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HomeHarrisburg 101

 Understanding Your State Government
      Harrisburg 101

The Pennsylvania Constitution(s)

Pennsylvania's First Constitution - The Spirit of '76??

Pennsylvania's earliest constitution, written in 1776, created an Executive Branch with a  12-member "Supreme Executive Council," a unicameral Legislature (only one chamber), and a President elected by the Legislature and council.   There was also a separate "Council of Censors" responsible for monitoring compliance with the constitution. The Council of Censors could open impeachment proceedings, propose constitutional amendments, and censure officials. 

If this system of state government doesn't sound familiar, that's because it only lasted for 14 years.  In 1790, the Council of Censors called for a new constitutional convention...

The 1790 PA Constitution (and beyond)

The 1790 PA Constitution established the basic state government structure we have today.  New constitutions in 1838, 1874, and 1968 made only minor changes. 

The PA Constitution Today
Pennsylvania's Constitution contains its own Bill of Rights, and sections or Articles  that define different aspects of our state government, including Taxation, Election Law, Local Government, and the three branches of State Government.    Amendments to the PA Constitution must be proposed by General Assembly and passed in a statewide popular vote.  The most recent amendments were passed in the May 2021 Primary.  

Benjamin Franklin was "President of Pennsylvania" from October 1785 to November 1788.


Franklin helped write the 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution which (radically) allowed non-landowners to vote and hold political office. It also shifted power away from the executive to a very strong legislature to try and give more control directly to these new voters. John Adams was one of many critics who worried that the new PA government structure was "so democratic that it must produce confusion and every evil work."

 The government of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is now very similar to the structure of the US Federal Government.  It has the same three branches -  Executive, Legislative, and Judicial  - and uses the same system of checks and balances on government power.   

  • The Executive Branch is made up of a Governor and Lieutenant Governor;
  • The Legislative Branch, or "General Assembly," has two chambers -- a House of Representatives, and a Senate;
  • The Judicial Branch has a hierarchical structure headed by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.  
Learn more with these resources:

The Pennsylvania Constitution Read the text of the current PA Constitution, (and find links to earlier versions) at the Duquesne University School of Law.

History of the 1776 PA Constitution. Read about the debates behind the 1776 PA Constitution at the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.

Learn More About Pennsylvania's ...
Although states are free to define their own forms of government, almost all have settled on a structure pretty similar to the one we use in Pennsylvania: 
  • All 50 states are headed by a Governor.
  • 43 states have a Lieutenant Governor.  In the remaining states, the President of the Senate is the successor to the Governor.
  • 49 States have a bicameral (two chamber) legislature.  Nebraska is the outlier with a unicameral (one chamber) legislature.
  • 48 states have just one "court of last resort," usually called the "Supreme Court," or "Court of Appeals."  Texas and Oklahoma each have two "courts of last resort" - one for civil and one for criminal cases.
Q.   Is a "Commonwealth" the same thing as a state?

A.   Yes.  Pennsylvania is one of 4 "commonwealths" among the 50 states.  "The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania" is simply the full, official name of the state of Pennsylvania, and doesn't indicate any particular government structure or legal status.  
Different States -- Different Laws
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Visitors to Pennsylvania are often surprised by our complicated rules for buying beer, wine and other alcoholic drinks. In most states, you can pick up beer or wine at the grocery store.

States have the authority to create their own laws, as long as those laws don't infringe on the rights granted in the US Constitution, and do not directly contradict any federal laws.   If you follow the news, you've seen plenty of examples of states passing different laws about issues like minimum wage, mail-in voting, recreational marijuana, gun regulations, reproductive rights, and COVID regulations.

 

In addition to the issues that make the headlines, states laws govern almost every area of our lives, including

  • driver license requirements, vehicle inspection and registration, and traffic regulations
  • eligibility for Medicaid and availability of Medicare Advantage and "Part D" programs
  • professional and trade licenses for teachers, lawyers, electricians, hair stylists...
  • state income and sales taxes
  • alcohol sales
  • public school graduation requirements
  • family law including marriage, divorce, and adoption laws
  • criminal justice laws including sentencing requirements
  • buying and selling real estate
Vote in Statewide Elections to make your voice heard in Harrisburg! 
Visit our website during election seasons for comprehensive, local, nonpartisan information on your candidates.
The PA Executive Branch

Office of the Governor
Pennsylvania's executive branch is led by the Governor.  The Governor has many roles, including:

  • submitting an annual state budget to the General Assembly
  • signing or vetoing legislation passed by the General Assembly
  • making emergency declarations
  • overseeing state agencies like the PA Department of Education, Department of Health, Corrections Department, the Pennsylvania State Police, and Pennsylvania National Guard.  
The Governor is elected for a 4-year term, and is limited to 2 terms.  The current Governor of Pennsylvania, Tom Wolf, was elected in 2014 and re-elected in 2018.  He will be replaced by the winner of the 2022 gubernatorial election.

Office of the Lieutenant Governor
The Pennsylvania Constitution defines these roles for the Lieutenant Governor:

  • succeeding the Governor if the Governor is unable to finish his or her term
  • chairing the Board of Pardons
  • serving as President of the Pennsylvania Senate
  • casting tie-breaking votes in the Pennsylvania Senate
The Lieutenant Governor also takes on a wide variety of responsibilities as assigned by the Governor.

