Senate committee advances proposed constitutional change to reform Pa.’s amendment process

The bill ‘[seeks] to give the public more confidence in the amendment process,’ Senate State Government Committee Chairperson David Argall, R-Schuylkill, said

By: - December 14, 2021 11:22 am

State Sen. David Argall, R-Schuylkill, the chairperson of the Senate Republican Campaign Committee, one the big-money groups, according to Ballotpedia.

Almost a year after the Pennsylvania Department of State failed to advertise a proposed constitutional amendment extending the window for survivors of sexual abuse to sue their perpetrators, a Senate panel has advanced a bill that aims to prevent the mistake from happening again.

The Senate State Government Committee voted 8-3 on Tuesday to send the full chamber legislation authored by Sen. David Argall, R-Schuylkill, that proposes a constitutional change to reform the process for advertising constitutional amendments.

“The bill would seek to give the public more confidence in the amendment process by ensuring that all proposed amendments in the future would be properly advertised and reflect the legislative intent of the question,” Argall, who chairs the 11-member panel, said.

Earlier this year, the Senate approved legislation to bolster the constitutional amendment process with a pair of Republican-penned bills, one of which came from Argall, that created requirements for the Department of State, which has election oversight, to publicize and explain ballot questions and established more training for agency staff.

Before being presented to voters, proposed constitutional amendments must pass the Legislature in two consecutive sessions. The costly process can take months, if not years.

But the proposal approved by the committee on Tuesday, if it survives in the General Assembly, would ask voters to approve language determining whether the Legislative Reference Bureau, which helps lawmakers draft bills, or an agency determined by the General Assembly, should advertise constitutional or emergency amendments, prepare ballot questions, and draft a summary of the proposed changes.

The Department of State’s error, which outraged abuse survivors who had been waiting years in some cases for justice, prompted then-Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar to resign.

The Wolf administration also recognized the agency’s failure, which restarted the constitutional process. And while lawmakers have supported efforts to refine the process to ensure an error doesn’t happen again, some argue Argall’s proposal is redundant.

“I have supported the requirement that we have additional training for the Department of State, and we have voted that out. I think that is adequate,” Sen. Sharif Street, of Philadelphia, the panel’s ranking Democrat, said. “Even the public is a lot brighter than we sometimes give them credit for.”

He added: “While I understand the energy that gives rise to this proposal, I think it is unnecessary.”

Though Sen. Dan Laughlin, R-Erie, voted to advance the proposal out of committee, he expressed some concern with amending the constitution.

“I, too, was upset with how the advertising of the constitutional amendment played out a year ago, but I’m not sure that we need to do an amendment to the constitution because we had one problem,” he said. “I just need to put some more thought into this before we have a final vote.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania also opposes the proposed constitutional change and urged lawmakers to oppose the bill, which they say would “upend the balance of power under Article XI, fundamentally changing what the Pennsylvania Constitution has required for nearly 200 years.”

“Proposed amendments are not subject to gubernatorial veto and therefore are not constrained by the traditional checks and balances between the branches of government,” the ACLU wrote in a memo circulated before Tuesday’s committee vote. “Those who drafted the constitution, however, designed the amendment process to ensure that an informed electorate would serve as a counterweight to the drafting authority of the Legislature.”

The ACLU argued that letting a legislative agency draft amendment language and a summary about the change gives the General Assembly “wide latitude to control public messaging on any amendment, in whatever way it may deem necessary, to persuade the electorate to support its proposals.”

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