Patriot-News (Op-Ed): Pennsylvania lawmakers are abusing the constitutional amendment process

Patriot-News (Op-Ed): Pennsylvania lawmakers are abusing the constitutional amendment process

Constitutional amendments – which must be passed in identical form in two legislative sessions before being presented to voters on a ballot – should be used sparingly. And they certainly should not be used to let one branch of government sidestep the checks and balances of the other branches. But Pennsylvania legislators are now using the amendment process to take power from other branches of government and increase their own influence.

Republican state lawmakers, frustrated by the governor’s power to veto laws, are now abusing Pennsylvania’s constitutional amendment process to get what they want.

The legislature is supposed to use its power to override the governor’s veto, if enough legislators disagree with the veto. Instead, they are proposing amendments to our constitution – the foundational document of our state government – to get around the governor’s check on their power.

But Pennsylvania legislators are now using the amendment process to take power from other branches of government and increase their own influence.
In just one year of the current two-year legislative session, lawmakers have proposed at least 75 amendments; and 24 of them are attacks on the powers of the governor and the courts. For comparison, in the entire 2019-20 session, a total of only 70 constitutional amendments were proposed, and only three targeted the independence of the other two branches.

This is not how the system was designed to work. Our constitutional amendment process was never meant to be a workaround for failed legislation or to threaten the courts into doing the legislature’s bidding. Our state constitution, like our federal constitution, is intended to protect individual rights and liberties while respecting the equal and independent work of each branch of government. This idea isn’t radical; it’s the bedrock of our entire system of government.

The governor’s veto is meant to be a check on the legislature, just as the veto override is meant to be a check on the governor. Likewise, the judicial branch was designed to check the executive and legislative branches. Letting one branch overpower the others is a recipe for disaster and an abuse of power that we cannot accept.
Some legislators have this down to a fine art: they time the amendments to appear on primary ballots in low voter-turnout years. This ensures that they are voted on by as few voters as possible – the opposite of the principle of “we the people.” Primaries in Pennsylvania traditionally have very low turnout – particularly compared to presidential elections. This means that when amendments appear on a primary ballot, they are decided by a tiny fraction of our population.

This is not the way a government “by the people” works. Remember what happened in the spring of 2021: three amendments were added to our constitution during an election that saw turnout of only about one-quarter of registered voters. Municipal primary elections always have the lowest turnout – so that’s when the amendments went on the ballot.

Two of these amendments took away most of the governor’s ability to respond to ongoing emergencies, including the COVID-19 pandemic, and gave it to the legislature. Meanwhile, at the height of the Omicron surge, Pennsylvania’s hospitals were full to bursting, schools were cancelling classes or moving to online instruction, businesses were closing, and Pennsylvanians were struggling to keep their families safe while putting food on the table.

We urge Pennsylvania’s lawmakers to stop abusing the constitutional amendment process and use it the way it was intended to be used. If legislators truly want to give the people of Pennsylvania a greater voice, they should propose and pass a constitutional amendment to allow public initiative and referendum.

That way, the issues that the people have been asking for – real redistricting reform, a minimum wage increase, criminal justice reform, fair funding for our schools, and others – can finally stand a chance of seeing the light of day.

Our system of checks and balances and the separation of powers has worked for over two hundred years. There is no reason for Pennsylvania’s constitution to be mangled now, just because some lawmakers can’t accept no for an answer.

Khalif Ali is the Executive Director of Common Cause Pennsylvania