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Voters have 3 questions to consider on May 18

Thanks to the presence of three questions on the May 18 Pennsylvania primary ballot, we nonaligned-registered voters will have at least some say in governance.

Under normal circumstances, unless you are a registered Republican or Democrat, or if your third party qualifies for ballot positioning, you cannot vote in Pennsylvania’s closed primaries. The exception is the circumstance that arises in years such as this one where there are questions to decide.

This is considered an “off year” election, but the name is deceiving. Although we will not be voting for the president, members of Congress or members of the General Assembly, there are important local elections involving county, municipal and school board offices, and there is an important opening on the state Supreme Court, as well as openings on the other state appellate courts - Superior and Commonwealth.

As for the questions, one of them should yield an overwhelming “yes” vote since it would incorporate into state law protections against discrimination based on race and gender.

The other two would limit a governor’s emergency disaster declaration. The Republican-controlled General Assembly has been extremely critical of this power vested in the executive branch on this issue, especially during the COVID-19 worldwide pandemic.

Republicans have accused the administration of Gov. Tom Wolf of imposing draconian restrictions on businesses and individuals that have resulted in failures and a faltering state economy.

Through it all, they say that Wolf has renewed his disaster declaration four times since last spring and did it without conferring with the legislative branch. Wolf just declared an extension of the declaration in February, which will last through the primaries.

So, to prevent future governors from doing this, Republicans, with some Democratic support, successfully shepherded two amendments through two consecutive sessions of the Legislature and have succeeded in having the questions be decided by us voters by a “yes” or “no” vote. Among the five Democratic legislators voting in favor was Sen. Lisa Boscola, D-Northampton and Lehigh.

Sounds pretty straightforward up until now, right? But here is where politics enters the picture - again. Republicans are complaining that the questions about the disaster declaration limitations have been phrased by the Department of State, an arm of the executive (governor’s) branch of government in such a way as to deliver a “no” vote.

“The governor is so desperate to cling to power that they crafted this language to mischaracterize the amendment,” said House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre.

State Rep. Zach Mako, R-Northampton and Lehigh, agrees. “The governor and Secretary of the Commonwealth have abused their discretion and inserted language into the constitutional amendment process intended to influence your vote in the May primary,” Mako said.

The amendment allows future governors to declare one 21-day emergency, but to renew it, they would require legislative approval.

Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland said Republicans are not trying to take away the governor’s power. “We’re trying to reinstate our equal branches of government. If there’s still an emergency going on, yes, the governor still has a state of emergency call, but we would get a seat at the table to look at things, too,” Ward added.

The text must be published several times in general circulation newspapers throughout the state. Quite frankly, however, whoever wrote the questions needs a good editor.

Here is what the first proposed amendment question asks: “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?”

What a mouthful! Most writing coaches strive for sentences in the 25- to 30-word range; this one has 74.

The companion question is equally lengthy: “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?”

Wolf spokesman Lyndsay Kensinger defended the wording, saying, “The ballot questions fairly, accurately and clearly apprise the voter of the issue to be voted on.”

Really? I’ll let you decide on “fairly” and “accurately,” but the wording is about as clear as mud.

By Bruce Frassinelli | tneditor@tnonline.com

The foregoing opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of the Editorial Board or Times News LLC.