For weeks, Republican lawmakers in the General Assembly have been spreading the word about two proposed constitutional amendments that would change how Pennsylvania responds to emergencies.
But recent methods have raised ethical questions.
In a recent mailer to constituents, Sen. Mike Regan, R-York, argued that voters in his suburban Harrisburg district would have a “stronger voice” if they voted in favor of two ballot questions that will appear on the May 18 primary ballot.
These questions — which are among four total — are tied to the year-long feud between GOP leaders and Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
If approved, emergency declarations would be limited to 21 days; a resolution from the General Assembly would allow for an extension.
“Make an informed decision,” the flyer told constituents, claiming that a “yes” vote would strengthen education, strip governors of “one-sided” power and give residents and lawmakers more of a say over declarations.
However, the mailer failed to recognize Republicans as the majority in the state Legislature, meaning they have more power when passing a resolution.
The word “no” appears just once — explaining that a vote against change means a governor can “maintain unilateral control indefinitely during an emergency.”
The statements made on the mailer echo those made by legislative Republicans who have been vocal proponents of ending statewide mask mandates and shutdowns throughout the pandemic in mailers, op-eds and online.
GOP lawmakers have accused the Wolf administration of misleading Pennsylvanians ahead of the primary by using “prejudicial” language to draft the ballot questions to sway voters.
Regan’s office did not respond to a request for comment, and the mailer does not indicate how it was funded. A return address indicated that it was sent out from his office at the state Capitol.
“The governor’s actions during COVID have had zero checks and balances,” Regan wrote in a May op-ed, posted to his website. “He has single-handedly dismantled that key function of government, which our country was founded on. Our governor, who touts transparency, has refused to discuss his strategies and decisions with the legislature — your representatives in government.”
Wolf and administration officials also have been holding public events to call attention to what they say is the negative impact of the ballot questions.
Pennsylvania is currently operating under two disaster declarations. The first was made in January 2018 in response to the opioid crisis. Wolf has renewed that declaration 14 times. The second was declared as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and has been renewed four times since being signed on March 6, 2020.
“I can’t imagine voters will be happy about Republicans using their tax dollars to convince voters to give Republicans more power in Harrisburg,” Adam Bonin, an election lawyer in Philadelphia who works with Democrats, said.
Brittany Crampsie, a spokesperson for the Senate Democrats, said the caucus frequently sends constituent mailings to update voters on election changes. She added that a few Democrats issued mailers on the proposed amendments but said state campaign laws prohibit them from advocating for a passage or a defeat.
“You can’t use public resources for that,” she said.
But even if taxpayer dollars funded the mailing, Pennsylvania Ethics Commission Executive Director Robert Caruso said it would only violate state law if a public official used those dollars to advocate for their own candidacy.
“Although the Ethics Commission and the Ethics Act have broad jurisdiction over the number of public officials that are covered by the law, the jurisdiction is very narrow in the sense that the conduct we regulate is only related to financial conflicts of interest,” Caruso said, defining a conflict as a lawmaker taking a bribe or using their position to get a family member a job.
Pennsylvania law does not prohibit public officials from contacting voters and advocating for a specific vote on an issue, Caruso said.
“Any of the mailings that are done are covered by the franking privilege,” he added. “They’re basically permitted to send documents out or send flyers out on matters that are within two weeks of an election as long as it’s not paid for with government funds and it’s not advocating their candidacy.”
Dating back to 1775, the franking privilege lets officials send mail using their signature instead of postage. The State Ethics Commission does not regulate the franking privilege and would only look at it if a public official was advocating for their candidacy, Caruso said.
Caruso looked to a 2016 state Supreme Court ruling that ordered a new trial for former Rep. Mike Veon, a Beaver County Democrat, on a conflict of interest charge.
The former lawmaker was one of several who used government staff and offices to advance their reelection. Veon used state grant money to benefit a nonprofit in his district. But after an appeal, the Supreme Court ruled that “intangible political gain” does not violate the law.
“A lot of times, politicians may want to do things that are going to make political hay for them,” Caruso said. “But it doesn’t actually show a financial benefit or actual money going to them or to a family member. The courts have said that’s OK. So, that even limits a little bit more what an investigative agency can look at.”