Op/Ed: The Constitution and why it matters

By Dan Truitt, State Representative, 156th District)


State Rep. Dan Truitt (R-156).

The longer I have been in Harrisburg, the more often I’ve found myself voting against pieces of legislation because I believe they violate the state or federal constitutions.  Hanging directly above the computer screen in my West Chester office is a copy of the oath that I first took in January 2011: “I do solemnly swear that I will support, obey and defend the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of this Commonwealth and that I will discharge the duties of my office with fidelity.” 

Ironically, sticking to this oath often means voting against legislation that I would otherwise support.  For example, on April 11, 2011, I voted for House Bill 707, which authorized counties to abolish the office of the jury commissioner if they so desired.  On June 24, 2011, I voted for House Bill 1644 to authorize local governments to sell vehicles and other equipment through online auctions.  For some reason, the Senate amended the jury commission legislation into the online auction bill and sent it back to the House for concurrence.  This, in my view, violated the “Single Subject Rule” of our state constitution, requiring all bills to cover only a single subject.  This is a great rule that prevents a lot of legislative mischief.  Because I felt that the new version violated the state constitution, I was obligated to vote against it, even though I previously supported both bills when they were separate. 

In March 2013, the state Supreme Court ruled that the enacted version of the bill (Act 108) violated the single subject rule, and the law was overturned.  Since then, I have analyzed bills with even more rigor when it comes to compliance with the state Constitution.  Most recently, I was forced to vote against the entire 2016-17 budget because I felt that it violated Article VIII, Section 13, which reads: “Operating budget appropriations made by the General Assembly shall not exceed the actual and estimated revenues and surplus available in the same fiscal year.”  When we voted on the spending side of the 2016-17 budget, the spending totaled $31.6 billion.  Our actual and estimated revenues totaled only $30.3 billion – $1.3 billion short.  So, it did not matter what was in the bill, I was obliged to vote NO.  

Why does this matter to my constituents?  It’s simple.  The state constitution was enacted by the people through ballot referendum.  It acts as the people’s tool to keep legislators in check.  Lawmakers must not circumvent it.   Without the single-subject rule, for example, the Legislature can easily attach bad legislation that can’t pass on its own merits to something else with broad support, and the people get stuck with bad results.  If we get into the habit of passing spending bills without knowing where we are going to get the money, we risk the financial security of the entire Commonwealth.  Every year, we could find ourselves allowing spending plans with larger and larger shortfalls to become law until we finally end up in a situation where we can’t reach an agreement on a corresponding revenue plan. 

As soon as we start ignoring parts of the Constitution because we find it inconvenient, the document becomes meaningless, and the people lose control over their own government.  This must not be allowed to happen, and I will continue to oppose legislation that I feel violates the state or federal constitutions, even if it’s legislation I otherwise like.

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