Time is running out for a sexual harassment amendment to be placed on Pennsylvania’s November ballot

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HARRISBURG — A long-awaited constitutional amendment that would give victims of childhood sexual abuse a chance to sue their abusers will not be on the November ballot unless lawmakers pass it next month.

Members of the divided legislature remain at an impasse. They generally agree that voters should have the opportunity to consider the proposal, but they are divided on how to implement it.

Democrats who control the state House of Representatives want to ask voters a single question about opening the lawsuit window, while Republican leaders say the fraud amendment should be introduced alongside other GOP priorities, including an expanded voter ID requirement.

The issue has been on the body’s agenda for almost two decades and came tantalizingly close to voters a few years ago, only to be dismissed derailed by Wolf’s administration error.

Survivors say the lack of movement prevents them from completing this story.

“Our elected leaders are disrespecting us and it’s horrible for us,” Shaun Dougherty, a survivor activist from western Pennsylvania, told Spotlight PA.

The proposed amendment would give adults who were sexually abused as children a narrow time to seek monetary compensation in court from those who abused them or protected the perpetrator.

A 2019 law raised the maximum age at which victims of childhood abuse could bring a civil lawsuit against their abusers from 30 to 55. However, people who were victims of violence long ago have few recourse options.

Many survivors say they were not yet ready to publicly confront the effects of abuse, even though they had the opportunity to file a lawsuit.

The process for approving constitutional amendments by the Commonwealth is cumbersome. First, the General Assembly must pass identical language in two consecutive two-year sessions. The Pennsylvania Department of State is required to run newspaper ads about the amendment after each legislative passage.

Once these requirements are met, the amendment is sent to voters for consideration.

In an email, a Pennsylvania Department of State spokesman said the agency must have newspaper ads by Aug. 5 to meet the requirement. Writing a elementary description of the fix and placing ads takes additional time.

That would require a quick response from lawmakers, who are in the midst of budget negotiations and preparing for the November elections to hold a second round of approvals on the amendment.

If they don’t act in the next month, lawmakers will have one last chance to pass the amendment before they have to start the process over again. If it passes by the end of this legislative session in November, the proposal would appear on the ballot in the 2025 primary election.

Otherwise, the amendment process will have to start over, meaning the earliest the question could appear on the ballot is 2027.

Good-government advocates and Democrats generally oppose placing proposed constitutional amendments on the ballot in odd-numbered years due to low turnout.

State Rep. Mark Rozzi (D., Berks), a survivor of abuse and an advocate on the issue, said he prefers not to go down that route and fears that a growing anti-initiative campaign would have more influence in a low-turnout election.

He added that there would be “more sensible voters” in the general election, interested in the principle of action rather than politics.

Lawmakers could also create a window to sue through customary legislation, an idea opposed by some Republican leaders who say such a law would be unconstitutional. Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro, who would have to sign such a bill, says he supports either path.

The state House recently took action on the issue by amending an unrelated state statute. Senate bill last week of the week to account for the lookback window. Members sent it back to the upper chamber for consideration in a bipartisan vote Wednesday, with all Democrats and more than 40 Republicans voting in favor.

The change was spearheaded by state Rep. Jim Gregory (R., Blair), a childhood abuse survivor who has advocated for the issue since being elected to the Legislature in 2018.

“We have an opportunity to rewrite the ending of this story,” Gregory told a House of Representatives hearing.

Related to unrelated issues

Previous sessions have seen heated debates over whether to amend the statute of limitations on claims, with hefty lobbying from the state Catholic Conference and insurers who feared the cost of lawsuits and argued that it was unconstitutional.

Things began to change after then-Attorney General Shapiro released a 2018 grand jury report documenting how the Catholic Church covered up child abuse by priests, which led to broad bipartisan support in the state House for a civil window.

Republican leaders in the state Senate, echoing outside groups, said implementing the lookback window through legislation would violate the state constitution and bankrupt nonprofits, but they relented on an agreement that the legislation would be passed as an amendment rather than a bill.

Entering this legislative session, the amendment’s biggest conflicts seemed resolved. It received broad bipartisan support in previous floor votes and was kept off the 2021 ballot only because significant advertising error by the Pennsylvania Department of State.

But the session has brought recent complications due to largely unrelated politics. The Republican-controlled state Senate has said it would advance the lawsuit only if the proposal also authorizes referendums on expanding voter ID requirements and making it easier for the Legislature to reject implementing legislation.

In 2022, with both chambers controlled by Republicans, the Legislature advanced voter ID and regulation amendments. If the state House had agreed to advance them, they would have been put to voters as separate ballot questions.

However, House Democrats rejected the proposal to apply these measures together, arguing that all three should be considered individually.

Both sides are entrenched.

State Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman (R., Ind.) told reporters in June that he would not allow a vote on the matter “unless our friends in the House share our view.” Rozzi told Spotlight PA that “it’s really up to Joe Pittman whether he wants to release the hostages.”

The end of this legislative session will also bring a significant change for “lawsuit window” advocates — the amendment’s two biggest supporters in the state House, Gregory and Rozzi, will not be lawmakers in 2025.

Gregory lost in the primary election to a more conservative contenderand Rozzi decided not to run for re-election.

Gregory and Rozzi had championed the issue in recent years, although they had fallen out over a short-lived deal Gregory brokered that put Rozzi in the GOP-backed speaker’s seat. Rozzi resigned shortly thereafter, handing over control to another Democrat.

Gregory publicly parted ways with Rozzi over the deal. But both lawmakers told Spotlight PA they have since spoken; Gregory added that Rozzi apologized to him earlier this year.

“He didn’t have to do it, but I always knew he would,” Gregory said.

However, the problem will not be without supporters of the legislation. Two legislators, state representatives. Maureen Madden (D., Monroe) and La’Tasha Mayes (D., Allegheny) shared their own stories of how they survived abuse last year.

Rozzi added that Democrat Nathan Davidson, who is running for a state House seat the party is likely to win, has also expressed interest in supporting the proposal.

Davidson said he hopes the statute of limitations issue “won’t be a bill I have to support next session,” but he has already talked to Mayes about working together on the issue.

“It should be finished [last] “session,” Davidson told Spotlight PA. “But we’re here, it’s not over yet. Every year we lose more survivors. And every year there are more victims.”

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