HARRISBURG – There has been vigorous debate over questions on the spring primary ballot that would amend the Pennsylvania Constitution to limit how long emergency declarations can last without legislative approval – and that’s good.
Amending the state Constitution, like curtailing civil liberties during an emergency, is a significant development in which robust discussion is not only welcome, but also essential.
It is precisely due to the lack of debate and collaboration regarding the pandemic response that these questions are now before the voters – an act that, itself, required debate, deliberation, and approval in two consecutive sessions of the General Assembly.
The questions as they will appear on the ballot were badly misworded by the Department of State, so it is important to know what you will be deciding.
Two questions on the ballot deal with emergency declarations. One would limit emergency declarations to 21 days unless the General Assembly – after debate and deliberation – votes to approve longer. The other would allow legislators – again, after debate and deliberation – to vote to end emergency declarations and limitations on citizens.
Currently, the governor alone wields that power.
Opponents to these amendments argue they are unnecessary, but I strongly disagree. Our governor has assumed absolute power over your lives because of a pandemic, and there surely is a need for governmental involvement, but that would require all the government. Our governor has refused to discuss his moves and his strategies with the legislature – your representatives in our government.
These proposed amendments are not partisan and not about restraining the current governor. No governor, regardless of party, should be given unchecked power over people’s lives and livelihoods.
No governor, regardless of party, is infallible. The shutdown of employers in Pennsylvania were among the most draconian in the nation. The management of COVID-19 in nursing homes was badly handled resulting in unnecessary deaths.
We need more debate and collaboration, and these amendments would provide it.
Let the people finally have their say. Don’t forget Pennsylvania’s independent and third-party voters are eligible to vote on these ballot questions. Current law does not permit Independent or many third-party voters to cast ballots in most primary elections. However, all registered voters are eligible to weigh in on Constitutional amendments.
Let us not fear debate. To be sure, the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc across the commonwealth and the nation. It took lives, threw millions out of work and temporarily, further divided our already fractured republic.
I use the word “temporarily” because the bruising debates don’t have to become permanent civic wounds. Whether they will is up to us, and we have reason to be optimistic that they will not.
That’s because the tension between safety and liberty is as old as our republic itself. While not always pretty, the debates over balancing the need to protect public health with safeguarding our freedom are the sign of a healthy society. We will know our nation is truly in trouble when civil liberties are restricted indefinitely without questions asked, or we are so divided that effective public health protections are impossible. That is not where we are.
Again, don’t consider this an issue of any particular governor or party. While the current governor is a Democrat, he leaves office in 21 months. Voters decide the makeup of the General Assembly every two years. The need for taking unilateral power out of the hands of one person and dispersing it among many is crucial regardless of who is in office.
Two other questions on the ballot are clearly worded, uncontentious, and are worthy of support. One would amend the Pennsylvania Constitution to bring it in line with the U.S. Constitution in prohibiting the denial of equal rights based on race or ethnicity. The other asks if Pennsylvania should expand its loan program for volunteer fire and EMS companies to provide municipal departments with loans for facilities, equipment, and more.
I strongly believe in the need to make these constitutional changes, and I have heard from fellow citizens who disagree. It is open, vigorous debate that creates solid policy and prevents the misuse of power.
When it comes to emergency declarations and limits on civil liberties, I think more voices – representing the will of the people – make for better emergency response and more enduring freedom.
For more information on Senator Mensch’s legislation, visit www.senatormensch.com. State updates can also be found on Senator Mensch’s Facebook at facebook.com/PASenatorBobMensch/ or Twitter @SenatorMensch.
CONTACT: Madison Scarfaro firstname.lastname@example.org (215) 541-2388