Four primary ballot questions explained: Three Pa. constitutional amendments, referendum

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(WHTM) — The 2021 May primary election is less than a week away. In addition to local, municipal, and judicial elections on the ballot, Pennsylvania voters can expect four ballot questions — three of which have the potential to amend the state constitution.

The three proposed constitutional amendments will determine the future of Disaster Emergency Declarations, a Governor’s disaster declaration power and denial of equal rights based on race or ethnicity.

The fourth ballot question is a budget referendum that will determine if Pa. voters approve of making municipal fire companies with paid personnel and EMS companies eligible for loans, ultimately expanding the state’s loan applicant qualifications.

Merriam-Webster defines a referendum as, “the principle or practice of submitting to popular vote a measure passed on or proposed by a legislative body or by popular initiative.”

On May 18, all Pennsylvania voters are able to vote on the proposed referendum.

Prior to the May primary, municipal fire and EMS companies were unable to apply for loans under the current program. With this budget referendum, that could change.

According to the Pa. General Assembly, receiving financial assistance would allow municipal and volunteer companies to replace outdated or unsafe equipment and meet community standards.

Pennsylvania primary elections are closed, meaning only voters registered with a given political party can vote in that party’s primary. However, in this case, all Pennsylvania voters are able to vote on the statewide ballot questions — regardless of party affiliation.

The first proposed Constitutional amendment relates to the termination or extension of disaster emergency declarations in the commonwealth.

Ballot Question 1

Shall the Pennsylvania Constitution be amended to change existing law and increase the power of the General Assembly to unilaterally terminate or extend a disaster emergency declaration—and the powers of Commonwealth agencies to address the disaster regardless of its severity pursuant to that declaration—through passing a concurrent resolution by simple majority, thereby removing the existing check and balance of presenting a resolution to the Governor for approval or disapproval?

Pennsylvania Department of State

Simply put, according to the Office of the Pa. Attorney General, this constitutional amendment gives the state legislature the ability to determine whether or not disaster emergency declarations can be utilized in the future.

Governor Tom Wolf utilized this throughout the coronavirus pandemic as means to provide aid and response to state agencies, as well as recovery for the state.

Under a disaster emergency declaration, training requirements and licensure renewals for healthcare workers and other professional groups were temporarily suspended. Similarly, the declaration waived the one-week waiting period for Pennsylvanians to receive unemployment benefits. The Wolf Administration renewed the disaster declaration at least four times since March 2020.

The second proposed Constitutional amendment to be seen on the May 2021 primary ballot addresses the Governor’s emergency powers.

Ballot Question 2

Shall the Pennsylvania Constitution be amended to change existing law so that: a disaster emergency declaration will expire automatically 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?

Pennsylvania Department of State

In short, this amendment would add a new section to Article IV of the Pa. Constitution, ultimately gauging executive branch power.

Currently, Governor Wolf is the only person that can issue and manage disaster emergency declarations, which cannot extend past 90 days unless he renews them. While the General Assembly can override the Governor’s ability to declare a disaster emergency, Governor Wolf ultimately has the power to approve or veto their resolution.

Under this proposed change, Governor Wolf could still be granted this power, but he would be required to indicate the nature, location and type of disaster. It would also limit the duration of the disaster emergency declaration to 21 days. For more information about this proposed Constitutional amendment, visit the Pa. DOS page.

The third proposed Constitutional amendment, one that is disputed much less than the other two — if at all — by elected officials, would prohibit the denial or abridgment of equal rights because of race or ethnicity.

Ballot Question 3

Shall the Pennsylvania Constitution be amended by adding a new section providing that equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged because of an individual’s race or ethnicity?

Pennsylvania Department of State

According to the Pa. Department of State, by prohibiting this type of treatment, Pennsylvania voters have the ability to signify, within the state constitution, that “freedom from discrimination based on race or ethnicity is an essential principle of liberty and free government.”

This amendment applies to local, county and state governments, and acts independently from similar rights outlined in the U.S. Constitution.

According to Ballotpedia.org, Pennsylvania voters have not rejected a ballot question since 1993. For more details about the three constitutional amendments and ballot referendum, click here.

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