Shapiro in Wonderland – Down The Rabbit Hole in Harrisburg?

By Dr. Charles Greenawalt

Recently in The Philadelphia Inquirer, a former staffer in the Casey Administration, displayed a lively imagination in proposing to rewrite the Pennsylvania Constitution.  As time passes in the Biden Era, we see an increasing number of politicians and political pundits who delight in reshaping government constitutions, laws, institutions, and practices to meet their purposes of the moment.  When it is inconvenient for a political party or a set of government leaders to abide by our accepted national or state constitution or by existing law, there are increasing numbers of government leaders who believe they are Lewis Carroll.

This writer agreed with Lewis Carroll’s declaration in “Alice in Wonderland” that “Imagination is the only weapon in the war with reality.”  This line of reasoning continues in the text with the assertion that “I am not crazy; my reality is just different from yours.”  Certainly, the editorial entitled, “How Shapiro can get justice for PA survivors of child sex abuse,” illustrates the author’s lively imagination of how to address a policy question that has perplexed the Commonwealth for many years—child sex abuse.  The writer used his imagination in addressing a present reality by disregarding Commonwealth practice and the directions of the state Constitution with a prescription of his own reality that would, as he admits, lead to a Court challenge with more judicial consideration and the continuation of the present situation that many of these victims currently find themselves in.

Earlier this year, the State Senate and House were unable to pass legislation that would have placed before voters a proposed Constitutional amendment that would create a two-year window allowing adults to sue for damages for sexual abuse that occurred when they were minors and the statute of limitations had already lapsed. In order for a Constitutional amendment to be put before the voters, the legislation proposing it has to be passed by both chambers  of the General Assembly, and then it must be advertised three months before the election in which it will be considered. With the date of the Fall election on November 7, that advertising deadline is August 7. At this time, it does not appear that voters will be voting on this proposal during the Fall, since the measure has not passed the General Assembly.

However, some are calling for Governor Shapiro to bypass the required legislative pathway for placing a Constitutional amendment on the ballot and instead declare that the legislature has already completed its role in the amendment process and instruct the Secretary of the Commonwealth to advertise the measure for the November election.

Besides raising clear legal questions and a definite court challenge, some major issues regarding this measure are whether it navigated the correct way through the legislature or illegally bypassed the State Senate by virtue of a Governor’s “declaration” to have it placed on the ballot.

Other public policy questions loom over this legislation.  Most prominently, the cost of this measure for Pennsylvania taxpayers if it would be approved by lawmakers and ultimately, the voters.

The Susquehanna Valley Center for Public Policy, a non-partisan, non-profit public research group,  released an academic study earlier this year showing that removing the statute of limitations on filing a claim for a two-year window can result in total claims ranging from $5 billion to $32.5 billion statewide.

Sexual abuse has been an on-going problem for years nationwide. In the first half of 2022 over 180 school educators in the United States were arrested for various sex crimes. Pennsylvania is among the top states in the nation with respect to such crimes. A large number of claims would probably be filed against Pennsylvania school districts.  If the rate of abuse in public school matches that of Catholic schools, our research expects 10,000 claims to be filed. The U. S. Department of Education, however, speculates that the problem in public schools is 100 times that of Catholic schools.

Dr. Peter Zaleski, Ph.D., Professor of Economics at Villanova University and an Associated Scholar with the Susquehanna Valley Center, was the study’s main researcher and his research shows that with a change in reporting procedures for sexual abuse cases, there may be between 10,000 to 15,000 claims and on the higher end up to 100,000 claims filed against Pennsylvania school districts. Analyzing 20 cases from 2012-2020, the report notes that the average award per claim is estimated to be $325,000 to $500,000 per claimant.

Who will pay to settle these claims?   Pennsylvania taxpayers will – mainly through an increase in school taxes to cover the awards that school districts would have to pay for past cases.

Taxpayers could be responsible for paying for sexual abuse awards of cases that are 50 years old or older and the price tag for taxpayers could be substantial.

At a time when people are struggling financially – unable to purchase homes, trying to pay for rising energy costs, paying more at the supermarket – taxpayers would have to dig deeper into their pockets to pay for increased school taxes to cover possibly up to $32.5 billion in claims.

This substantial financial cost is one that Pennsylvania voters and taxpayers may wish to consider. While the costs of addressing this long-standing problem were not addressed until Susquehanna’s study, the calculation of the possible costs is in no way presented to take anything away from the pain and suffering of the victims. Ironically, when victims are given awards in cases against past public employees, the awards will be paid by the taxpayers of today, not the perpetrators from the past.

Carroll explains the essay’s prescription when viewed from the Commonwealth’s historic practice on Constitutional amendments with a snippet from Alice’s exploration of Wonderland, “…my reality is just different from yours.”  Events in Harrisburg might be becoming “curiouser and curiouser.”

Dr. Greenawalt serves as the Senior Fellow of The Susquehanna Valley Center for Public Policy. He is a retired Government Professor from Millersville University.

Nothing contained here should be considered as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any legislation before the General Assembly.