Pa. Republicans are weaponizing the state Constitution. No one wins there | Tuesday Morning Coffee

July 6, 2021 7:14 am

Rep. Seth Grove questions DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell during the agency’s budget hearing Thursday (Capital-Star photo).

Good Tuesday Morning, Fellow Seekers.

When Gov. Tom Wolf ran his veto pen across a Republican-authored rewrite of state election law last week that included new voter identification requirements and tighter deadlines for requesting mail-in ballots, Republicans in the General Assembly announced plans to undo the Democratic governor’s handiwork by taking the issue to the voters with a constitutional amendment.

“We have a lame duck governor, and we’re going to treat him like it,” House State Government Committee Chairman Seth Grove, R-York, the bill’s author, told the Capital-Star’s Stephen Caruso. “Maybe the next governor will be more amenable to negotiations.”

This hyper-aggressive legislative parrying of a legitimate exercise of executive authority, however, is just the latest example of a new and worrisome Republican tendency to weaponize the state’s foundational document for short-term political gain.

And, if left unchecked, it’s a strategy that will rob the amendment process of both its legitimacy and its meaning.

After all, it’s hard to amend the Constitution for a reason: So that it doesn’t fall prey to short-term whims or shifting political winds.

As a refresher, amendments have to be approved in identical form in two, consecutive legislative sessions, and then by voters at a statewide referendum.

“You should not have to change the constitution very often,” Chris Borick, a pollster and political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, observed. “The U.S. Constitution has been changed for big things: slavery, voting access, but it’s only been done 27 times [in the nation’s history], and 10 of them were done with the Bill of Rights, and that’s why they have gravitas.”

(Capital-Star file)

But as was the case with voter approval of amendments limiting the emergency authority of Wolf, the dead-for-now push for judicial gerrymandering, and now with Voter ID which, while publicly popular, has already been ruled unconstitutional by a Pennsylvania court, Republicans are trying to address a short-term setback with a long-term solution that carries with it serious policy consequences and no easily accessible remedy.

That’s because “once [it’s] in the Constitution, it’s time-consuming to get it out,” Bruce Ledewitz, a Duquesne University Law School professor, and Capital-Star opinion contributor, said. “What if ID’s become a problem and the GOP wants to prove id by fingerprint or face ID?—they won’t be able to do so.”

Amendments are “being used strategically by Republicans right now to find ways around the governor’s power,” Borick added. But “… think about changing the rules – why do you change rules in any type of endeavor? It’s for some broader end than just the contemporary moment.”

And as Grove’s comments above clearly demonstrate, the only strategy here is to spite Wolf — regardless of the impact on voters’ rights, especially those of Black and brown voters who disproportionately pay the price for these suppression tactics.

Gov. Tom Wolf at the state Capitol (Commonwealth Media Services photo).

So, instead of going back to the drawing board and coming up with better ideas, or approving legislation without an obvious poison pill, Republicans appear content to snooker voters into approving a solution to a non-existent problemVoter fraud and voter impersonation.

But from the first stab at gambling legalization and the legislative pay raise to repeated attempts to restrict abortion, and now transgender rights, the halls of Pennsylvania’s General Assembly are littered with bad ideas where the public pays the ultimate price. Those, at least, had the virtue of not being enshrined in the state Constitution.

“This will continue happening until the voters catch on and begin rejecting this as an abuse of the system,” Duquesne’s Ledewitz said. “The framers gave the governor a veto for a reason, not to have every vetoed measure put in the Constitution.”

That’s sound advice, and it would be great if Republicans would heed it. But if they’ll fall for the Big Lie, there’s no expectation for reason and sanity to prevail here.

Pennsylvania State Capitol Building. (Capital-Star photo by Cassie Miller.)

Our Stuff.
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study found racial and regional disparities as schools in Pennsylvania and across the nation reopened for in-person learning, Capital-Star Washington Reporter Laura Olson writes.

A national park for Pa. and N.J.? Supporters of a new proposal say it’s possible and long overdue, Cassie Miller reports.

Will six Pa. State System universities merge? A vote is expected this month. Marley Parish has the details.

And who needs the Mouse? Pennsylvania is your destination for funCassie Miller also reports in this week’s edition of The Numbers Racket.

Low-income people of color bear the brunt of rising pedestrian deaths, according to a new investigation by Stateline, an initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Pittsburgh will get an e-scooter pilot program thanks to provision included in the state budget, our partners at Pittsburgh City Paper report.

On our Commentary Page this morning, a University of Memphis expert sets you straight on what critical race theory is — and what it isn’t. And opinion regular Mark O’Keefe muses on whether Democrats will pay a political price in 2022 for the 2021 budget deal that Gov. Tom Wolf struck with the GOP.

Philadelphia Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw speaks during a news conference outside Philadelphia City Hall on Tuesday, 6/15/21 (Philadelphia Tribune photo).

In Philadelphia, some community advocates are wondering why it took the city so long to step up its anti-violence efforts, the Inquirer reports.

After a data breach on its contact tracing contract, the state is ‘side-stepping scrutiny’ of the dealSpotlight PA reports (via the Tribune-Review).

UPMC and the Pittsburgh Public Schools are teaming up for a student vaccine clinic, the Post-Gazette reports.

The PA SPCA has rescued 17 dogs from a Pennsylvania breeder, PennLive reports.

A rising vaccination rate in Lancaster County could cut COVID-19 cases in halfLancasterOnline reports (paywall).

The state budget earmarks $1.6 million for a PFAS cancer study, the York Daily Record reports (paywall).

The Morning Call talks to the new head of the Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce, who’s prioritizing outreach to the region’s LGBTQ residents.

Romilda Crocamo takes over as Luzerne County’s new county manager this week, the Citizens’ Voice reports.

In Philadelphia, bar and restaurant owners are mourning the loss of cocktails-to-goWHYY-FM reports.

The Associated Press catches up on the latest on GOP plans for an Arizona-style audit of Pa.’s 2020 election results (via WITF-FM).

City & State PA looks at the emerging Republican field for governor in 2022.

PoliticsPA runs down last week’s winners & losers in state politics.

A mysterious illness is killing birds in Pennsylvania and nine other statesGoErie reports.

Roll Call profiles some of the newest American citizens who took the oath this July 4 weekend.

Here’s your #Pennsylvania Instagram of the Day:


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You Say It’s Your Birthday Dept
Best wishes go out this morning to Capital-Star Correspondent Nick Field, who celebrates today. Congratulations and enjoy the day, sir.

Heavy Rotation
From Elvis Costello’s classic debut, ‘My Aim is True,’ here’s an equally classic track from that LP. It’s ‘Miracle Man.’

Tuesday’s Gratuitous Hockey Link
Montreal have kept their Stanley Cup hopes alive, staving off elimination by notching a dramatic 3-2 overtime win against Tampa on Monday night. The Bolts lead the Habs 3-1 in the series.

And now you’re up to date.

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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.