Capital-Star Q+A: Pa. House Speaker Bryan Cutler talks misinformation, amendments and marijuana

By: - March 9, 2021 7:19 am

House Speaker Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster

Among the youngest people to oversee the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, the next two years will be Speaker Bryan Cutler’s first first full session as the Republican-controlled chamber’s presiding officer.

The 45-year old Lancaster Republican’s role is to moderate debate and call up bills on the floor for votes.

The position can be used to exert control of the chamber’s agenda, as shown by previous Speakers John Perzel, the Philadelphia lawmaker who muscled through gambling expansion, or Mike Turzai, of Allegheny County who used his pulpit to push school choice. But Cutler argued he’s tried to use a lighter touch in a recent conversation with the Capital-Star.

He also addressed misinformation, the state’s judiciary, and marijuana among other topics late last month. The interview below has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Q: Recently, the House announced it was willing to advance an emergency constitutional amendment to fix a mistake by the Wolf administration on the child sexual abuse window. This was an ambitious bipartisan compromise, it seems just kind of come out of nowhere. We haven’t seen a vote yet. This seems like the sort of bipartisan consensus building that is also needed on a lot of other issues — property taxes, LGBTQ rights. Why doesn’t that happen more often?

A: I’m gonna push back a little bit on that first statement. It does happen and it happened consistently while I was [House Majority] leader. You look at the numbers last session … 650 total bills passed the House, 622 of them had bipartisan support. 142 of them were unanimous, which was 68 percent. 198 of those ended up going to the governor. Twenty-one of those were vetoed. Even the vetoed bills, a lot of those were the business reopeners that had strong bipartisan support.

So we actually did do that on a broad variety of issues. Last year, the very first thing that we did out of the gate was workforce development … and that was overwhelmingly bipartisan.The [PA Farm Bill] was overwhelmingly bipartisan. I realize it doesn’t get a lot of media attention. You know, they kind of focus on the 3 or 4 percent where the disagreements are. 

Q: I don’t disagree that a lot of bipartisan things that happen that don’t get as much attention, but … how many of those … are [bills that rename bridges]? They’re not addressing these big issues — property taxes, marijuana, redistricting, LGBTQ issues. I bring all those up because I think those are issues we’ve seen bipartisan interest in. 

A: Property taxes tend to be regional. It has nothing to do with party affiliation. It has to do with the fact that it’s the regions where you come from and how you’ve been treated through the years through the educational distribution formula. So that that’s a truly bipartisan issue. Other issues are also regional — energy tends to be regional. You know, those out west who have oil and gas tend to be more closely aligned than those in the eastern part.

So, you know, in terms of working individual issues, I was a big fan of the decentralized model, which is how we got to so many bipartisan unanimous bills. We would run the package of the dozen agriculture bills, the dozen education bills … They were not, you know, just run-of-the-mill bills as in some prior sessions; they were big, weighty issues.

I’ll go back more than a decade [earlier], I had a bill. It started under [former Gov. Ed] Rendell. I ran it every session. In fact, it passed the House unanimously five times before it was signed into law. And it dealt with increasing the fines, and lobbyists disclosure, and the filing of the required paperwork. So it’s not just, ‘does it have bipartisan support?’ It’s ‘does it have bicameral support, and does it have gubernatorial support?’

So the legislative process is slow. I acknowledge that. But generally, when you start looking at those numbers, I think that it proves, in my opinion, that we do work well together, and we typically get things right.

With Cutler at the helm, Pa. House GOP promises new ideas, hands-off style

Q: There is a bill in the House that’s moving forward, [Lebanon County Republican Rep.] Russ Diamond’s judicial redistricting bill. You back merit selection. You sponsored a bill with Philadelphia Democrat Brian Sims to implement merit selection. Do you still support merit selection?

A: I actually don’t think that those two are mutually exclusive, because you could have a regional-based merit selection. 

I’m going to kind of take a step back … What we’re simply voting on is, do the people — can they get this question posed to them on a ballot?

