Democrats plot legislative end run to pass Wolf’s infrastructure plan, while internal debate continues

By: - June 11, 2019 7:24 am

From left to right: Rep. Danielle Friel Otten, Rep. Sara Innamorato, and Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler listen in during a hearing on Restore PA on Monday, June 10, 2019. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

Facing an uncooperative Republican-controlled Legislature, Gov. Tom Wolf and his legislative allies are looking to use a legislative shortcut to pass a marquee part of the Democrat’s second-term agenda — a $4.5 billion investment in state infrastructure, from roads to rural broadband and flood prevention.

At a Democratic policy hearing Monday, Rep. Mike Sturla, of Lancaster, said he will file a discharge resolution to get Wolf’s Restore Pennsylvania plan out of committee and to the House floor for a vote. 

Such a resolution allows the whole House to decide if a bill should reach the floor for debate and final passage, rather than giving that power to a committee chair.

Wolf’s infrastructure plan is currently at the mercy of House Environmental Resource & Energy Chairman Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler, an arch-conservative known for his vocal partisanship.

“The fact that it got to Rep. Metcalfe’s committee, who has stated he is never going to run a Democratic bill, means it was dead on arrival there unless we can get it out,” Sturla told the Capital-Star.

Currently, 99 House lawmakers from both parties have signed on to support Restore PA — including 83 Democrats and 16 Republicans. A bill needs the support of 102 lawmakers to pass the lower chamber, which Wolf’s staff is confident it has.  

The plan, which calls for spending over four years, would be funded by issuing bonds backed by a tax on natural gas production. Pennsylvania currently taxes wells drilled, not gas extracted.

The Wolf administration and backers of the plan — including dozens of local government officials in Pennsylvania — say it will provide an overdue injection of cash into municipal projects like blight remediation and expanding access to speedy internet.

Republicans and business allies, meanwhile, have balked at an additional tax on the natural gas industry and question the necessity of taking on new debt. 

Metcalfe takes a dim view of the proposed end-run around his committee.

“I would probably instruct Mike Sturla to go look at the history of discharge resolutions and how effective they’ve been while I was chairman of the State Government Committee,” Metcalfe said. “I’ve dealt with a lot of those threats.”

Last year, legislators planned to use the same tactic to free redistricting reform bills that had the backing of more than half of the House. Metcalfe twice held last-minute meetings to gut the legislation.

A persistent backer of majority rule, Metcalfe added that “Sturla’s failed ideas are the reason him and his party are in the minority, and he’s not going to advance his ideas by threatening a discharge resolution.”

Capitol watchers will have to wait for this showdown to resolve.

Due to House rules, a discharge resolution will likely have to wait until fall, House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, noted. At least 15 legislative session days must pass after a bill’s introduction before such a request can be considered.

Such a timeline would line up with one broached by the Senate, where Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, said he would only consider the plan come autumn.

Wolf has repeatedly said Restore PA is not part of his budget proposal — a relatively modest but still debated $34.1 billion fiscal blueprint with boosts for education and workforce development and no new taxes.

Monday’s hearing also included the public airing of concerns from more progressive House Democrats, who worry that funding the spending spree would lock the state into a fossil fuel-filled future.

Altogether, 10 House Democrats have yet to sign on.  Some are Western Pa. lawmakers with drilling in or near their districts, while others are newer lawmakers, mostly from Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, with environmental or equity concerns.

Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler, D-Philadelphia, reiterated her concerns after the meeting. While the plan does invest in renewables, Fiedler said Restore PA needs a more “serious commitment to that transition” from fossil fuels such as natural gas to solar, wind, and other renewables.

She also wants to make “sure that union workers, impacted communities, [and] front-line communities are valued in that transition. That’s what we need.”

Critiques of the plan have already born some fruit, according to Wolf’s office. Over the last few months, the plan was altered to focus less on funding natural gas projects and to include a provision that requires geographic and socio-economic diversity in project funding.

Sam Robinson, Wolf’s deputy chief of staff, called Restore PA “maybe the most significant piece of legislation we’d seen in Harrisburg.”

Robinson contended that the plan “overall has to be carbon negative,” since it funds alternative energy, green space preservation, and similar investments.

But to Sturla, concerns about the climate ignore what he sees as a larger reality.

Restore PA takes advantage of the state’s natural gas industry, which will continue, he contended — like it or not.

“Do you think there is the votes in the House or the Senate to ban fracking in the state of Pennsylvania?” Sturla told the Capital-Star. “We haven’t even been able to get a tax on Marcellus Shale production, let alone stop its production.”

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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.