THE ISSUE: “The top Republican in the state House wants to give the Legislature the ability to block regulations or administrative orders from the executive branch by a majority vote, a proposal that would significantly expand its power and curtail that of the governor,” Spotlight PA’s Danielle Ohl reported Nov. 9. “House Speaker Bryan Cutler and state Sen. Ryan Aument, both Lancaster County Republicans, announced the proposed amendments to the state constitution (last) Tuesday.” The proposed amendments would have to pass both the state House and Senate twice, in consecutive sessions. Then, voters would then decide whether to implement the constitutional changes via referendum. The earliest such a referendum could happen is 2023. “Constitutional amendments rarely lose in Pennsylvania, and they can be put on the ballot during low-turnout elections,” Ohl further noted. “Just 2.3 million people, about 26% of registered voters in Pennsylvania, weighed in on the last constitutional amendment questions, which appeared on ballots during the May 2021 primary.” Spotlight PA is a nonpartisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer; its partners include LNP Media Group.
The inability of the two political parties to work together to address the wants and needs of most Pennsylvanians continues to rear its ugly, inefficient head in Harrisburg.
Long-held disagreements between Democrats and Republicans — which make governance difficult even in the best of times — boiled over during the double-punch of the state’s emergency response to the deadly pandemic and a presidential election that only one party, to this day, believes was fair. (It was fair.)
In May, Pennsylvania voters narrowly passed a pair of constitutional amendments limiting the governor’s emergency powers; those curbs on the power of the executive branch had been placed on the ballot as referendums by the Republican-controlled General Assembly.
Now, Republicans, led by Cutler, are seeking additional constitutional changes that would place further checks on the governor.
A joint news release from Cutler and Aument cited the “abuse of the executive order and regulatory process by the current administration compared to previous governors.” (Previous governors, of course, didn’t have to deal with a health crisis that’s killed 32,359 Pennsylvanians and 763,000 Americans since the winter of 2020 and put incredible stress on hospitals and health care workers.)
Wolf, meanwhile, called the proposed amendments a “naked power grab” that “would completely upend the separation of powers that has guided the commonwealth for its entire history,” Spotlight PA reported.
Enough, we say.
As we’ve written frequently, both parties in Harrisburg have put too much priority on control and far too little on collaboration.
We don’t need more rewriting of the state constitution. Or any more finger-pointing. We need the executive and legislative branches working together in Harrisburg, for the people.
The Republicans’ proposed amendments are surely borne of some Pennsylvanians’ sense of exhaustion and frustration with top-down executive mandates.
This sense of frustration with being told what to do, or what not to do, likely drove some of Republicans’ successes in this month’s election, in the governor’s race in Virginia and in school board races here and across the nation. The intensity of that turnout and the results we witnessed may come partly from voters’ sense that if they don't put a stop to what they view as expanding governmental control, it will encompass more and more of their lives.
But this becomes a vicious cycle. The intensity of this month’s turnout at the polls will surely lead to more performative gestures by Republican lawmakers and candidates, with culture wars too often replacing debate over real issues.
Even with legitimate issues, we’re concerned about some of what Republicans in the Pennsylvania Legislature have chosen to focus on. The state Senate recently approved two firearms bills: “one to allow people to carry a loaded gun openly or concealed, without a permit, and another to punish municipalities that impose firearms ordinances that are stricter than state law,” The Associated Press reported Nov. 9.
The House is expected to vote on those bills as soon as today. Gov. Wolf has thankfully promised to veto both measures, which makes us wonder why Republicans are wasting time passing them. The general public overwhelmingly wants state and federal lawmakers to pass reasonable gun safety reforms; these bills are the opposite of that and would decrease public safety.
We also wonder why Republicans, who are pushing so hard against top-down mandates on other issues, would want to pass gun laws that would let Harrisburg dictate to local governments what they can and cannot do with regard to public safety.
What would the General Assembly — one of the most bloated, underperforming legislatures in that nation — truly accomplish on behalf of the people if the proposed constitutional amendments go through? Consider this: An analysis published Nov. 10 by the news website Pennsylvania Capital-Star “found that in 2021, renaming laws make up one in five of the 83 bills passed by both chambers of the Republican-controlled General Assembly that Gov. Tom Wolf has signed into law. That’s the highest percentage of naming legislation of any year in the past decade.”
That’s nice work, if you can get it. Is this what Pennsylvanians sent them to Harrisburg to accomplish? We make ceaseless calls for action on property tax reform and other crucial issues that affect our lives — and lawmakers spend their time naming roads.
An important issue that spurred the Cutler/Aument proposal, according to Spotlight PA, is Wolf's move to have Pennsylvania join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative next year. It’s a needed effort in the fight against climate change, one backed by this editorial board and, again, the majority of Pennsylvania voters. Joining the regional consortium would allow Pennsylvania to cap and tax carbon emissions and invest that revenue back into energy-efficiency programs and renewable energy.
The GOP opposes the move.
Which brings us back to where we started. The Legislature is unhappy about the extent of power held by the executive branch and is proposing additional constitutional amendments that would essentially hand it more power. Gov. Wolf, meanwhile, has spent much of his two terms publicly lamenting his inability to have his priorities acted upon by the Legislature.
Democrats and Republicans are jointly responsible for how broken Harrisburg is. They must work together to address priorities that are important to and supported by a majority of Pennsylvanians.
They can begin by following the state constitution we have, rather than trying to fundamentally change it again.