HARRISBURG, PA — As partisan division and general disorganization stall Pennsylvania lawmakers, time is running out to push through a bill to allow survivors of childhood sexual abuse more time …
HARRISBURG, PA — As partisan division and general disorganization stall Pennsylvania lawmakers, time is running out to push through a bill to allow survivors of childhood sexual abuse more time to bring charges against their abusers.
When Berks County Democrat, Rep. Mark Rozzi, got elected by his colleagues as Speaker of the House, he said that his top priority as Speaker would be to pass a constitutional amendment that creates a two-year window for child sex abuse victims to sue their alleged abusers over otherwise outdated claims. Unlike regular legislation, constitutional amendments must pass through both chambers of the General Assembly twice, then the issue is brought to Pennsylvania residents to vote “yes” or “no” on in the next election.
Hoping to pass the proposed amendment through the legislature in time for voters to decide on in this year’s primary election, Rozzi called a special House session in early January to get the amendment swiftly on its way. However, the session proved fruitless, as Democrats and Republicans failed to find any consensus on operating rules, which must be agreed to before any votes can be held.
To make things even muddier, while the House was at a standstill, the GOP-controlled state Senate attached two unrelated, divisive amendment proposals onto the original sex abuse amendment. One would expand ID requirements for voting, while the other would restrict the governor’s (the office currently held by a Democrat) regulatory power.
House Republicans say that they should vote on all three amendments together. The Democrats in response have said that bundling the two partisan proposals in with an amendment that enjoys broad bipartisan support was a clear political maneuver. Government watchdogs, like the ACLU of PA and the PA League of Women Voters, have also panned this approach on the Republicans’ part.
With the two parties at an impasse, Rozzi adjourned the House on January 27, saying that it would not need to meet again until February 27, well after the deadline to get the amendment passed in time for May.
In the meantime, Rozzi has embarked on a “listening tour” to hear from residents directly. He recently visited Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, and his next stop is slated to be Wilkes-Barre, although at press time the date of his visit has not been announced.
Republicans have blamed Rozzi and Democrats for the breakdown in productivity, and have attempted a number of obscure approaches to getting back to work, such as sending a petition letter to the House clerk calling on her to schedule a week of voting.
The Republicans have also decided to go ahead and name committee leaders despite not being in session, saying in a statement they “refus[e] to sit idly by on taxpayer time.”
“This process should have been completed on day one; however, Speaker Rozzi and his Democrat enablers refuse to complete even the most basic tasks expected of us by the taxpayers who elected us,” Republican leader Bryan Cutler said in a press release. “Since House Republicans believe continued delay of our chamber’s organization is a detriment to our legislative function, these chairs will immediately begin working with staff, stakeholders, and the Shapiro administration to explore paths to move Pennsylvania forward so we can hit the ground running once Democrats want to join us in returning to work.”
While the two parties remain in disagreement over operating rules, some better government groups, including Fair Districts PA (FDPA), have taken the opportunity to weigh in.
“I don’t see this as a breakdown. I see this as a pause—a moment to say, ‘How can we do this better?’” FDPA executive director Carol Kuniholm told reporters.
In an open letter to legislative leaders, members of the Speaker’s workgroup to address House rules, members of the PA One Caucus and other representatives who have supported efforts to reform the rules, FDPA laid out a series of recommended rules that it contends will allow for more bipartisan harmony.
One of the rules proposed would allow for more transparency and public input for the constitutional amendment process in PA. As it stands currently, constitutional amendments can be slipped through the legislature swiftly and quietly, preventing the public from having much say. FDPA rules would require of all proposed constitutional amendments a one-week period of public comment before the committee vote. The committee would also be required to hold a public hearing that includes testimony from experts chosen in equal numbers by the majority and minority committee chairs as well as an advertised opportunity for public testimony.
The FDPA rules would also require the legislature to provide a web page for each amendment, with links to recordings and transcripts of committee hearings, public testimony and comment, and all relevant committee and chamber votes.
While the unprecedently chaotic and dysfunctional start to the year has resulted in yet another delay in justice for survivors of childhood sexual abuse, all is not lost for this potential amendment. Upon reconvening, the House can still pass the amendment, not to be placed on a later-scheduled ballot until 2024.
This is a developing story.
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