(*This story has been updated to include comment from Wolf administration spokesman J.J. Abbott)
Bryan Cutler didn’t have a lot of time for palace intrigue on Monday.
The Lancaster County Republican, now into his 14th month as the state House GOP’s floor boss, instead used most of a lunchtime speech to race through a list of legislative accomplishments in the Republican-controlled chamber; to stress what he says is a little-noticed strain of bipartisanship in the House; and to lightning-round his way through a battery of issue-oriented questions submitted by an audience of business leaders, lobbyists, policy wonks and journalists.
But, inevitably, there was that question: Does he plan to run to replace House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, who announced his retirement earlier this year? And had Turzai, who’s said he might leave office before his term expires at year’s end, given any indication that he might be stepping down early?
“The speaker is still in office,” Cutler told the Monday crowd at this month’s Pennsylvania Press Club luncheon, “and our roles and responsibilities remain exactly the same. The speaker has earned his right to transition as he sees fit. I don’t focus on it.”
Asked again about his future plans, Cutler didn’t exactly say he wasn’t running either.
“I’m focused on the job,” he said. “If, and when, the time comes, that’s something I’d certainly entertain.”
Cutler was not reluctant, however, to go relatively deep on matters of policy, notably on the emerging concern that a flood of mail-in ballots authorized by an election reform bill last year would slow down the counting of returns on Election Day this November.
Speaking to the crowd, and then to journalists after his appearance, Cutler said lawmakers were positioning bills that would allow for the opening of those mail-in ballots, but not the tallying of the votes within, before the polls close at 8 p.m. on this Nov. 3.
“We want to be prepared on the election code,” Cutler told journalists after his speech. “We are positioning bills to use as vehicles if changes need to be made.”
In an email, *Wolf administration spokesman J.J. Abbott said the administration “has heard the concerns of the counties that some of them will be unable to complete their counts on election night, and we continue to explore options to address this issue.
“Allowing any canvassing of ballots before close of polls would require a legislative change, on which we would be open to working with the Legislature,” Abbott said. “While the Department of State works to implement processes that will help counties count all ballots as early as possible, we wish to emphasize that nothing is more important than ensuring every vote is counted accurately.”
A sampling on other matters:
Bills addressing gun violence reduction: Asked if the issue might see action this spring after grinding to a halt in the House Judiciary Committee last fall, Cutler said the House “can responsibly manage gun violence by making sure that criminals use firearms are held accountable,” and that those actions can be prioritized “without going after honest people.”
On the nearly $600 million in supplemental appropriations being sought by the Wolf administration: Cutler tossed this political hot potato back to the Wolf administration, arguing that prison costs should be going down at a time when there are fewer prisoners in the corrections system and the state is moving to shutter one correctional institution. The administration is seeking $75 million in additional funding for the Corrections Department in the budget year that ends June 30. Cutler called this a “management” issue.
On the Wolf administration’s proposal to raid a fund for the horse-racing industry to underwrite a $200 million grant program in the state System of Higher Education: Cutler left little doubt that the funding stream for the proposal would be vigorously debated this spring. But he also suggested that the administration’s proposal “directly contradicts the recommendations of its own workforce development council.” Cutler said it was a mistake for Wolf to leave community colleges and trade schools out of his proposal.