Pa. GOP answered Wolf’s pandemic vetoes with constitution changes. The strategy is here to stay
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HARRISBURG — Gov. Tom Wolf has vetoed more than 50 bills as he begins his final year in office, a number that illustrates the institutionalized gridlock between the Democratic governor and the Republican-controlled General Assembly.
Wolf’s veto tally grew extensively during the pandemic and will likely expand during his final 13 months in office, as GOP leaders continue to largely bypass his agenda and push items such as mandated voter ID and curbs on the executive’s power.
As Wolf has exercised his veto pen, Republican legislators have increasingly turned to constitutional amendments to advance their priorities. The GOP says the change in strategy turns over decision-making to the voters, and critics say it circumvents the checks and balances between the executive and legislative branches.
Wolf spokesperson Elizabeth Rementer said the governor rejects legislation when it’s not in the best interest of all Pennsylvanians.
“The Republican-controlled General Assembly is failing Pennsylvanians by refusing to pass legislation to make voting more accessible, reduce gun violence and fairly pay and protect our workers,” Rementer told Spotlight PA. “Instead, they have spent the last several months passing terrible bills all while Pennsylvania’s minimum wage remains frozen at $7.25 an hour.”
Republicans say their agenda reflects the demands of their constituents and the current economy and call Wolf’s vetoes an attack on constitutional and civil rights.
After Wolf vetoed a bill that would have banned proof-of-vaccination requirements, Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre, and Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, released a statement saying the governor is “running roughshod” over the civil liberties of Pennsylvania residents.
Corman’s spokesperson referred questions for this story to Ward’s office, which declined to comment. A spokesperson for House Republicans did not respond to a request for comment.
In Wolf’s seven years in office, he has vetoed 54 bills and resolutions. Online records that date to 1975 show that Wolf has surpassed Democrat Bob Casey Sr.’s 50 vetoes between 1987 and 1995, but not Democrat Milton Shapp, who rejected more than 70 bills during his two terms in office.
The legislature can overturn a veto with a two-thirds vote, the standard in most states. It has failed to do so during Wolf’s time in office.
In 2015, Wolf’s first year as governor, his vetoes were primarily directed at the state budget. The protracted battle lasted until March 2016, when Wolf passively allowed a budget plan to become law.
The standoff set the tone for future clashes with lawmakers, but Wolf didn’t experience forceful pushback or attempts to limit his powers until the arrival of COVID-19.
In 2020, Wolf signed 140 bills into law, only 27 of which directly addressed problems brought on by the coronavirus. More than a third of Wolf’s vetoes — 19 — were issued that year, a spike that reflects fights over the administration’s public health measures, as well as the economic fallout of the pandemic.
As the Wolf administration shut down businesses to slow the spread of COVID-19 and keep hospitals from becoming overwhelmed — measures in line with public health guidance — Republicans with a handful of Democrats passed a number of bills to reopen parts of the economy.
Wolf vetoed those measures, as well as bills designating shooting ranges as life-sustaining businesses, allowing local schools to set their own policies on sporting events, and giving counties control over COVID-19 mitigation strategies.
Angry over Wolf’s rejections, Republicans went for the nuclear option: a resolution to unilaterally end the state’s COVID-19 disaster declaration.
When the state Supreme Court ruled that the legislature didn’t have that power, Republican lawmakers launched a push for two constitutional amendments to give the majority that ability. Both were successful.
In 2022, GOP leaders are queuing up even more proposed changes to the constitution — at times in response to Wolf’s vetoes — including one mandating voter ID and another that would eliminate statewide elections for appellate judges.
The uptick in proposed changes belies the lengthy and intensive process of amending the state constitution.
First, both the House and Senate must pass the resolution in two separate legislative sessions before it goes to voters. If a majority approves the amendment — and it survives any court challenges — it goes into effect.
But unlike overriding a veto, the amendment process requires consent from only a simple majority of lawmakers and voters. Once they are on the ballot, usually in low-turnout elections, these amendments rarely fail.
Critics of the tactic argue that amending the constitution to evade a veto undermines the balance of power between the legislature and the governor.
Khalif Ali, executive director of the nonpartisan good-government organization Common Cause PA, told Spotlight PA in October that the legislature is attempting to “leech” power from the other branches of government.
“They’re using the constitutional amendment to pass legislation they can’t pass through the traditional and appropriate way,” Ali said, calling it unethical.
Democrats have criticized the Republican-proposed amendments as an attempt to exclude the minority party from policymaking. Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, said amendments undermine the executive’s duty to represent the entire state, a job that differs from that of lawmakers, who represent only their constituents.
“These efforts are an end-run around our constitution,” Costa said in a statement. “They’re seeking single-party rule in Pennsylvania, and that’s not healthy for a democracy.”
Republican lawmakers have countered that constitutional amendments ultimately give Pennsylvanians the power to decide policy.
“I believe that, at the end of the day, that people always have the right to decide how to be governed,” House Speaker Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, said in December.
One proposed amendment moving through the legislature would alter what happens when lawmakers vote to disapprove a state regulation. At the moment, the governor can veto such resolutions, leaving it to the legislature to gather a two-thirds majority.
State Rep. Eric Nelson, R-Westmoreland, in December argued that the bar is too high.
“The idea that it takes a two-thirds majority of the General Assembly to stop a regulation or order that the majority would never start in the first place proves how unbalanced the process is in the first place,” Nelson said.
Still, Sam Chen, an assistant professor of political science at Northampton Community College and host of the talk show Face the Issues, said Wolf’s vetoes are a sign that checks and balances are working.
Because one party does not have enough votes to overturn a veto alone, majority and minority parties are encouraged to work together with the governor to pass bipartisan policy — in theory.
Wolf did sign more than 100 bills and resolutions in 2021, including nearly 20 renaming bridges and highways, a COVID-19 relief package and a recent measure creating an agency dedicated to expanding broadband coverage in the state.
But the Republican majorities also advanced bills that had no chance of becoming law in support of popular conservative priorities, such as restricting voting access, curtailing abortion rights and allowing permitless concealed carry.
Lawmakers sometimes pass legislation that they know will be vetoed, but Chen defended this move, saying it’s a way for legislators to respond to voters.
“There’s definitely political jockeying for future political aspirations, but also a need to answer to constituents,” he said.
— Spotlight PA reporter Danielle Ohl contributed to this article.
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