “absolutely will be the firewall for Pennsylvania” to block the statute of limitations proposal if the voter identification and regulatory amendments do not move forward.
“You’re going to see us holding the line. We do have serious plans,” he said. “People might not like the approach, but we do have serious plans on moving forward legislation in some capacity.”
Gregory, in a statement to the Capital-Star, said the proposed constitutional amendment creating a two-year lookback window for lawsuits should appear before voters “as a standalone question due to the exceptional amount of time survivors have waited for justice and the egregious error made by the Department of State.”
WHO’S TO BLAME
After three weeks of chaos and another month before they return to session, lawmakers have worked tirelessly to point fingers at who’s to blame for the standstill.
Nicole Reigelman, a spokesperson for House Democrats, told the Capital-Star that Republicans have declined to negotiate over operating rules. Their refusal is what prompted Rozzi to establish the working group and embark on the listening tour to “advance the state House,” she said.
“House Democrats believe in doing things the right way, including taking steps to ensure the House operates fairly for the next 23 months,” Reigelman said.
Republicans have considered ways to sway Rozzi into calling them back to Harrisburg — and attempted to urge Brooke Wheeler, the House chief clerk, to schedule a voting session this week with a petition.
“I think not being in session is completely unacceptable,” House Republican Leader Bryan Cutler, who represents Lancaster County, told reporters in the Capitol on Wednesday. “And I think it’s time just to start to put the rules and the different issues up for votes.”
Rozzi’s listening tour doesn’t preclude lawmakers from getting to work, Cutler said. He suggested that lawmakers move ahead with operating rules adopted last session, describing them as “a good framework to start from.”
House Republican spokesman Jason Gottesman told the Capital-Star this week that the caucus is open to negotiating the rules if Rozzi calls the House back to session.
“We’re happy to put up our rules, their rules, have people offer amendments,” Gottesman said. “If [there are] things people can agree on, let us put it up there, and we’re ready to get going.”
Just how far apart the parties are on the rules or precisely how they differ remains unclear.
Rep. Valerie Gaydos, R-Allegheny, a member of Rozzi’s working group, said Tuesday that its members had coalesced around a first draft of proposed rules and delivered it to Rozzi for review.
Gottesman said the Republican proposal would give the minority party more power by increasing its membership on standing committees while shrinking the majority party’s members and increasing the number of votes required to report bills from standing committees and the Appropriations Committee.
“It is a reflection of a new reality without a lot of clear boundaries in terms of who may be the majority and who may not be,” Gottesman said.
After being elected speaker by a 115-85 vote, Rozzi pledged his loyalty to the people of Pennsylvania, vowing to caucus with neither party and work with a bipartisan staff to lead the chamber. Rozzi, however, did not formally change his political registration to no affiliation, which Republicans have dubbed as a betrayal of trust.
“While some want to focus on my independence in terms of party politics, my commitment is to the people of Pennsylvania,” Rozzi said in a statement announcing the listening tour.
The Pennsylvania House Freedom Caucus, which took credit for the petition urging the clerk to call them back to session, criticized Rozzi and House Republicans on Thursday. In a statement, the caucus said Rozzi’s responsible for stopping the delay and said the agreement to put a Democrat in the speaker’s chair “on a verbal promise of nonpartisanship has crumbled.”
Cutler, asked about a timeline for Rozzi to change his political affiliation, said the most important timeframe during conversations about electing a speaker was meeting the deadline for constitutional amendments to appear on the primary ballot.
“He was very interested in the statute of limitations. We had a similar and overlapping interest in that timeline on voter ID and regulatory reform,” Cutler said. “The Senate’s already voted on that. They passed it, but we haven’t officially received it yet because we’ve not been in official session. So it’s not been assigned to a committee, so that’s just yet another mechanical obstacle that’s been created by not returning to session.”
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