State dept. could be nixed from advertising constitutional amendments

State Sen. David Argall

State Sen. David Argall State Sen. David Argall's Office

Changes could be coming to how constitutional amendments are advanced in Pennsylvania. 

Lawmakers in the state Senate heard Tuesday from former state officials as policymakers consider whether to alter how constitutional amendments are advertised, a move that follows an error at the Pennsylvania Department of State that derailed a proposed amendment seeking to offer legal relief to sexual abuse victims. 

During a public hearing at the state Capitol, the Senate State Government Committee fielded input on Senate Bill 940, which would remove the Department of State from the constitutional amendment process entirely. 

In order for the state constitution to be amended, lawmakers must pass a proposed amendment in two consecutive legislative sessions. The proposal is then put before voters in a ballot referendum, where voters have the final say over whether the constitution should be amended. 

Currently, the Department of State is in charge of advertising proposed amendments passed by the General Assembly in two newspapers in every county. The department also drafts the ballot question language. But lawmakers have grown concerned with the Department of State’s role in the process after the department failed to advertise an amendment in 2020 that was designed to offer legal recourse for sexual abuse victims. 

The error led to the resignation of Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar and prompted an investigation by the Office of State Inspector General, which found that “a combination of internal systemic failures within DOS led to its crucial error.”

The snafu also prompted state lawmakers to weigh changes to the constitutional amendment process, which Senate State Government Committee Chair David Argall hopes to address with SB 940.

The bill would transfer the task of advertising proposed amendments from the Department of State to the Legislative Reference Bureau – the state’s legislative agency that prepares bills, amendments and resolutions. Argall’s measure would also charge the Legislative Reference Bureau with drafting the ballot referendum language that voters ultimately decide on, after Republicans felt that a set of recent ballot questions were written with slanted language.

Former Secretary of State Carol Aichele, who served under Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, said in testimony to the committee that Argall’s legislation could “limit the chances that a proposed constitutional amendment passed by the General Assembly in two consecutive sessions would ultimately fail due to advertising problems.”

“Without question, the people of Pennsylvania would be well-served if the process for advertising proposed constitutional amendments were streamlined, free from any bias with respect to the wording of the ballot questions,” she said. “Your consideration of consolidating the whole advertising process under the Legislative Reference Bureau could accomplish many of the objectives stated above.”

Shannon Royer, a former deputy secretary for external affairs and elections at the Department of State, agreed. “While there can never be any guarantees that mistakes will not be made in the advertising process regardless of which agency or bureau is tasked with this responsibility, there is no doubt that LRB is more suitable as an entity to perform this function,” he said, adding that Argall’s legislation “goes a long way in helping to ensure that we will never face another situation like we experienced with the childhood sexual abuse constitutional amendment.”

State Sen. Sharif Street, a Democrat, questioned Aichele on the prevalence of advertising errors at the Department of State. Aichele said that during her time as secretary, the department had “no errors in reporting.”

Street did not state opposition to Argall’s bill, but expressed caution at overhauling the advertising process based on one error. 

“Clearly, we want to make sure this is done right,” he said. “But this is not something that has been endemic to the office throughout time. This is sort of unique to our current situation.”

A spokesperson for the Department of State said the department has no position on the legislation, adding that: “If the legislation becomes law, we will abide by its provisions.”