Pa. Senate plans to return to Harrisburg to authorize remote voting

Pennsylvania Senate Chambers. Source: WikiMedia Commons

At least half of Pennsylvania’s 50-member Senate is scheduled to convene in Harrisburg on Wednesday to pass temporary rules allowing lawmakers in the Republican-controlled chamber to vote remotely on legislation.

Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, said the lawmakers will use the remote work policy to consider bills governing everything from education to small business administration in the coming weeks, as Pennsylvania weathers a sweeping shutdown intended to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

“We may need legislation to help people recover or maintain [their livelihoods] during this very difficult time,” Corman said Tuesday, when he appeared on a live call-in segment broadcast on Pennsylvania Cable Network.

The Senate’s current rules allow some members to vote in absentia if they can’t be in the Capitol on session days. 

But the Senate still needs a quorum of at least 26 members in Harrisburg to conduct formal business, Corman said Tuesday.

The new remote voting process will allow senators to deliberate and vote on legislation over video or telephone conference, Corman said.

The state House passed a similar rules change on Monday.

“We’re working through the process to make sure we’re still transparent to members of the public and members of the media,” Corman said during his PCN appearance. “But the only business we’re doing during this crisis is business that relates to the crisis itself.” 

Corman said the Legislature in the coming weeks will likely relieve schools of their 180-day instructional mandate, and take up legislation related to unemployment compensation and emergency funding for businesses. 

The Senate cancelled voting sessions in Harrisburg on Monday and Tuesday at the recommendation of state health officials.

Corman said the session in Harrisburg on Wednesday will be brief, consisting only of the resolution to change Senate rules.

Pennsylvania’s state Capitol complex is closed for two weeks, and most government employees have been told to work from home.

Corman said the chamber does not plan to hold public hearings for the foreseeable future. It will hold remote committee meetings as necessary to move bills related to the COVID emergency. 

“We’re trying to work together in a bipartisan, bicameral way to work through this emergency,” Corman said. “We want to give the governor and the Department of Health all the tools they need to deal with this emergency … It’s a new normal right now and we’re all just trying to do the best we can.”

Can a closed Capitol be transparent? Yes, say experts