Long agenda awaits state lawmakers
HARRISBURG (AP) — The halls of Pennsylvania’s ornate Capitol were quiet and fairly empty this week, leaving plenty of room for the few tourists to wander around now that lawmakers have been home for about a month.
The House and Senate return from their annual summer break from Harrisburg on Sept. 15 with about a dozen voting days left in the two-year legislative session and the fate of hundreds of legislative proposals hanging in the balance.
“For some members this is their last session, and it’s their last chance to get something they’ve been working on, in many cases for many years, enacted,” said Senate GOP spokesman Erik Arneson. “For others it’s just a reset threat — you reset to the beginning of the process — but it’s a slow and cumbersome process by design.”
Most bills will die quietly when the session closes at the end of November, but some will make it to Republican Gov. Tom Corbett’s desk.
That’s why the governor, three months from facing voters to ask for a second term, has been on the road recently, pressing his argument for changes to Pennsylvania’s two large public-sector pension plans.
House Republican spokesman Steve Miskin said a vote on pension reform is a good bet this fall, adding that the chamber is “in striking distance” of a complicated proposal to move new hires into a hybrid system that caps their traditional pension but allows for a 401(k)-type supplement.
Another proposal that has drawn attention in recent weeks would let Philadelphia tack a $2 tax onto the price of a pack of cigarettes to raise about $80 million a year to fund the city’s financially struggling school system.
Corbett this week asked lawmakers to come back early to consider it, which seems unlikely, but the proposal is poised for some sort of action when they are back on the floor. The governor also holds out hope there may movement to privatize the state liquor stores.
Arneson said senators hoped the House might vote on bills the Senate has sent over, including online voter registration and electronic campaign finance reporting.
Some form of medical marijuana is likely to be taken up on the floor of the Senate, where the idea seems to have strong support, but its prospects are not good in the House, where leaders and many members are generally opposed.
“That’s one of the things the federal government should be taking the lead on, not a state,” Miskin said.
Other possibilities include proposals to immunize from criminal prosecution those who call for medical help when someone is suffering from a drug overdose, revisions to the 2008 Right-to-Know Law, changes to a revitalization program for cities, a measure to help combat urban blight, an anti-stalking measure related to labor disputes, reforms to charter and cyber schools and a way for school boards to replace some or all property taxes with other types of taxes.
Lawmakers could enact changes to the state’s distressed municipalities law or expand DNA testing of suspects and address the shared-ride operations that have become popular in Pittsburgh.
Minority Democrats have ideas, too, but they don’t control the agenda so they have limited capacity to get them done.
Among them are Medicaid expansion, a higher minimum wage and an extraction tax on natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale formation, said Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny.
“My expectation is that you’re going to see a very strong push by the administration to get some of the governor’s initiatives squeezed into those limited days we have remaining,” Costa said. “Whether or not Republican leadership wants to assist the governor remains to be seen.”
The Senate will be in session for 10 days and the House for 11 days before the November election. Republican leaders haven’t ruled out coming back for a postelection lame-duck session but have indicated it’s not likely.