Opinion | Now more than ever, it’s important to follow state government


Image via Vicki Vellios Briner, Pennlive.com, TNS

The Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg.

By Talia Spillerman, For The Pitt News

Until this past summer, I didn’t know there was a difference between Pennsylvania Senate districts and House districts. In fact, I didn’t even know my state senator’s name. 

But while interning for Pennsylvania State Sen. Judy Schwank, a Democrat who represents Reading and part of Berks County, I learned that state senators are responsible for sponsoring, supporting and voting on legislation that directly impacts constituents’ livelihoods and quality of life. 

I learned that when you have a senator who’s conscientious of their constituents’ needs, they will promote economic opportunities, social programs and state-sponsored grants to help the community flourish. They will listen to and think of their constituents’ concerns — which may even inspire a sponsorship of a bill on the Senate floor. 

Because state senators can be extremely influential, it is always important to voice your concerns and praises about your community. But now, in an era where Republicans are championing restrictive laws, it’s essential to keep your state senator accountable for making decisions that align with your values. 

Currently, on the federal level, House Democrats outnumber Republicans by 10 seats. Democrats’ control of the Senate is even slimmer — 50 Republicans, 48 Democrats and two independents that caucus with the Democrats. If each representative’s vote aligns with their caucus, every Senate vote will end in a tie — broken by a vote from Vice President Kamala Harris, a Democrat.

While this almost-even divide can elicit compromise, it’s also a recipe for a deadlock that can prevent any law from passing. So far, the latter has held true. 

However, a much different story has unfolded in state governments. While federal legislators are still deliberating contentious issues, right-leaning states have passed bills that promote their moral agenda, such as banning critical race theory, limiting abortion access and increasing voting requirements, just to name a few. Many of these proposals fundamentally endanger the quality of life of women and people of color. 

Pennsylvania, which currently has a Republican-majority legislature, is no exception.

The Pennsylvania House passed a bill at the end of September that would prevent mothers from having an abortion if a prenatal scan shows Down syndrome — prohibiting the mother’s right to choose. Doctors could face charges or lose their medical license if they don’t comply. 

Luckily, Pennsylvania Democrat Governor Tom Wolf vowed to veto any bill limiting abortion access for women and vetoed the version of this bill that passed both the Senate and House. However, if the next Pennsylvania governor is a Republican who supports the bill, or two-thirds of the legislature supports it, it could turn into a law. 

Unlike Pennsylvania, some of these abortion-limiting bills have turned into laws in other states. The Supreme Court upheld Texas’ new law that bans abortions after the first six weeks of pregnancy on Sept. 1. Texas is not alone in this endeavor to restrict women’s access to abortion. State legislatures enacted more abortion restrictions in 2021 than in any other year. 

State Republican lawmakers have similarly responded to banning critical race theory. Republican lawmakers in around 20 states introduced bills to limit or ban critical race theory and eight states passed laws as of August. Critical race theory involves learning about historical and current manifestations of white privilege and racial injustice. 

Two Republican Pennsylvania state representatives — Reps. Diamond and Gleim — proposed a bill that would punish schools that teach critical race theory. While this bill has not yet left committee, this could change in the near future. 

These are only some of the examples of the more controversial bills legislators are deliberating in Pennsylvania. There are other vital measures that we need trustworthy and reliable lawmakers to discuss, such as tax bills, public safety and budget allocations —  which help fund preschools, schools as well as the maintenance and building of safe roads and bridges. 

How can you hold your senator or representative accountable? The most impactful action you can take is voting. State elections are just as important, if not more important, than federal elections. Make sure that who you are voting for aligns with your interests and values because they will directly impact your day-to-day life. 

If your senator is not up for re-election soon, write to or call them. Even if their platform and voting records support your values, remind them that they are promoting your interests. State senators represent fewer people than federal senators, so there is a greater chance that you will receive a genuine response. 

Pay attention to your state’s news. Read local papers about issues that impact your community, and check the voting records of your senators and representatives. Informed and active constituents are the antidote for incompetent legislators. 

Here, where you can find your state lawmakers, is an excellent place to start. 

Talia Spillerman writes about anything and everything. Write to her at [email protected].