Relief for abuse survivors, other constitutional amendments halted in Pa.’s split legislature
Divided control of the Pennsylvania legislature has raised the bar for advancing proposed constitutional amendments, as Democrats and Republicans must find common ground to send a measure to voters for consideration.
Such amendments do not require approval from the governor, and good-government experts had previously expressed concerns that they were being fast-tracked under sole GOP legislative control without enough consideration of the impact.
But deep partisan differences are now keeping proposals with bipartisan support from voters, including one that would give survivors of childhood sexual abuse a chance to sue their abusers.
Legislative leaders say they remain at loggerheads over what form that measure should take.
Democrats who control the state House want to send to voters a single question about opening the lawsuit window, while Republican leaders are holding firm to their insistence that the abuse amendment be logrolled with other GOP priorities, including a voter ID requirement.
Should the legislature fail to agree on a way to move forward before the November election, the process will need to begin again in 2025, further delaying relief for survivors until at least 2027.
There are a handful of other amendments — including one with bipartisan support that would change how the state selects the lieutenant governor — that are also facing a quickly approaching expiration date.
The long path to passage
Pennsylvania has strict requirements to change its constitution.
Amendments start their journey much like regular bills. They are introduced by a lawmaker or lawmakers, must pass through committees, and must win majority approval from both chambers.
At that point, a regular bill would go to the governor for consideration. A proposed amendment, however, must go through the process again during the next two-year legislative session. Then it can be sent to the voters for consideration.
If an amendment passes during one legislative session but isn’t considered or fails in the next, the process must begin again.
Crucially, the governor does not have veto power over constitutional amendments.
Legislative Republicans used that fact in 2020 to bypass former Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf after he vetoed pandemic-related bills. They successfully sent two amendments to voters during that period, both of which were approved and curtailed the governor’s emergency powers.
GOP lawmakers then moved to repeat the strategy, passing a package that bundled together relatively non-controversial proposals — like allowing candidates for governor to pick running mates — with ones that many Democrats do not support. That includes expanded voter ID and language that declares the state constitution does not grant any right relating to abortion.
That package is all but assuredly dead, with Democrats who control the state House saying that certain proposals within the package — such as the abortion amendment — are nonstarters.
But some of the individual measures it contains could still make it across the finish line, including the proposal to change how the lieutenant governor is picked.
State Sen. Dave Argall (R., Schuykill) is the prime sponsor of a standalone measure on that topic. He said chamber leadership supports the proposal but it’s unclear if they will bring it up for consideration.
“We have support, strong support, for the bill,” he said, “but the tactical decision of when to run it awaits agreement with the House Democratic leadership to say we're not going to play games with this.”
A spokesperson for state House Majority Leader Matt Bradford (D., Montgomery) said the chamber would review a standalone measure should it pass the upper chamber.
Delayed and denied
An amendment that would create a two-year window to bring civil lawsuits against abusers has a long history in Pennsylvania.
Prompted by a 2018 grand jury report on sexual abuse in the Catholic church, a previous version of the measure was poised to go to voters in 2021. That didn’t happen after the Department of State revealed it had failed to advertise the amendment as required.
Instead of passing the amendment as a standalone measure, state Senate Republicans in January 2023 bundled it with expanded voter ID and another measure that would allow the General Assembly to override the governor’s regulations with a majority vote.
State House Democrats accused their GOP counterparts of using survivors of childhood sexual abuse as bargaining chips and stripped out the additional amendments, sending a clean version back to the state Senate where it has sat untouched for nearly a year.
Since then, state Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman (R., Indiana) has refused to shift the caucus’ stance. Pittman told a reporter in June that he made it “very clear” to his counterparts in the state House that “they would be best served to pass Senate Bill 1 as we presented it to them.”
“They didn’t do that. I wish they would have taken my advice,” Pittman said.
In a new statement shared with Spotlight PA, Pittman said that state Senate Republicans “remain open to conversations” that would advance amendments on voter identification, legislative review of regulations, and opening the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse survivors.
However, state House Democrats have remained similarly stalwart in their opposition to bundling other amendments with the statute of limitations proposal.
Bradford said that state Senate Republicans need to “stop leveraging victims of childhood sexual abuse for any other political objective,” and added that there’s no reason why the amendment shouldn’t make it onto the ballot this year.
That said, Bradford added, the state House has “been very clear that we're willing to have discussions on a myriad of topics.”
Democrats have their own priorities for constitutional amendments, Bradford said, including abortion protections and a guarantee of workers’ rights to unionize.
“There's been a lot of lip service on that,” he said of GOP support for organized labor. “We'd like to see tangible movement.”
90.5 WESA partners with Spotlight PA, a collaborative, reader-funded newsroom producing accountability journalism for all of Pennsylvania. More at spotlightpa.org.