Regardless of party affiliation, voters in Tuesday’s primary will be asked to weigh in on four ballot questions. Three are proposed amendments to Pennsylvania’s constitution, and one is a referendum that would allow the commonwealth’s municipal fire and rescue companies to draw loans from the same fund that volunteer companies currently use.
Let’s get the easy part out of the way first.
Without question, voters should support the referendum that would let professionally staffed municipal fire and rescue services, like those in the city of Washington and Uniontown, tap into the Volunteer Loan Assistance Program. The fund was established in 1976 to allow volunteer companies to upgrade their equipment or maintain and expand their buildings. It makes perfect sense to allow municipal companies to access the same loan fund, which is frequently raided to cover other state expenses. It will not prevent volunteer services from getting loans, and fire companies in neither Pittsburgh nor Philadelphia access the fund, because they pay for fire department improvements through municipal bonds. It’s supported by the Pennsylvania Professional Firefighters Association and the Pennsylvania Career Fire Chiefs Association, was unanimously supported in the General Assembly and has stirred no organized opposition.
There’s also a proposed amendment that would prohibit discrimination based on race or ethnicity. Sixteen other state constitutions have similar amendments, and Pennsylvania should join them. There are federal statutes prohibiting discrimination based on race and ethnicity, and non-discrimination clauses within the state constitution. This amendment would spell out clearly that Pennsylvania does not countenance bigotry and intolerance based on race or ethnicity. Who, in the 21st century, could object to that?
Then, there are two constitutional amendments that would curtail the governor’s powers in an emergency. One would end disaster declarations after 21 days and prevent the extension of the emergency without approval of the Legislature, and the second amendment would give the Legislature the power to end or extend a disaster declaration without the governor’s approval.
As COVID-19 slowly starts to ebb and life returns to normal, the battles over restrictions and masking will soon be in the past. But the once-in-a-century pandemic has exposed how too much power has been put in the hands of the executive branch during emergencies. While the General Assembly does have the power to terminate the governor’s emergency orders, it would take a two-thirds vote in both chambers to pull that off. This would change it to a simple majority.
And while the constitutional amendments have been placed on the ballot in the wake of Gov. Tom Wolf’s actions during the pandemic over the last year, they would restore a balance of power between both co-equal branches of government in the decades ahead. One day, there could well be a Republican governor facing a Democratic Legislature, and these constitutional amendments will be applicable in that scenario, too.
Voters should vote “YES” on all four ballot questions Tuesday.