Southeast Republicans, unified Dems in the House find common ground: opposing mandatory regulation slashing

The Capitol building in Harrisburg (Capital-Star photo by Sarah Anne Hughes)

Environmental allies celebrated a rare Harrisburg victory this week when the newly emboldened Democratic caucus in the state House, with the help of a few Republican holdouts, voted down a GOP bill to slash state regulations.

Eight Republicans, joined by every Democratic member, voted against a bill that would have formed an office of the repealer to track down and suggest for elimination “onerous” laws, or ones that defy “a common sense approach to government.”

The bill would also have mandated that state agencies eliminate two regulations for every one enacted. The requirement matches a 2017 executive order from President Donald Trump to reduce regulations.

The Republican majority has argued that the state’s codes could use some trimming down. They also successfully passed four other regulatory reform bills this week, including third-party review of delayed permits and legislative approval of new regulations that have an economic impact of over $1 million.

“We cannot have affordable housing, business start-ups, or expansion in the commonwealth if we continue to have regulations that force businesses to go elsewhere,” House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, said on the floor.

And while the Republican majority essentially carried the day, the repealer office proved a tougher sell, as shown by an at times zany debate with references to Marie Kondo, A&E’s “Hoarders,” and “Game of Thrones.”

Eight Republicans joined with every Democrat to defeat the repealer bill, 100-97. Bills require 102 votes to pass the House — which has 203 members. 

The eight defections all came from Republicans in suburban districts outside of Philadelphia and Harrisburg.

A similar version of the bill passed last May with 108 votes, including 12 Republican nos.

Six Democrats voted in favor of the repealer office last year, all from Western Pennsylvania districts. Five of those members were around for Tuesday vote, and all changed to nos.

Multiple current Democratic members said they thought the show of solidarity was proof of the caucus’ move left following a election year that included the loss of more conservative western incumbents, progressive primary wins, and the boom in members from the Philadelphia suburbs.

“Clearly our caucus has picked up members in the southeast that prioritize environmental protections and lost members in the southwest more aligned with the extraction industry,” Rep. Greg Vitali, a long-time environmental ally, told the Capital-Star. “The policy center of the caucus has shifted eastward.”

They also credited vocal opposition from first-year members and a strong stance from leadership against the votes for keeping the caucus in line.

Rep. Gene DiGirolamo, a moderate Republican from Bucks County, voted against the whole package. He said the bills were designed to address the real problem of slow Department of Environmental Protection permitting.

But, DiGirolamo added, “all we need to do is hire 25, 30, 40 more employees over at DEP to quicken up or expedite this permitting problem,” not “go out and hire third-party entities and create new offices.”

DEP’s budget has been the subject of heavy cuts under Democratic and Republican watch over the past two decades. In the 2001-02 budget, the agency was allocated $355 million. Last year, it was given just $153 million.

Some Democrats did defect on other bills in the package, such as one to set up a “regulatory compliance officer” who could serve as a go-between for state agencies and businesses.

The bill allows for the officer to makes suggestions for the state to waive penalties on companies that self-report a violation. Also, if a business follows the advice of the officer and unknowingly breaks a rule, the officer’s response can be used as a “complete defense.”

The legislation squeaked by with 102 votes, the minimum. Two Democrats joined the majority of Republicans to pass the bill.

State environmental groups vehemently opposed the whole package, claiming it would counterintuitively set up more bureaucracy in the name of cutting bureaucracy.

“The General Assembly is already given authority to review and act on regulations created and implemented by the state regulatory agencies, and this grouping of bills before the Pennsylvania House of Representatives would not serve the meritorious goal of creating a more efficient and effective government,” a coalition of 22 state environmental groups said in a letter opposing the package.

Republicans are prepared to take a second vote on the repealer bill, which could come at any time. The other four bills move to the Senate for action.

If the upper chamber approves the legislation, they’ll then need Gov. Tom Wolf’s approval. In a statement, Wolf spokesperson J.J. Abbott expressed skepticism with the package.

“This package appears to open the door to dismantling important public protections and letting big corporations and special interests police themselves,” Abbott said. “We should be increasing protections for our consumers, environment and vulnerable populations.”

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