Pa. Senate moves to bolster constitutional amendment process with increased training, transparency

The Senate acted on a pair of bills to create additional requirements for the Department of State to publicize and explain ballot questions and establish further training for agency staff

By: - September 27, 2021 4:57 pm

Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-York, promotes her bill that would require the Department of State to publicize the constitutional ballot process online. (Screenshot)

Wanting to avoid another state-level mishap that leaves voters waiting, the Republican-controlled Pennsylvania Senate has approved legislation to bolster the constitutional amendment process.

On Monday, the upper chamber acted on a pair of bills to create additional requirements for the Department of State to publicize and explain ballot questions and establish further training for agency staff. 

The legislation’s authors, Sens. Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-York, and David Argall, R-Schuylkill, respectively said they were “unfortunately” necessary measures to ensure proposed constitutional changes reach voters on time.

The bills, which now head to the House of Representatives, were drafted in response to the Department of State’s failure to advertise language for a proposed constitutional change to open a two-year window for victims of child sex abuse to sue their abusers in civil court. 

The error prompted former Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar’s resignation in February.

“This bill should not be necessary, but as it was detailed in a 68-page report by the inspector general, it clearly is,” Phillips-Hill said on the Senate floor Monday.

In response to the advertising mistake, the state’s Office of Inspector General reviewed Department of State practices. Though the office found no evidence that the Wolf administration deliberately bungled the amendment process, it attributed the error to “internal systemic failures” — including no formal process or training for referendums.

The bill drafted by Phillips-Hill, which passed 43-6, requires the secretary of state to publish “a detailed account of each action taken to publish the proposed constitutional amendment” on the Department of State website

The post must include a copy of the notice and constitutionally required deadline, a list of newspapers that published the notice, as well as the date of publication, and the earliest election date the referendum could go before voters.

“We can track anything from online purchases of clothing to food orders that we place online,” Phillips-Hill said. “For something as consequential as a constitutional amendment, this bill will ensure this administration, or any future administration, will not fail victims or any other Pennsylvanian with a vested interest in a proposed constitutional amendment.”

She added: “Internal changes are good — until they’re not. Human error led to this failure.”

Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, and the majority of the Senate Democratic caucus supported the bill. But before voting in favor of the legislation, Costa rose in defense of the Department of State, saying the Wolf administration has “worked to recognize that they made a mistake.”

Argall’s bill, which passed 36-13, requires the Legislative Reference Bureau, a nonpartisan legislative service agency, to develop a formal training process for Department of State staff, including processes for bills, resolutions, concurrent resolutions, and joint resolutions. If made law, the bureau would be required to produce a training video for new and current employees, who must watch the video before starting in their role.

“Quite honestly, it shouldn’t be necessary. But we’ve learned it’s now necessary,” Argall said on the floor. “This kind of training should prevent another complete fiasco, such as what we’ve all witnessed earlier this year.”

The House and Senate passed legislation in March to restart the amendment process in response to the advertising error. The bill will have to pass in both chambers in the next session, meaning that it could reach voters in 2023.

There’s also a bill sitting in the Senate that could open a two-year window legislatively. However, Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, has yet to call it up for a vote. Ward, who controls the upper chamber’s voting calendar, has cited concerns about the bill’s legality and prefers the constitutional process.

Sen. Tim Kearney, D-Delaware, called Argall’s legislation “a distraction” and urged for a Senate vote on the bill to open a two-year window.

“The real failure for these victims is the continued inaction of this body,” he said. “We do not need to wait another two years through a constitutional amendment process for these victims to get their justice.”

He added: “There is no reason to wait.”

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