There will be four questions on the ballot this Tuesday, May 18, including three proposed constitutional amendments and one referendum, in addition to the names of those running for municipal and county offices.
Dennis Plane, professor of politics at Juniata College, also noted that while Pennsylvania is typically a closed primary state, meaning only those registered with a particular political party can vote for those in their party on the ballot, proposed amendment changes are different.
“Unlike most primaries, Tuesday’s primary election is open to all registered voters,” he said. “If you’re an independent, you’re not used to being able to participate in primary elections, but these ballot questions are open to everyone.”
The first two proposed amendments on the ballot for the election will include the future of power when it comes to disaster emergency declarations.
The first question officially reads “Shall the Pennsylvania Constitution be amended to change existing law and increase the power of the General Assembly to unilaterally terminate or extend a disaster emergency declaration—and the powers of Commonwealth agencies to address the disaster regardless of its severity pursuant to that declaration—through passing a concurrent resolution by simple majority, thereby removing the existing check and balance of presenting a resolution to the Governor for approval or disapproval?”
The second question officially reads, “Shall the Pennsylvania Constitution be amended to change existing law so that: a disaster emergency declaration will expire automatically after 21 days, regardless of the severity of the emergency, unless the General Assembly takes action to extend the disaster emergency; the Governor may not declare a new disaster emergency to respond to the dangers facing the Commonwealth unless the General Assembly passes a concurrent resolution; the General Assembly enacts new laws for disaster management?
Plane discussed how these questions got on the ballot.
“When COVID hit, the Wolf administration implemented restrictions on how Pennsylvanians do business and run their daily lives,” he said. “This included shutting down non-essential business and closing schools. Republicans were frustrated and wanted things to stay open, and they thought the governor overreacted. They believed the damage to the economy was greater than any benefit to public health by shutting things down.”
As of now, Gov. Tom Wolf was acting under his current authority, as per the state constitution, to officially declare emergencies and declare policies on how to deal with emergencies. This also meant the governor could renew the emergency powers as needed to deal with the pandemic.
“Republicans found they were sort of hamstrung in preventing Wolf’s pandemic polices from going into effect,” said Plane. “They could pass laws that could overturn or change some of them, but those laws could then be vetoed by the governor.”
However, if these amendments are changed from current laws, it means any future governor would be subject to the same laws, which means that no matter which party has power in the governor’s seat or in the state General Assembly, the power of how long an emergency would last would go to the state General Assembly.
“When we have an emergency now, it’s usually designed to make it easy for the executive branch, regardless of party, to be able to act quickly to stem an emergency. In this case, if the state legislature is not in session, it makes it more difficult to act in an emergency. This is why typically in states, emergency powers are generally vested to governors.”
The third ballot question references specific non-discrimination language, “Shall the Pennsylvania Constitution be amended by adding a new section providing that equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged because of an individual’s race or ethnicity?”
“The idea is not to discriminate on the basis of race or ethnicity,” said Plane. “Which can be confusing, because the state Constitution says you can’t discriminate against a person, but it doesn’t detail race or ethnicity. This one is more symbolic to essentially say the idea of non-discrimination is so important, we’re enshrining it into the state Constitution.”
The fourth question on the ballot isn’t a constitutional amendment, but a referendum, includes allowing paid fire companies to apply for certain grants, and it reads, “Do you favor expanding the use of the indebtedness authorized under the referendum for loans to volunteer fire companies, volunteer ambulance services and volunteer rescue squads under 35 PA.C.S. §7378.1 (related to referendum for additional indebtedness) to include loans to municipal fire departments or companies that provide services through paid personnel and emergency medical services companies for the purpose of establishing and modernizing facilities to house apparatus equipment, ambulances and rescue vehicles, and for purchasing apparatus equipment, ambulances and rescue vehicles, protective and communications equipment and any other accessory equipment necessary for the proper performance of the duties of the fire companies and emergency medical services companies?”
“This one may be especially important to rural and small towns, because it’s about paid fire companies getting funding to tap into government loans,” said Plane. “For fire companies run by boroughs and townships on a professional basis, it would allow for these fire companies to apply for state government loans to do things like fix up their fire stations, equipment.
“Currently, it’s only restricted to volunteer fire companies,” he added. “This could potentially mean that it’s harder for volunteer fire companies to access state loan programs.”