Voters Watching As Legislative Session Winds Down
HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) – Pennsylvania lawmakers hoping to impress voters with the quality of their work product have about five months left in the current two-year session to add to it.
But as a practical matter, time is getting very short.
After the budget passes, most of them will vacate Harrisburg until after Labor Day, and Senate leaders long ago declared they would not convene a lame-duck session after the fall election.
That leaves just a few weeks of voting sessions in September and October for legislators to improve on a list of accomplishments that features passage of table games at casinos and new gambling regulations, the successful tax amnesty program, a rescue of Philadelphia’s financial crisis and a couple of dozen other– less monumental – laws.
The Legislature has passed 89 bills since January 2009, among them reauthorization of the Health Care Cost Containment Council, extension of 911 fees on telephone users, imposition of more fire-safe cigarette standards, expansion of unemployment and health insurance benefits and the toughening of animal cruelty laws.
But nearly a third of what has been signed into law constitutes low-hanging fruit _ state property conveyances and memorial dedications of roads and bridges.
It’s not as if Republicans and Democrats in the General Assembly, and Gov. Ed Rendell, don’t have ambition.
But these days Harrisburg’s divided government often leads political opponents to talk past each other rather than seek out middle ground, with the Democraticcontrolled House and Republican controlled Senate often simply ignoring bills the other chamber has sent their way.
It’s anybody’s guess which ones will make it to Rendell’s desk and which will die quietly at the end of the session. The two chambers have both approved bill to ban texting while driving, for example, but the details are different and it’s unclear whether a compromise will emerge.
The Senate has passed bills to improve public access to state spending records, lobbyist disclosure filings and the use of state planes, and toughened the penalties for violating Pennsylvania’s public meetings law. All are pending in the House.
Erik Arneson, a spokesman for the Senate Republicans, said he anticipates productive fall season and that a new approach to transportation funding could pass before the session ends.
Senate Democratic spokeswoman Lisa Scullin said her caucus hoped the Senate would follow the House’s lead and deal with the looming massive increase in taxpayers’ share of public sector pensions, and that the House would pass a set of Senate-passed bills to ease crowding and other problems in state prisons.
House Democrats want the Senate to pass a package of bills aimed at producing jobs and improving the state’s business climate, along with a moratorium on natural gas drilling on state forest land, whistleblower protection for legislative employees and pension reforms.
The remaining priorities for Rendell, who leaves office in January after eight years, include expanding the use of alternative energy sources, mitigating increases in electric rates stemming from deregulation, consolidating school health plans, shoring up transportation funding and improving regulation of Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling.
Last week, a coalition of 13 organizations wrote lawmakers to press for campaign contribution limits.
Barry Kauffman with Common Cause of Pennsylvania, a member of the coalition, said the session so far has disappointed advocates of such changes, despite some earlier signs that lawmakers might act on campaign finance and redistricting.
“Massive amounts of time are just being totally consumed by budgetary matters,’’ Kauffman said. “But we’re paying 253 guys here, and while budget negotiations are going forward there’s no reason why they can’t be moving other important initiatives, especially they don’t have a price tag.’’
In the weeks leading up to the Nov. 2 election, Pennsylvania voters will be watching.