HARRISBURG – Lawmakers and Republican Gov. Tom Corbett face a mountain of work in the coming months, including the budget and a fall session leading up to the November election.
But Democrats are focused on what happens after that, specifically the prospect that Republicans could hold lame-duck voting sessions in the month after the Nov. 4 election.
If the governor loses his bid for a second term or if Republicans lose their current majorities in the House and Senate, they may be tempted to reconvene to pass legislation before relinquishing the full control their party holds over the lawmaking process.
That’s what prompted the Senate’s ranking Democrat, Jay Costa, to write last week to the House speaker and the Senate president to voice opposition to any voting sessions after Pennsylvanians cast their own votes in November.
He said that the Legislature should consider banning lame-duck sessions and that at stake are “the interests of member accountability to the citizens of each district and transparency of the process.”
His call was joined by the House Democratic floor leader, Frank Dermody.
Senate Republican leaders responded with written statements of their own to say they have avoided those sessions since 2006 and that was not likely to change in 2014.
“However, as your letter properly stated, there may be cause to add session days postelection for ‘emergency situations or in limited instances where there is a compelling need,”’ wrote Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson. “If either situation you highlight arises after the general election, I will evaluate it and decide whether to recall the Senate accordingly.”
Postelection sessions have occurred in recent years. In 2010, Republicans reconvened the House and Senate to override Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell’s veto of a school code bill over an exemption from property taxes for nonprofits that rent to charter schools.
A spokesman for the Senate GOP leadership said that in that case, the vote was on the same provisions the Senate had previously voted on, arguing it was qualitatively different than holding a first-time vote on a bill in a lame-duck session.
But in the House that year, state representatives voted after the November election to approve significant changes to public-sector pensions, a measure that had passed the Senate in October. The House also voted on a bill to expand a person’s self-defense rights by removing the duty to retreat before using deadly force except under certain circumstances.
Corbett, when asked about the possibility of a lame-duck session later this year, described the speculation as “gossip” and told reporters he had not heard anything about it from legislative leaders.
Critics of postelection sessions say they sidestep accountability to voters. In effect, a governor or lawmakers who were defeated or are retiring can make laws without facing any consequences because they will never again face their constituents in an election.
Six years ago, in the reform environment that followed the unpopular pay raise vote and news of legislative staff working on state time for political campaigns, Scarnati announced he would not convene a lame-duck session.
Unlike in most states, they had been a biennial event in the Pennsylvania Capitol. In prior years, lame-duck sessions had delved into raising lawmakers’ pay, underwriting construction of pro sports stadiums, allowing Sunday liquor sales and shifting control of the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia.
A study by the nonpartisan watchdog group Common Cause of Pennsylvania found that lame-duck sessions accounted for a substantial portion of the non-appropriations bills that passed during an eight-year stretch in the 1990s, including the deregulation of electric utilities and expansion of a prescription drug benefit for lower-income seniors.
In 2008, Scarnati was sharply critical of the practice.
“A lot of bills get passed and a lot of mischief has always taken place,” Scarnati said. “It’s time to, in my opinion, try to restore some trust and faith in the Legislature.”
At least in the House, there’s no doubt there will be legislative sessions after the election. Farewell speeches on the House floor occur in November of every even-numbered year.
On Friday, a House Republican spokesman said there have not been discussions about whether that might be expanded this year to include votes on legislation, so there may be snow on the ground before Pennsylvanians know for sure if their public officials plan to allow lame ducks to vote.