Six changes to Pa.’s constitution are making their way through the legislature. Most could end up before voters.

One would require appellate-level judges, like the state Supreme Court, to be elected by district rather than statewide.

  • Sam Dunklau

(Harrisburg) — The Pennsylvania House will consider as many as six proposed amendments to the commonwealth’s constitution. The chamber’s State Government and Judiciary committees approved the amendments Wednesday largely along party lines.

Two are fiscal proposals. One, House Bill 71, would require commonwealth government spending to be proportional to changes in the Consumer Price Index and changes in population, effectively setting broad limitations on how Pennsylvania can spend its tax revenue.

Another change, HB51, addresses how surplus tax revenue is handled. It would require the commonwealth’s treasurer to put any surplus into a budget stabilization reserve fund. The treasurer could then loan various state entities money to pay expenses, but that money would have to be repaid in the same fiscal year.

Others would retroactively give victims of childhood sexual abuse up to two years to sue their abusers (HB14) and enshrine specific protections against discrimination on the basis of race and ethnicity into the state’s Declaration of Rights (part of HB55).

The former was sought by the state’s Office of Victim Advocate and was approved once before in 2019.

Of particular note are two others: one that would require appellate-level judges, like the state Supreme Court, to be elected by district rather than statewide (HB38). That idea has been criticized by organizations like the Pennsylvania Bar Association because it could further politicize the third branch of government.

PA Capitol Supreme Court Room

Courtesy of pacapitol.gov

The Supreme Court Room at the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg.

“Judges must, if they are to properly carry out their duties to our Nation and the Commonwealth, be responsive to the law and not to the momentary demands of a constituency,” PBA President David Schwager wrote in an opposition letter.

The other is a proposal to limit a governor’s emergency declaration power to just three weeks, which the legislature would then have the power to extend (part of HB55). State law currently allows the governor to declare emergencies for up to 90 days at a time.

State Rep. Paul Schemel (R, Franklin County) said limiting that power makes sense. Schemel and other Republican state lawmakers have been making similar arguments throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

“That should be an area that is exclusive to the legislative branch, to weigh in to determine what the appropriate policy in response to emergent issues is, not solely that of the executive,” Schemel said.

State Rep. Margo Davidson (D, Delaware County) said she’s opposed to those changes — as well as another that would limit government spending.

“Do we not trust ourselves to be able to determine what is in the best interest of the citizens that placed us here?” Davidson said before a committee vote. “That we have to take this back to the citizens and say, ‘We need to be shackled because we can’t make good decisions?’ Is that what we’re saying?”

State law requires lawmakers to approve any change to the constitution in two consecutive sessions. Four of the proposed amendments were approved once before, which allows them to go before voters as early as the May primary if they are approved by the legislature again.

Gov. Tom Wolf, who will not have a say in the amendment process, said some of the proposed changes amounted to power grabs by legislative Republicans.

“Make no mistake, these actions are thinly veiled power grabs and an attack on the other branches of government and on democracy itself, and I will oppose these efforts through every means possible.”

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