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An initiative to provide nonpartisan, independent elections journalism for southwestern Pennsylvania.

North Hills state Senate race reflects stakes in effort to change checks and balances in Harrisburg

Emma Lee

As voters are deciding who they want to represent them in Harrisburg, Republicans have been trying to advance amendments to Pennsylvania’s constitution that would give one group of officials power — those in the state legislature long controlled by the GOP — even at the expense of other branches of government.

The changes themselves aren’t on the ballot this fall. But the legislators that voters elect to the General Assembly could shape the future of an effort to redefine abortion rights, election oversight, and the power of the executive branch. And the partisan tensions are nowhere more clear than in the race for the 38th state Senate, which includes portions of Pittsburgh and the North Hills suburbs.

“It is really critical that voters across the state understand this new pattern of behavior in the legislature,” said Pat Christmas, policy director of the Philadelphia-based civic advocacy group Committee of Seventy.

Traditionally, voters elect legislators to craft the laws. But an effort to amend the state constitution requires approval by voters, after the legislature approves the proposed language in two successive sessions. The current proposed amendment package, Senate Bill 106, cleared the first hurdle on party-line votes in July.

Lindsey Williams, a Democrat who represents the 38th Senate District, voted against the measures. Her Republican challenger this fall, state Rep. Lori Mizgorski, voted for the bill in the state House.

The vote “furthers a partisanship that most people are sick of,” said Williams.

Democrats could head off the drive to change the constitution by winning control of either chamber in the legislature. If they hold the majority, they could ensure that Senate Bill 106, and the amendments it includes, wouldn't called up for the second vote needed for the amendments to be put to voters.

But Democrats were powerless to stop the effort this summer, and would be again if they don't control one chamber or the other. The governor cannot veto a proposed amendment, which is a key reason Harrisburg Republicans have used constitutional changes to advance their goals.

Mizgorski did not respond to WESA’s multiple requests for an interview. But Nathan Benefield, senior vice president of Harrisburg-based conservative think tank Commonwealth Foundation, said the use of amendments stems from a failure of government branches working together.

“There has been an impasse,” he said, “especially in the last few years, between the governor and the legislature and really a record number of bills being vetoed.”

The amendments include:

  • Language that asserts the state constitution “does not grant the right to taxpayer-funded abortion or any other right relating to abortion" 
  • A proposal to make it easier to block regulations made by the governor 
  • A change that moves election audits from under the governor’s control to the Auditor General’s office
  • A provision that requires voters to present “government-issued” identification when they vote or mail in their ballot
  • A change that would allow gubernatorial candidates to select their running mate for lieutenant governor

The amendment that has received the most attention would impact abortion rights. It wouldn’t immediately change abortion law on its own, but would rein in the ability of courts to overturn new laws that did. Some of the other changes also include moves to limit the power of the executive branch — and accomplish goals that Republican legislators have so far failed to achieve themselves.

'A great deal of power'

One amendment enables the general assembly to block regulations crafted by the executive branch — without allowing a governor the power to veto the move. That means that revoking a proposal would require only a simple majority from the House and Senate, rather than the two-thirds margin needed to overcome a veto.

If the amendment passes, among the policies most vulnerable in a GOP-led assembly would be Pennsylvania’s entry into the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. Backers of the carbon-trading agreement say it offers a market-driven approach to reducing climate change, but industry groups and Republican lawmakers are suing the state to prevent Pennsylvania from joining it.

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Benefield says the RGGI debate shows why an amendment is needed to provide a “check on the power of bureaucracy.”

“If the governor can issue a regulation without having legislative approval of it, that’s basically giving him unilateral power,” he argued.

Williams sees things the other way around. In her view, the amendment dramatically upsets longstanding checks and balances — and allows a party with even a slim majority to steamroll the agenda of a governor elected by the entire state.

Requiring a two-thirds majority to block a regulation from the governor, by contrast, “means there needs to be some bipartisan support” for doing so, she said.

Christmas agreed that if the legislature passed, and voters approved, the amendment, it would dramatically impact the longstanding balance of powers.

“There’s four words in this particular amendment, but there’s a great deal of power at stake,” Christmas said.

‘Respect for the process’

Another amendment would give the auditor general’s office new power to audit elections. Republicans describe this as an effort to make election oversight more independent. The auditor general is an independently elected position, while the elections oversight is currently overseen by the Secretary of the Commonwealth, who is appointed by the governor.

A similar shift is underway in Arizona after a slew of election reforms were signed into law. According to the Arizona Mirror, the auditor’s office there will require 35 new full-time employees to launch an election audits division.

Pennsylvania’s auditor general’s office, which is currently headed by Republican Timothy DeFoor, will likely need dozens of new staff members to take on election audits. The office announced this spring that it had to phase out auditing school districts in part because of insufficient staffing.

Williams said assigning election oversight to the auditor general’s office would be “ironic.”

“He didn’t have the capacity” for school district audits, she said. “But all the sudden it’s okay to give him election audits with no experience.”

Benefield argued the move will address “skepticism” about the results of the 2020 election. “This is going to hopefully restore some respect for the process,” Benefield said, because “the auditor general is elected separately from the governor.”

Multiple audits found no evidence of widespread fraud in the 2020 election.

‘Some things need to be done legislatively’

Republicans have long supported a voter ID requirement at the ballot box, but have failed to establish one under Republican or Democratic governors alike. But SB106’s amendments include a new requirement that voters present a government-issued ID at their polling place, or submit proof of identification along with their mail-in ballot.

Republicans note that such proposals are popular. A 2021 Monmouth University poll found that 80% of those questioned support requiring ID before a person can vote.

But Williams and Christmas argue voter ID laws could discourage older voters with expired driver’s licenses or others for whom getting a government ID is a barrier.

“Voter ID has been shown to disenfranchise certain voters,” Williams said. “It has nothing to do with the integrity of our elections.”

Christmas argued voter fraud is rare, and an ID requirement would add new obstacles to voting. “It would be a fairly restrictive policy” passed without “a substantive election integrity reason to do so,” he said. He also said such rules should be passed through the legislative process.

While Benefield supports a voter ID rule, he agreed that “There are some things that need to be done legislatively.”

‘You can't hold representatives accountable’

Williams herself backs one of the proposed changes: an amendment that would allow candidates for governor to choose their lieutenant governor running mates, rather than having the lieutenants run separately in the primary as they do now. But she objects to the way Republicans have attached other amendments to the proposal.

So does Christmas. “When you bundle the amendments together like this” in one big bill, he said, “you can't hold your representatives accountable” for supporting any particular proposal.

That’s one of the legal arguments Wolf is making to have the courts toss out the whole package of amendments. He asked the State Supreme Court to block the package from advancing further in July. Justices denied that request last month, referring the case to a lower appeals court. He then filed to block the effort with the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court late last month.

Should the courts disagree, it means the easiest way for Democrats to stave off the GOP's changes would be to hold enough seats like the 38th to garner a legislative majority.

If Republicans hold the House and Senate, it’s likely that they would vote in favor of the amendments next term, just as they did this summer. That would require costly, time-consuming campaigns over the amendments. And Republicans could move quickly enough for the proposals to go before voters in next spring’s municipal primary — in which turnout is typically lower than in general elections.

“That’s not by mistake,” said Williams.

Kiley Koscinski covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.