The New Way Forward: Constitutional Amendments
Yesterday, two members of the PA State Senate GOP introduced a bill that would amend the Pennsylvania Constitution to limit the rate of spending of state government. In and of itself, this proposal is not new, as it has been introduced in some iteration or another for more than a decade. But taking a step back, it represents the latest in a trend that has begun in Pennsylvania’s General Assembly.
Not including yesterday’s bill introduction, the General Assembly has already acted on two proposed Constitutional Amendments, and intends to act on a third before this week is out.
Heretofore, the House already approved a Constitutional Amendment to raise the mandatory retirement ages for judges from 70 to 75. The Senate favorably acted on Senate Bill 4, a contentious plan which would attempt to clarify whether the courts or the legislature have the authority to define “purely public charities.” Both bills passed in the last legislative session, and if they should pass both chambers this year, would end up on the ballot for voters to ultimately decide.
Which brings us to Wednesday, when the Senate is scheduled to debate a third Constitutional amendment to prohibit state and local governments from using automatic paycheck collection for union dues and political contributions. Some may recall that there are also several pieces of legislation that would achieve the same thing through simple changes in law, and not amend the Pennsylvania Constitution.
A perfunctory look at the bills already introduced this year finds that barely more than a month into the 2015-2016 Session, an astounding 34 bills have been introduced that would amend the PA Constitution. Why is the legislature all of the sudden eschewing the normal legislative process in favor of amending the state Constitution?
The answer: divided government.
Legislation that would prohibit union paycheck payroll deductions (so-called “paycheck protection), to raise taxes, or put an artificial cap on government spending are all fairly contentious political issues. Not coincidentally, none of these can be found on Democratic Governor Tom Wolf’s “to-do” list. In fact it is safe to assume that, in regular bill form, the governor would likely threaten to veto any or all of them. The governor has already come out publicly against paycheck protection in bill form, which may explain why it has re-emerged as a Constitutional Amendment.
The point is simple: Constitutional Amendments, unlike new laws, do not require gubernatorial signatures in Pennsylvania. If they pass the House and Senate in two consecutive Sessions, off they go to the voters for final approval. Two consecutive Sessions would total four years, a span of time that would enable the GOP-controlled General Assembly to do quite a bit of legislating without ever needing to consult with one of the other three branches of government.
Of course, the flip-side of this issue is that governors – current and former – can do some things through Executive Order that do not require any sort of consultation with the General Assembly. However, as we have seen, the General Assembly can often seek, and has sought, immediate redress through that other branch of government, the courts.
The coming weeks and months will tell if the sudden preponderance of Constitutional Amendments appearing on the House and Senate Floor are simply an anomaly or an emerging trend, one that is designed to remove Governor Tom Wolf from weighing in on some of the most controversial topics the legislature will deal with between now and the time he runs for re-election.
In any case, if your strategy for defeating legislation in the coming years is to simply rely on a gubernatorial veto, you may want to chart a new course. The governor cannot veto what does not land on his desk.
Michael Manzo is the Vice President of Strategic Engagement at Triad Strategies, a bipartisan public affairs firm with offices in Harrisburg, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.