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Voters to see 3 amendment questions on primary ballot

Warren County voters — regardless of party — will see three state Constitutional amendment referendums on the upcoming primary ballot.

Two are tied directly to the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The one not tied to the pandemic? A proposed addition “providing that equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged because of an individual’s race or ethnicity.”

According to a plain English statement from the Attorney General’s office, the amendment “signifies that freedom from discrimination based on race or ethnicity is an essential principle of liberty and free government

“If the current federal protections proscribing racial or ethnic discrimination are abolished, the prohibition against such discrimination will remain in the Pennsylvania Constitution. The amendment is limited in that it creates a right only under Pennsylvania law.”

The statement says that the only way to overturn this if approved would be by judicial decision or a subsequent constitutional amendment.

While that’s a largely non-partisan issue, the other two questions cannot be so described.

The first — an amendment to Article III, Section 9 relating to disaster declarations — would amend the constitution to “change existing law and increase the power of the General Assembly to unilaterally terminate or extend a disaster emergency declaration….”

Many members of the General Assembly have been opposed to Gov. Tom Wolf’s use of the disaster declaration throughout the pandemic which, so far, has been upheld when challenged in court. The issue has been a partisan flashpoint for months.

This change would require a “concurrent resolution by simple majority” of the General Assembly to override a disaster declaration. The ballot questions states that the change is “thereby removing the existing check and balance of presenting a resolution to the Governor for approval or disapproval.”

“The proposed amendment will also have the effect of reversing a recent ruling of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court which held the Pennsylvania Constitution prohibited the General Assembly from passing a concurrent resolution to terminate the Governor’s Covid-19 disaster emergency declaration without presenting it to the Governor for his approval,” according to the plain English statement from the AG’s office.

The third question is similar to the second and would amend the constitution to state that disaster declaration expire after 21 days “regardless of the severity of the emergency, unless the General Assembly takes action to extend the disaster emergency; the Governor may not declare a new disaster emergency to respond to the dangers facing the Commonwealth unless the General Assembly passes a concurrent resolution; the General Assembly enacts new laws for disaster management.”

According to the AG’s office, this would add a new section to Article IV.

“Currently, disaster emergency declaration and management powers are delegated by statute to the Governor. The Governor has the sole authority to issue and manage all disaster emergency declarations, which cannot extend beyond 90 days unless renewed by the Governor,” the statement explains.

“If approved, the amendment would transfer certain of the Governor’s existing authority to respond to and manage disaster emergencies to the General Assembly. The Governor would retain the authority to issue an initial disaster emergency declaration but the declaration’s permissible length would be reduced from 90 to 21 days,” per the AG’s office.

“The sole authority to extend a declaration would lie with the General Assembly; presently, this power rests with the Governor. Upon expiration of the initial declaration, the amendment prohibits the Governor from issuing a new declaration based upon the same or substantially similar facts without the approval of the General Assembly. The Governor would no longer have unilateral authority to manage disasters, but would have to do so consistent with the laws passed by the General Assembly.”

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