To give you a good example: Personally, I voted against the extension of the judicial [retirement] age when it was on the ballot. But as voters, I think we have a right to decide because that’s a fundamental part of our right as people to determine how we’re governed.

[Cutler also voted against the bill to extend the judicial retirement age in 2015.]

In this particular case, I made my case for merit selection. Unfortunately, I was unsuccessful. You know, [Diamond] on the other hand argued his case for judicial districts, and he won, and he had a majority of the caucus.

That debate’s healthy, I think, but ultimately it’s not the legislature that determines what goes into the Constitution. It’s the people.

I realized that’s probably a little more higher level, but we have the right of governing ourselves as people, to amend our constitution as we see fit. Do I think it’ll pass or not? I honestly don’t know. I still like merit selection. If for some reason, this is unsuccessful, I would love to just get the same chance to put merit selection on the ballot.

Q: So are you saying that even if you might personally be skeptical of judicial districts, you as a lawmaker still believe that it is worthy of putting in front of voters to make the call?

A: Yeah. To be clear, I don’t view that as supporting any constitutional amendment. It’s not ‘do you support the underlying issue?’ It’s ‘do we vote on it or do you not?’

Q: By that logic, then should the General Assembly just be rubber stamping pretty much every constitutional amendment to put before it to get to the voters?

A: No. Not that anybody’s proposing this, but if somebody just said, you know, ‘let’s abolish the Legislature, we no longer need three branches of government, or let’s abolish the judicia[l]branch. There are still core constitutional principles, I think, of self governance that we have to be mindful of. 

Q: It sounds like you really want the house to be a marketplace of ideas, in a sense. And it seems that there are a lot of ideas that have still not gotten hearings. So people still just look at the Legislature and say ‘you pass all these bills, but I don’t know what how this is impacting my life, and I’m still paying my property taxes, or I could still be fired for being gay.’

A: I didn’t just want the Legislature to be a marketplace of ideas. I think we did it last session. That’s important to me.

Now with that said, I’m one of 203 members. Even though I was leader, when an issue came up to be voted on, I was just one. There were several times I personally encountered bills that I ultimately voted against. One was the drinks to-go during the pandemic. I just didn’t like [that bill] mechanically … and what its impacts were. I understood it. But I was in the overwhelming minority. I was one of 11 [lawmakers], so I recognize that even though I personally was against it, or residents of my district were against it, that the majority of Pennsylvanians were for it.

Same thing, hunting on Sunday. That one’s even a little different. The drinks to go one, I was consistent with the requests I got from the district. Sunday hunting, personally, all my kids hunt. Because of my schedule I have a limited amount of time to get in the woods to hunt with my kids. 

I share that because my district that I represent, overwhelmingly, it’s against it … We had done a survey on it years ago, like 75 to 80 percent were against it. And it’s in large part because of Sunday being the Sabbath for a lot of the religious individuals who live here. I understand that, I respect it. My good friend who’s sworn me in twice now, [former representative now Judge] Brandon Neuman, he had a great saying. He said, ‘sometimes we go to Harrisburg, and we are to represent our district, whatever that is.’ In this case, I represented the wishes of my district, not my own personal interest on that particular issue. Other times we are delegated the authority to make decisions based on the information we have at the time. And I always thought that was a fascinating distinction that he made.

It’s one that he and I talked quite a bit about when we were both rank-and-file members together. And I just think it’s a good example of how the Legislature is supposed to work. And quite frankly, I think that’s why people are so frustrated when the other branches of government are unresponsive. Because typically when they come to the Legislature, they can get the answer. You know, and then they get frustrated in terms of the unresponsiveness of some of the big, unwieldy departments. 

And I recognize that’s probably a slightly different worldview — like legislative world, I mean — then a lot of folks have encountered before. I was never one that says ‘I’ll never calendar that bill because I personally disagree with it.’ I’ll always throw it up. And I think that produced those high numbers and that ability to reach agreement.

