Mon, Jan 23, 2023 5:11 PM
By Christen Smith, The Center Square
A Pennsylvania survivor-turned-lawmaker asked his fellow Republicans to unbundle three constitutional amendments this week to ensure statute of limitations reform ends up on the May primary ballot.
State Rep. Jim Gregory, R-Hollidaysburg, pleaded with the House Republican Policy Committee on Monday to separate the issue from two other amendments – voter ID and regulatory reform – that Democrats reject.
During his gripping testimony, Gregory detailed the lifelong impact he and other survivors face – including his own brother, who died of a cocaine overdose in the 1980s.
“We found out years later that he had shared with my sister, eight years younger – unbeknownst to all of us – that he had been sexually abused at 15 by a 30-year-old man who befriended my family and took him to the local racetrack because my brother liked to watch the races,” Gregory said.
“That was many years ago, but when I’m here today, I can at least go home to my dad and say that he didn’t die in vain – that I can talk for him,” he added.
Gregory – along with House Speaker Mark Rozzi, D-Temple – sponsored a constitutional amendment in 2021 to open a two-year window in which adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse could sue their perpetrators in civil court.
The effort passed comfortably in the last legislative session, but a decision to package the proposal with two other amendments eviscerated Democratic support. The breakdown means the chamber – now at a standstill as Rozzi seeks public input on operating rules to break the gridlock – could miss the statutory deadline to approve the measure in time for the primary election this spring.
Gregory clarified he supports all three amendments, but couldn’t bear to see the issue delayed.
Committee Chairman Rep. Joshua Kail, R-Beaver, blamed the former gubernatorial administration for botching the process in early 2021 – an error that forced the Department of State to drop it from that year’s primary election ballot.
“It’s a very unfortunate situation that we are still dealing with this and that’s the facts of the situation we have,” he said Monday.
Opening a two-year retroactive window for adult survivors to sue their childhood abusers in civil court has been mired in legislative gridlock since 2018.
Failure to again secure approval for the resolution in both chambers of the legislature means the two-year clock on the amendments will start all over – a risk Democrats argue lawmakers should avoid by decoupling the issues into standalone bills.
“Bundling measures like voter ID and regulatory changes with the survivor measure demonstrates that Republicans were disingenuous when they took a public pledge last August to prioritize the survivor amendment and are now leveraging survivors of childhood sexual abuse for their own partisan political gain,” said Nicole Reigelman, spokeswoman for House Democratic Leader Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia.
During floor debate earlier this month, Republicans in the Senate said critics were willing to scuttle "long overdue" justice for abuse survivors to keep voter ID and regulatory reforms off the ballot.
"We are putting these questions before the voters, so what are you afraid of?" said Sen. Wayne Langerholc Jr., R-Richland Twp. "Move this process forward. This can be on the ballot in May. Move this process forward, let the voters of Pennsylvania decide these questions."
Erica Clayton Wright, spokeswoman for Senate President Kim Ward, R-Greensburg, pointed to a study that estimated the policy could cost taxpayers as much as $32.5 billion dollars.
Abandoning the constitutional amendment process and instead passing legislation “bypasses” voters, she said, describing the idea as “inconsiderate.”
Senate Republicans also insist legal challenges would prevent any bill they may pass from ever becoming law.
The risk didn’t deter former Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, who called for a special session on Jan. 9 to settle the issue. Republicans rebuffed the request, pointing to the prior amendment’s broad support.
Except, Rozzi said he won’t further the adoption of the House’s operating rules without legislative action on the issue.
“The House Democratic Caucus remains committed to keeping that public pledge – with no strings attached,” Reigelman said. “It is shameful to make that commitment contingent on partisan policy agendas because survivors have waited too long for justice.”
With no rules in place, the chamber can’t vote. The stalemate prompted a five-week break in the Senate after leadership cleared what was once a packed schedule.
Rozzi ascended to leadership earlier this month after Gregory nominated him. It was a deal that saw a narrow, and temporary, majority of Republicans vote for a Democratic House Speaker – the highest-ranking position in the chamber.
Gregory later said Rozzi betrayed him after the longtime Democrat backpedaled on a promise to switch his affiliation to independent and caucus with neither party. Rozzi deflected this criticism last week, insisting he could “lead independently” without leaving his party.
Editor's Note: The article was updated to reflect the length of delay the constitutional amendment will face; and clarify Senate Republican leadership's position on the legislative path.