The Legislature is back for its last voting sessions of the decade. Three things to watch for | Monday Morning Coffee

December 16, 2019 7:15 am

Good Monday Morning, Fellow Seekers.

The state House and Senate convene for their final voting sessions of the 2010s this week.

The House is in this Monday morning for its customary, back-breaking schedule of three working days in a row. The Senate gavels in Wednesday for a single voting session. Then it’s back to the districts for a leisurely coast into the holidays, all the better to acclimatize to that inflation-adjusted salary hike.

If you’re asking yourself whether this is really worth the $350 million worth of your tax dollars that you’re going to pony up in fiscal 2019-20, then we’d refer you to this productivity report card put together by those hardworking folks at Spotlight PA, and let you decide for yourself.

Based on a pure batting average calculation, we’ve generally found that most lawmakers are barely hovering above the Mendoza Line. And were they professional ballplayers, they’d be promptly sent down to the minors.

Lawmakers will tell you that there’s more to their jobs than mere legislating — that constituent service and voter education loom large. And from what we’ve seen these many years, there’s certainly an argument to be made there.

But based on the days they’re actually in session, there’s no good reason — save inertia and political self-preservation — for Pennsylvania to have a full-time General Assembly. Let alone one that costs as much as it does.

So lawmakers are here this week. That’s the good news. The bad news is it just reinforces the fact that the Legislature is out of session far more often than it’s in session. And we’re all on the hook for that.

With all that in mind, here’s a look at the three biggest things the General Assembly will be doing with its limited time this week.

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1. Criminal Justice Reform:
After clearing a critical committee hurdle last week, the full House is expected to vote this week on a package of criminal justice reform bills that advocates say will actually make Pennsylvania’s fairly awful probation system even worse.

As the Capital-Star’s Elizabeth Hardison reported last week, an amended probation reform bill that cleared the House Judiciary Committee last week would:

  • Maintain the status quo for probation sentencing, which does not limit the total amount of time that a person can spend under supervision;
  • Allow a judge to decide whether a probationer can use prescription drugs, including medical marijuana;
  • Require “mandatory probation review conferences,” a new kind of periodic review hearing;
  • Allow probation officers to search the person and property of someone under their supervision without first establishing reasonable suspicion.

Those changes were enough for the state branch of the American Civil Liberties Union to withdraw its support for the legislation. In a Capital-Star op-Ed published Sunday, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, a Democrat, slammed the bill.

“Claiming progress in name only while people suffer from bad policies and legislation is self-serving politics that causes people to lose faith in democracy,” he wrote. “Compromise that sells out the progress people demand will not do — it sets us further back.”

Further irritating reformers, state Rep. Todd Stephens, R-Montgomery, offered changes to a previously approved Senate bill last week imposing mandatory minimum prison sentences for convicted felons who use or possess firearms illegally.

State and federal laws prohibit anyone convicted of a felony from possessing guns.

Officials from the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections told the Capital-Star in October that adding harsher sentencing laws to the bills would defeat the purpose of the reform package, which is a chief priority for the Wolf administrationHardison reported last week.

The Pennsylvania lieutenant governor’s residence at Fort Indiantown Gap, Lebanon County (screen capture)

2. For Sale, one Lieutenant Governor’s Residence, Gently Used:
The House is slated to take a second look Tuesday at legislation sponsored by Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jeffersonallowing the Commonwealth to sell the State House, the lieutenant governor’s official residence, at Fort Indiantown Gap in Lebanon County.

Current LG John Fetterman made headlines earlier this year when he announced he’d be renting an apartment for the time that he’s in Harrisburg and take a pass on living at the official rez at the military installation. Gov. Tom Wolf similarly commutes in from the family manse in Mount Wolf, York County, only using the Governor’s Residence on Front Street for ceremonial purposes.

That was enough for Scarnati, who did a spell as LG himself, to decide it was time for the state to offload the State House, which comes complete with a swimming pool (Fetterman, and wife Gisele, opened the pool for lessons to school kids over the summer).

“I’m always looking at spaces and how can we make them more inclusive and how can we make sure we open them up for what they’re for, which is for the community, so this summer this became the people’s pool and we’ve had more than a dozen groups come and swim,” Mrs. Fetterman told PennLive in July.

