Op/Ed: State violations

Elected officials in Pennsylvania start their terms by taking an oath of office wherein they pledge to uphold, obey, and defend the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the Commonwealth. This is important because these documents set the boundaries for elected officials.

Unfortunately, once elected officials take their hands off their bibles, many quickly forget that oath and proceed with doing whatever they want. Here are just a few examples:

Article III, Section 3 of the State Constitution begins: “No bill shall be passed containing more than one subject…”

This is an important part of our state Constitution that is sorely lacking in the U.S. Constitution. It serves to prevent legislators from sneaking a bad idea through the legislature by attaching it to a good idea that most legislators would not be willing to oppose.

In December of 2011, however, the state Senate attached legislation allowing counties to eliminate the office of Jury Commissioner to a bill that allows municipalities to sell surplus equipment via on-line auctions. Both were good ideas, but it was obvious that the merging of the bills violated the single-subject rule. Still, HB1644 passed 149 to 40. Almost two years later, Act 108 of 2011 was unanimously overturned by the state supreme court because, big surprise, it violated the single-subject rule.

Article III, Section 24 of the State Constitution begins: “No money shall be paid out of the treasury, except on appropriations made by law…”

Yet, during the 2015 budget impasse, which lasted over six months, the governor continued spending on the things that worked in his favor, including legislative salaries. So, the legislature did nothing about it.

Article VIII, Section 13 of the state Constitution begins: “Operating budget appropriations made by the General Assembly shall not exceed the actual and estimated revenues and surplus available in the same fiscal year.”

In other words, the legislature is not permitted to pass an appropriation bill that spends more than projected revenues plus whatever is in the bank. Yet, the General Appropriation Act of 2016 (SB1073) was passed on June 30 of 2016. At the time of passage, the legislators had no idea how much money was available to spend because the companion revenue bill (HB1198) didn’t pass until July 13.

The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution begins with: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated…”

However, not long ago, our state legislature considered legislation to bring back the registration stickers on our license plates because expired stickers gave police officers an excuse to stop vehicles and search them for evidence of other crimes.

Dan Truitt

Although the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution specifies that no state shall “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws”, the Pennsylvania legislature regularly passes laws that impose harsher penalties on individuals who commit crimes against certain specific groups of individuals, including legislators, who surely must be more equal than the folks who are not afforded this same protection.

Most recently, the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court struck down Act 77, the law that established Pennsylvania’s no-excuse mail-in voting option. In the end, this Commonwealth Court ruling may very well be overturned by the State Supreme Court. The constitutionality of Act 77 is debatable. What’s striking about this case is that 11 of the 14 Republican state legislators who filed the lawsuit against Act 77 voted for the bill that made it law. What does this say about the decision-making process of legislators in Harrisburg? Did they not consider constitutionality when they were deciding to vote for the bill? Maybe they did, but decided not to rock the party boat? (Only two Republicans voted against the bill.)

Maybe they didn’t think about it until after mail-in voting turned out to be a bad thing for Republicans? I’m struggling to decide whether these legislators are winners for realizing the err of their ways or weasels for voting for the bill before thinking about whether it was constitutional.

A complete list of examples where our legislators have ignored our constitutions would fill volumes. Frankly, we expect this from Democrats, but in their defense, they don’t spend a lot of time talking about defending constitutions. However, the Republicans pay a lot of lip service to defend these constitutions. Then, they ignore them when they’re inconvenient.

Sometimes, defending the Constitution requires a legislator to cast an unpopular vote. But that would force them to explain that vote and that can be hard work.

Although we don’t have any (big L) Libertarians in the state or federal legislatures, we do have some (small L) libertarians sprinkled among the others. They tend to be a little prickly, vote against their parties, and their colleagues often view them with disdain because they won’t just go along to get along. I’d love to see these legislators and their supporters abandon their donkeys and elephants, climb out of their partisan trenches, and join me in the party of the porcupine.

Dan Truitt
East Goshen Township
Dan Truitt is a former Pennsylvania state representative for the 156th Legislative District that includes Birmingham Township.

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