In addition to picking out their preferred primary candidates, Allegheny County residents heading to the polls May 18 will be faced with five ballot questions addressing a range of county and state-level issues.
Together, the slate of questions deals with governmental emergency powers, fire and ambulance service funding, racial discrimination policy and the use of solitary confinement in the Allegheny County Jail.
Whenever the General Assembly passes a law altering the state constitution, the proposed change has to be placed on an election ballot and approved by a majority of voters. Earlier this year, the house and senate both approved bills calling for changes to the language of the constitution in three places.
The first two amendments refer to the government’s emergency powers during crises like the current coronavirus pandemic.
One would enable legislators to terminate or extend disaster declarations by passing a joint resolution with simple majorities in both house and senate.
→ 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?
The second focuses on the similar but related issue of the governor’s executive power to declare and maintain a state of emergency. Whereas currently, the governor can declare an emergency for 90 days without legislative support and can continue to extend the period indefinitely, the amended text would limit disaster declarations to 21 days unless the assembly votes to extend it.
→ 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?
Unrelated, the third amendment spells out clear protections against receiving unequal treatment under law on account of race.
→ 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?
In addition to settling the constitutional amendments, Pennsylvania voters will also vote on a state law affecting fire department funding. The 100-word question asks residents whether a pool of money currently set aside for volunteer fire and ambulance company loans should be made available to paid departments as well.
→ Do you favor expanding the use of the indebtedness authorized under the referendum for loans to volunteer fire companies, volunteer ambulance services and volunteer rescue squads under 35PA.C.S.§7378.1 (related to referendum for additional indebtedness) to include loans to municipal fire departments or companies that provide services through paid personnel and emergency medical services companies for the purpose of establishing and modernizing facilities to house apparatus equipment, ambulances and rescue vehicles, and for purchasing apparatus equipment, ambulances and rescue vehicles, protective and communications equipment and any other accessory equipment necessary for the proper performance of the duties of the fire companies and emergency medical services companies?
In addition to the statewide questions, Allegheny County voters will decide whether to amend the county jail system’s solitary confinement policy.
→ Shall the Allegheny County Code, Chapter 205, Allegheny County Jail, be amended and supplemented to include a new Article III, which shall set forth standards governing conditions of confinement in the Allegheny County Jail?
If approved by voters, the amendment will prohibit solitary confinement of prisoners other than during documented emergencies, or other cases where it is deemed necessary on health or safety grounds. The amendment will also prohibit the use of restraining chairs, chemical agents or leg shackles and require the county jail warden to issue a monthly report on solitary confinement and lockdown instances.