The Daily Brew: COVID-aftermath – emergency powers amendments on the ballot

Welcome to the Tuesday, March 16, Brew. Here’s what’s in store for you as you start your day:

  1. Constitutional amendments related to emergency powers on the ballot
  2. Partisan majority to change on NJ Supreme Court
  3. Milwaukee school board incumbent not on ballot due to signature shortfall

Constitutional amendments related to emergency powers on the ballot

Governors and state legislatures have used emergency powers in a variety of ways to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. Three constitutional amendments increasing the legislature’s or decreasing the governor’s emergency powers have been certified for the ballot in two states—Pennsylvania and Utah. 

Pennsylvania voters will decide two ballot measures on May 18.

Both measures arose from conflicts between Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf (D) and the Republican-controlled General Assembly over the governor’s emergency powers and the legislature’s role in emergency orders.

  • One proposal would limit a governor’s emergency declaration to 21 days unless the legislature votes to extend the order. 
  • The other would allow the legislature to pass a resolution, which the governor cannot veto, to terminate the governor’s emergency declaration.

Background: In June 2020, the General Assembly passed a concurrent resolution to end Wolf’s coronavirus emergency declaration. On July 1, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that Wolf could veto it, which he did on July 14. A two-thirds vote would have been required to overturn the veto.

In Pennsylvania, a simple majority vote is required in two successive sessions of the state legislature to place a constitutional amendment on the ballot. The two amendments noted above were combined with the Equal Rights Regardless of Race or Ethnicity Amendment in a bill the House and Senate passed on July 14 and 15, respectively. The House passed the bill, 115-86, with 86 Democrats opposing and seven supporting. The Senate passed it, 33-17, with 17 Democrats opposing and four supporting. The Senate passed the bill again in January, 28-20, with 20 Democrats opposed and one supporting. The House passed it in February, 116-86, with 86 Democrats opposing and four supporting. 

Utah voters will decide an amendment on Nov. 8, 2022, that would:

  • Increase the limit on appropriations the legislature can make in an emergency session from 1% to 5% of the total amount the legislature appropriated for the immediately preceding completed fiscal year 
  • Exempt emergency federal funding from the limit
  • Eliminate the limit on how much spending the legislature could cut during a special session 

In Utah, both chambers of the state legislature need to pass a constitutional amendment by a two-thirds vote during one legislative session to refer it to the ballot. The House approved this amendment on Feb. 25 by a vote of 68 to 5. The Senate passed the measure unanimously on March 5.

Voters approved an amendment in 2018 that allowed the legislature to call a special session and put the 1% limit on appropriations and cuts. In 2020, the Utah Legislature convened for four special sessions to address the COVID-19 pandemic. The governor called two sessions, meaning the appropriation limit didn’t apply. The legislature called the other two sessions under the 2018 amendment’s provisions. Those sessions were subject to the appropriations limit.

Five other states have proposed amendments related to emergency powers that could make the ballot: Arizona, California, Idaho, Maine, and Michigan. 

Read on 

Partisan majority to change on NJ Supreme Court

New Jersey Supreme Court Justice Jaynee LaVecchia scheduled her retirement for Aug. 31, 2021. Governor Phil Murphy (D) will nominate her replacement on the seven-member court. The court will switch from a 4-3 majority of justices appointed by Republican governors to a 4-3 majority of justices appointed by Democratic governors.

Under New Jersey law, governors nominate replacements to fill supreme court vacancies. The state Senate confirms nominees. Newly appointed judges serve for seven years, after which they may be reappointed to serve until age 70, the mandatory retirement age.

Governor Christine Todd Whitman (R) appointed Justice LaVecchia in 2000. Gov. Chris Christie (R) appointed three judges on the court. Democratic Govs. Jon Corzine, James McGreevey, and Phil Murphy each appointed one current justice.

Twenty-six state supreme courts have Republican majorities, 16 have Democratic majorities, and eight have split or indeterminate majorities. Michigan’s court shifted from a Republican to a Democratic majority in the 2020 elections. Click here for Ballotpedia’s state court partisanship study.

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Milwaukee school board incumbent not on ballot due to signature shortfall

On April 6, voters in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, will select four new members of the nine-member school board. Three incumbents did not file for re-election and the fourth, Annie Woodward (District 4), did not submit the required number of signatures to appear on the ballot.

Milwaukee Election Commission executive director Claire Woodall-Vogg said Woodward submitted 461 signatures, of which 283 were valid and 178 were invalid, dropping Woodward below the 400 signatures required. Woodall-Vogg said the invalid signatures came from voters who either did not live in District 4 or who did not sign with a full name.

Two of the four elections—Districts 4 and 5—are contested, with two candidates running in each. 

Milwaukee is also holding an election for municipal judge on April 6. Milwaukee County is holding elections for circuit court judges and a special election for the county board of supervisors. Other elections in Wisconsin that day include the superintendent of public instruction election, two state legislative special elections, and three intermediate appellate court elections.

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