Constitutional amendments pose test to incoming Pa. governor

Pa. Senate Republicans are kicking off the new legislative session by pushing through a trio of proposed constitutional amendments that sparked a partisan fight.

An up-close photo of Josh Shapiro.

Pennsylvania Gov.-elect Josh Shapiro speaks with members of the media at the Pennsylvania Farm Show in Harrisburg, Pa., Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2023. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Republicans who control Pennsylvania’s Senate on Wednesday kicked off the new legislative session by pushing through a trio of proposed constitutional amendments that sparked a partisan fight and poses a challenge to the incoming Democratic governor, Josh Shapiro.

The proposals, if approved by the state House of Representatives, would give voters say over expanding voter-identification requirements, curtailing a governor’s regulatory authority and giving victims of child sexual abuse a new chance to sue perpetrators.

Republicans tied together the proposed amendments into one bill, prompting objections from Democrats who have long supported the measure concerning victims of child sexual abuse — including when Republicans opposed it — but oppose the other two amendments.

The Senate’s 28-20 vote was largely along party lines, with one Democrat siding with Republicans after more than two hours of debate.

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The Senate’s vote — the chamber’s first consequential vote of the new legislative session — comes six days before Shapiro is sworn in, as Republicans moved speedily to enact pet policies without facing the veto pen of a Democratic governor.

Shapiro, the two-term state attorney general who is to be inaugurated as Pennsylvania’s 48th governor next Tuesday, cannot veto proposed constitutional amendments.

For his part, Shapiro has talked of trying to sow bipartisanship after outgoing Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf set a 50-year record for the number of vetoes.

Asked about the measures Wednesday, Shapiro declined to join the fight publicly, saying “clearly this is going to have to be a negotiation between the House and the Senate.”

Still, Shapiro reiterated that he wants to avoid the kind of partisan fights that led Wolf to pursue policymaking through regulations and Republican lawmakers to pursue constitutional amendments.

“We’re going to have a reset when I’m governor,” Shapiro said after a tour of the Pennsylvania Farm Show exhibition in Harrisburg. “We’re going to talk again and we’re going to find some common ground; where we have disagreements, we’re going to work at it and try to find that common ground. We’re going to get back to legislating again.”

The legislation must make it through the House before it goes to voters for ultimate approval in a statewide referendum in May 16’s primary election.

However, the House is paralyzed amid a partisan fight for control, and the clock is ticking if the measures are to make it to May’s ballot.

Wolf’s administration said the Legislature must pass the measures in the coming weeks to allow time for the constitutionally required advertising of the ballot questions in newspapers and for ballot wording to be written and approved by the state attorney general’s office.

Off-year primary elections — such as the one on May 16 — typically feature low turnout, possibly as low as one-fifth of Pennsylvania’s registered voters.

One of the proposals would give lawmakers more strength to veto regulations written by executive branch agencies under the governor, a hangover from fights between the Republican-controlled Legislature and Wolf.

Under it, the Legislature would no longer need a two-thirds vote in each chamber to prevent an agency’s regulation from taking effect. Rather, the Legislature would only need a majority vote, giving lawmakers far more say over the fine print of policies that guide laws on everything from abortion to energy.

Another proposal would expand the requirements of Pennsylvania’s voter identification law.

Under it, voters would be required to show a valid identification every time they vote at a polling place, instead of just the first time they vote in a particular precinct. State law already dictates what forms of identification are acceptable.

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However, Democrats warned that it would mean new burdens for voters and that its vague outlines could open the door to intolerable hurdles to mail-in voting, although Republicans say it is not designed to change mail-in voting.

The measure long-sought by Republicans received new life from former President Donald Trump’s lies that he lost the battleground state’s 2020 election because of fraud.

The third measure would give now-adult victims of child sexual abuse another chance to take their perpetrators or conspirators to court in decades-old cases.

Many of those adults lost the chance to sue when they turned 18, under now-loosened time limits in state law, and supporters say the two-year “window” to sue would give victims a path to justice.

The long-simmering debate over those time limits received new momentum from 2018’s landmark report from a state grand jury’s investigation into child sexual abuse coverups in six of Pennsylvania’s Roman Catholic dioceses.

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