The Lieutenant Governor is elected for a 4-year term, and is limited to 2 terms.   The current Lieutenant Governor of Pennsylvania is John Fetterman.   He was elected in 2018, and is not running for a second term. 
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The first woman Governor of Pennsylvania is... TBA.

Did you know....?

  • Pennsylvania is one of 19 states that have never had a woman governor.
  • The Governor does not get to choose a running mate.  Candidates for Lieutenant Governor run in their own, separate Primaries, and the Primary winners get added to the party tickets for the General Election.
Learn more with these resources:

View short videos of Governor Wolf and Lieutenant Governor Fetterman talking about their jobs at Pennsylvania Cable Network (PNC).

Follow news from the Governor's office at the official website of the PA Governor:  www.governor.pa.gov

Find a list of Pennsylvania State Agencies and links to their websites at  pennwatch.pa.gov
Pennsylvania will elect a new Governor and Lieutenant Governor in 2022.
Visit our website during election seasons for voter guides, candidate forums, and voter resources.
Legislative Branch - The General Assembly 

Pennsylvania's General Assembly is the largest full-time state legislature in the United States. 
Like the United States Congress, it has two "chambers" - the House of Representatives and the Senate.  

The PA House of Representatives has 203 members. 

State Representatives:
  • are elected for two-year terms.
  • are elected in even-numbered years
  • All 203 seats are up for election in 2022, and in EVERY even numbered year.


State House Map final

The PA Senate has 50 members. 

State Senators:

  • are elected for four-year terms.
  • are elected in even-numbered years. 
  • Half of the  seats are up for election in 2022.  In 2022 (and 2026, 2030...) elections will be held for the even-numbered districts seats.  In 2024, (and 2028, 2032...) elections will be held for the odd-numbered seats.

State Senate map

These maps show the newly drawn district maps for the Pennsylvania State House and Senate.  These maps were created using the 2020 Census data, and were used for the first time in the 2022 Primary. They are available on the website of the Legislative Redistricting Commission (LRC) at https://www.redistricting.state.pa.us/maps/ and are created using the interactive mapping tools at Dave's Redistricting.  

You can view an interactive copy of the House map here:      PA House Map at Dave's Redistricting

You can view an interactive copy of the Senate map here:     PA Senate Map at Dave's Redistricting

The Lawmaking Process in Harrisburg
The two-year period between legislative elections is called a "legislative session."   To become a law, a bill must pass a floor vote in both the House and the Senate during one two-year session. 

This is the path of a successful bill:
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Lawmakers Write and Seek Cosponsors for a Bill.


Lawmaking begins when a legislator writes a bill and gathers the support of other legislators to cosponsor the bill.



A bill may originate in either the House or the Senate. In our example, the bill originates in the House of Representatives.

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The Bill is Sent to a Committee for Review.


The PA House has many standing (permanent) committees, such as Environmental Resources, Urban Affairs, Transportation, and many more. The bill is sent to the appropriate committee for review.

The committee may hold hearings or consult with experts as they review the bill. The committee and chair decide whether to send the bill to the House floor for a vote.

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The Bill Passes a House Vote.


If the bill is passed out of committee, it may be brought to the House floor for a vote. (The Chairman of the House may also decide not to hold a vote on the bill.)

If the bill passes a floor vote, it is sent to the other chamber of the General Assembly where the process is repeated. In our example, the bill has passed in the House and is sent to the Senate.

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The Bill is Sent to a Senate Committee for Review.


If the bill is sent to the Senate, it is assigned to the appropriate standing committee in the Senate. The process is the same as in the House. The committee may (or may not) study the bill, hold hearings, consult experts and send it to the Senate for a vote.

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The Bill Passes a Senate Vote.



If the bill is passed by it's committee, the President Pro Tem of the Senate may (or may not) call for a vote. If the bill is passed by the Senate with no amendments, it will be be sent to the Governor for a signature.


If the Senate makes any changes to the bill, it must go back to the House for a vote on the amended version.


Once the bill reaches the Governor's desk, it will become a law unless the Governor decides to veto it.  Three things may happen:

  • The Governor may sign the bill. 
  • The Governor may "hold" the bill.  If the Governor doesn't sign OR veto the bill, it will automatically become law without a signature after a waiting period.
  • The Governor may veto the bill.  The General Assembly can override the veto with a two-thirds majority.

    Successful bills, like the one in our example, are rare. 
    About  80% of bills "die in committee," and another 10-15% do not receive a floor vote, or are voted down on the floor of the House or Senate. Most bills that pass in one chamber do not even receive a floor vote in the other chamber.

    bill graveyard

Thousands of bills are introduced in each session, but only 5-10% make it through the process and become laws.

View or Download the

PA General Assembly Overview

Want to learn more about advocating for legislation?  Visit our Harrisburg Watch page.      Harrisburg Watch
Learn more with these resources:

Read a more detailed description of the legislative process at PACapitol.com    "Making a Law in PA

Who represents you in Harrisburg?  Enter your address here to find out:  Find My PA Legislators

Download our Harrisburg 101 and Tracking a Bill in Harrisburg explainers for more information.




Do you want to contact your elected officials in Harrisburg?  These two documents can help.

The "Keep it Simple" infographic has tips and and sample script for calling or emailing your representatives.

If you live in Allegheny County, bookmark the "Facts for Citizens" directory so you can find contact information for most of your federal, state, and local elected officials in one place.
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Find the latest copy of Facts for Citizens at lwvpgh.org/ffc

Direct link for sharing: www.lwvpgh.org/docs.ashx?id=741434

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