Senate counsel Drew Crompton (Capital-Star file photo)

3. Judge Crompton?
The Senate will use its single session day this week to deal with a slate of judicial nominations. Among the most high-profile of them is a perch on Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court for long-serving Senate GOP aide Drew Crompton.

Crompton, who’s also chief of staff to Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, has faced scrutiny over his qualifications for the bench. A conservative advocacy group also lobbied against his appointment, arguing that “he embodies the swamp.” The group questioned his involvement in the 2005 government pay raises, as well as a $19,647 bonus he received in 2007 when he returned to the legislative payroll after taking a leave of absence to work on former Steeler great Lynn Swann’s failed 2006 gubernatorial campaign.

Crompton’s been tapped to fill the vacancy created by the retirement of former Judge Robert Simpson, of Northampton County (who famously sent Republicans packing on Voter ID earlier in the decade). If he’s confirmed, he’d serve the two years remaining in Simpson’s term. The appointment must be approved by a two-thirds vote.

Our Stuff.
With a Pa. House vote looming, CNN’s Van Jones appeared in Philly to call for criminal justice reform, our partners at the Philadelphia Tribune report.

From frequent correspondent Nick Field: These are the Top 10 Pa. cities — that aren’t Philly and Pittsburgh — where the 2020 Dems need to campaign.

The 2020 Dems were in Pittsburgh on Saturday for the first forum of the campaign season to focus exclusively on public educationCapital-Star Pittsburgh Correspondent Kim Lyons has the story.

Also from our partners at the Philadelphia Tribune: With the year winding down, Philly Mayor Jim Kenney is staying quiet on his pick for police commissioner.

On our Commentary Page, opinion regular Dick Polman says there’s reason to be optimistic that impeachment will be a drag on President Trump in 2020.  And Frank Pizzoli of our partners at the Central Voice wants all his queer friends to look to 2020 with resilience and optimism.

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You will, no doubt, be relieved to learn that, when it comes to the non-existent ‘War on Christmas,’ that Pennsylvania is a ‘safe haven,’ the Inquirer reports.
Pittsburgh City Paper ranked all the stuff that people cheered for during this weekend’s presidential forum.
A panel’s recommendation to end grand jury reports is facing opposition, the Associated Press reports (via PennLive).
The Morning Call explains why U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., is the only member of the Senate GOP to oppose the USMCA trade dealU.S. Susan Wild, D-7th District, is the rare Democrat to support it.

Here’s your #Harrisburg Instagram of the Day:

Super PACs are spending big in Pa. ahead of the U.S. House’s impeachment vote, WHYY-FM reports.
The Trump administration’s tipped wage plan could take money out of the pockets of Pa. workers, WITF-FM reports.
PoliticsPA has last week’s winners and losers in state politics.
Roll Call’s Nathan Gonzales is bugged by the idea that impeachment won’t be a game-changer.

What Goes On.
The House gavels in at 1 p.m. to get its week underway.
9 a.m., Main Rotunda: Bipartisan Juvenile Justice Reform event
10 a.m., Main Rotunda: Prescription drug affordability rally

At 10:30 a.m., in the reception room, Gov. Tom Wolf gives an update on his “vulnerable populations” executive order, issued in the wake of the end of general assistance earlier this year. At 12:15, WolfAttorney General Josh Shapiro, and other lawmakers talk about so-called “ghost guns,” or untraceable weapons that are shipped incomplete and then can be finished off with available parts.

What Goes On (Nakedly Political Edition).
5:30 p.m.: 
Reception for Rep. Scott Conklin
5:30 p.m.: Reception for Rep. Matt Bradford
Hit both events, and give at the max, and you’re out a mere $7,500 today.

Heavy Rotation.
It’s time for the annual countdown of our favorite Christmas pop songs. Have a tune you’d like included? Email us at jmicek@penncapital-star and it might make the list. We’ll get things rolling by kicking it decidedly old school this morning. From the King himself, Elvis Presley, it’s “Blue Christmas.”

Monday’s Gratuitous Hockey Link.
Some among you have complained that we never include the Flyers in this space. Thus, we are pleased to fulfill this market need by passing along the news that Winnipeg stomped Philadelphia 7-3 on Sunday.

And now you’re up to date.

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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.