Then-House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, addresses the Pennsylvania Press Club on Monday, 2/24/20 (Capital-Star photo by John L. Micek).

Q: Going back to 2020 again, and a [state Supreme Court] ruling before the election. There was a bipartisan agreement that Act 77 [the mail-in ballot law] was unworkable and, given mail delays, that there needs to be a fix. The courts agreed that the law was unworkable as is and Pennsylvanians, who have a right to a free and fair election, we’re going to be disenfranchised by something out of their control, the Postal Service. Both [parties’ justices] were willing to change the law. Is there anything wrong with that?

A: Yes. The job of the courts is not to write the law. Respectfully, I think that the better position would have been what you saw come out of the Commonwealth Court [in 2013] on one of the sex offender cases, where they literally said this law is deficient, but it’s not our job to rewrite the law, we make the following recommendations.

At that time, we had time to legislatively correct what they were doing. And I actually agree with the dissent, in that you should have backed up the other day [the deadline to apply for absentee ballots].

There were three things that were the goal of Act 77, when it was originally passed. It was to increase access, ensure security, and to have timely results. That decision as written, totally blew out the last two. It lifted a lot of the security requirements in terms of signature matching, and address and name checking, as well as timely results. 

I said this before the election and unfortunately I saw it bear out. By even opening the door to go past eight o’clock on election day, you naturally invited people to question it, whatever the results were, however they were. 

And I recognize, and they’re constitutionally permitted, to say, ‘Hey, we have concerns with the way this was written, we think i it should be x.’ What they don’t get to do — and we still have a case pending before the United States Supreme Court on this — is rewrite the law themselves and substitute their judgment points of ours.

[That case was denied a review by the U.S. Supreme Court after this interview, but three of the federal high court’s justices signed a dissent that echoed Cutler.]

We did pass a bill that would have allowed for pre-canvassing out of the House. Under threat of veto it did not pass the Senate. But we had the time to do that. And that is a change that could have occurred in the window from the time that decision to the election … [The court’s] job is to interpret the law. And if it’s unworkable, it’s our job to rewrite it.

Q: Lawmakers have a very large platform with social media and digital media to put their voices out there. And we’ve seen that in the aftermath of the 2020 election, sometimes that resulted in misinformation. We had members that claimed that there was voter fraud in Pennsylvania, that were cited by former President Donald Trump in his Jan. 6 speech. I’ve talked to Republicans who have raised this concern with me, this is not just me talking as a reporter. Have you heard those concerns from Republicans? And do you think there is a misinformation problem among Republicans in your caucus?

A: I actually think there’s a misinformation problem across the entire Legislature. It’s not just the Republican problem. It’s both. I’ve seen examples come from both sides. Anytime that we take to social media, or quite frankly, traditional print media and press releases, there is a responsibility for us to get things right, whether it’s statistics or policy. 

I would simply say that we all have a responsibility to be responsible in the information that we put out that we work on, but also recognize sometimes people make mistakes. And that we’ve got to work through that. 

The problem with the immediacy of social media, is it’s so easy. And you see this in emails too. I have a general rule that I’ll proofread something hours after I wrote it before I send it sometimes just to make sure like, I’m not in the recency of the event. Like let’s make sure all that’s correct — are those references correct? Are those numbers correct?

I can only speak for myself. I mean, I know we have a pretty rigid process of drilling in terms of trying to get things right. I’m not I’m not claiming we’re perfect. But I think we all have a responsibility to relay accurate information. I’ve heard that complaint from both sides to be very honest. 

Q: You’ve made your position on marijuana legalization clear, do you support decriminalization?

A: Decriminalization is certainly a discussion that I think we can have. At a minimum, I just have concerns with putting individuals in prison for nonviolent crimes, while at the same time releasing violent criminals. I think there are issues that we’ve identified as a problem with our criminal justice system, the solutions might be a little bit different. That’s a discussion we can have. I still think you’re gonna run into the same federal issues though, quite frankly. 

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.