News & Politics

State Senate approves constitutional amendments; future in House uncertain

The amendments include a voter ID proposal and a statute of limitations

The Pennsylvania Senate chamber

The Pennsylvania Senate chamber drnadig / Getty Images

Lawmakers in the state Senate voted 28-20 on Wednesday to send an omnibus package of constitutional amendments to the state House, despite opposition from Democrats who felt an amendment for sex abuse survivors should have been separated from more polarizing policies included in the bill. 

The future of the amendments included in Senate Bill 1 is uncertain. The new speaker of the state House, Mark Rozzi, has pledged not to consider any proposals until state lawmakers pass an amendment creating a retroactive two-year window for child sex abuse survivors to sue their abusers. 

That was included in the omnibus bill approved Wednesday, but the measure also included an amendment that would require voters to show ID at the polls, as well as a constitutional change that would give lawmakers more power to block state regulations from taking effect. 

In Pennsylvania, proposed amendments to the state constitution must be approved by both chambers of the General Assembly in back-to-back legislative sessions. The proposal will then be placed on the ballot for voters to decide on. Because the amendments debated by the Senate on Wednesday were already all passed in the last legislative session, Republicans said all three proposals should be a priority in the new session in order to get them on the ballot as soon as possible. Democrats, however, said the statute of limitations amendment championed by Rozzi should not be packaged with the other two measures, and that it should take priority since Gov. Tom Wolf called for a special session of the legislature to do so

“The state Senate is organized. It is functioning. It is moving forward to address the issues that the people of the commonwealth are concerned about,” Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman said on the Senate floor. “I will tell you that all three of these issues embodied in Senate Bill 1 are of concern to the people that we represent.”

Republican state Sen. Wayne Langerholc encouraged lawmakers to vote in favor of the measure, arguing that it would allow voters to directly decide on all three policies. “This is, in essence, a process vote. Passing this bill will send these questions to the voters. The voters will be the ultimate decision-makers on these,” he said. “We owe the residents, our constituents, members of this commonwealth, the right to weigh in on these issues.”

That was enough for one Democrat – state Sen. Lisa Boscola – to get behind the bill. A longtime proponent of direct ballot initiatives, Boscola said on the Senate floor that she trusts voters to make the right decision on each amendment – whatever that may be. “It's my intention to vote for this piece of legislation because it empowers the people, it empowers voters. I believe they are smart and they will do what they believe is right,” Boscola said. 

But she was the lone Democrat to vote in favor of the legislation, as the rest of the caucus voted against it. State Sen. Maria Collett, a Democrat, said the GOP packaged the statute of limitations amendment with “unrelated and divisive measures likely to derail its movement yet again.” State Senate Democratic Leader Jay Costa concurred, adding that the voter ID and regulatory amendments will “draw confusion about the merits of these pieces of legislation.”

While Republicans ultimately prevailed in the upper chamber, it’s less clear what happens to the bill next. The state House has not conducted any legislative business this session, as lawmakers have yet to form committees or agree on a set of operating rules for the chamber. 

House lawmakers were set to hold three special session days this week to vote on the statute of limitations amendment, but the session days were canceled on Monday, with Rozzi announcing the formation of a work group to sort out the gridlock plaguing the chamber. The statute of limitations amendment was on track to make the ballot in 2021, but an error at the Pennsylvania Department of State forced lawmakers to start the multi-year constitutional amendment process over again.