2008-12-25 / Local & State

Pa. Legislature's Chairmen Prepare For New Session


HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - Nearly 4,500 bills were introduced during the two-year legislative session that ended last month, but only 292 laws were signed - and about a quarter of those were routine appropriations bills.

Those are long odds for lawmakers hoping to get a favorite bill passed, particularly given that the General Assembly's agenda is largely driven by the majority leaders and governor.

Committee chairmen, however, claim significant advantages.

They control the calendar and can shepherd legislation through hearings and the amendment process. Other committee members tend to show them deference, and the chairmen have clout with leaders to get a floor vote. And while a bill is being debated, their specialized knowledge comes in handy when they face questions and opposition.

But there are limits to what higher rank will help them do.

"In the long run, you have no more influence than any other person in the entire world about how any individual member is going to vote,'' said Rep. Babette Josephs, D-Philadelphia, chairwoman of the State Government Committee.

When the new session starts in a few weeks, Josephs and the other chairmen want to hit the ground running.

Josephs wants to make it easier for minority- and womenowned businesses, and small businesses generally, to obtain state contracts. She plans to address campaign finance reform and will be looking for ways to improve voting, whether through early voting or the use of mail-in ballots.

"I believe that, in a democracy, the more people who vote, who participate in that way, the better the result,'' she said.

Rep. Ed Staback, D-Lackawanna, wants to let the Game Commission consider Sunday hunting. But his top priority for the Game and Fisheries Committee is to toughen penalties on poachers who illegally kill deer, bear, turkey and elk.

"It's getting worse on an annual basis,'' he said. "Especially commercial poaching, where people are coming into the state from outside - New York, West Virginia, Delaware, Ohio.''

Senate Judiciary Chairman Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery, expects to respond to the results of a soon-to-be-completed study of wrongful criminal convictions. He also wants his committee to address the parole of violent offenders considered to be at a high risk of reoffending.

"We have 46,000, 47,000 inmates in our state prisons, and we release 16,000 each year,'' he said. "It's a major job that they're doing, and no question, there have been mistakes made when there are that many people going in and out of the system.''

House Transportation Committee Chairman Joe Markosek, D-Allegheny, said his panel will spend the coming months developing a list of "shovel ready'' infrastructure projects to benefit from an expected influx of federal stimulus money.

He also plans to work on a bill to deal with the distractions that can make drivers, particularly teens, unsafe behind the wheel.

Rep. Bud George, DClearfield, said the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee will take up the looming spike in electricity rates tied to the expiration of regulation era rate caps. His committee also will be working on water quality and other issues raised by the boom in exploration of the Marcellus Shale natural gas formation.

"Pennsylvania is really the only gas-rich state that does not tax the extraction of natural gas,'' George said. "This is ridiculous, especially when the state is facing up to a $2 billion shortfall.''

Sen. Jeff Piccola, R-Dauphin, who is assuming the chairmanship of the Education Committee following the death of Sen. James Rhoades, said his first order of business will be to improve the accuracy of school districts' reporting on violent incidents on campus.

He also expects the committee to examine funding equity issues and revisit the decadeold charter school law. The state's tight finances will limit what the committee can do, he said.

The chairmen's priorities will have to compete with the wants and needs of the rank and file and their leaders' agendas. The goals of Gov. Ed Rendell will be outlined in his annual February budget address.

Steve Crawford, the Democratic governor's legislative affairs secretary, said he will be pushing the Legislature for action on the electricity rate spike and health coverage for the uninsured.

"Everybody thinks that in his final two years he's going to go shopping for rocking chairs,'' Crawford said. "That's not going to happen - we're shopping for running shoes.''

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