Lawmakers send Wolf gun, environment bills on their way out of town – and for some, out of office

The Pennsylvania House (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)

(*This article was corrected on Saturday, 11/21/20 to remove a reference to a bill creating electric vehicle fees, which was amended by the House and had previously won approval in the Senate, but did not receive a final procedural vote to be sent to Gov. Tom Wolf.) 

State lawmakers put the finishing touches on a $35 billion budget this week that will fund state programs through June 2021, but that wasn’t all they managed to squeeze in during five frenzied days in Harrisburg.  

Bills that tweak environmental regulations, bolster the rights of gun owners during public emergencies, and grant free state IDs to people experiencing homelessness all got final approval from the House and Senate this week, the Legislature’s last in Harrisburg before it kicks off a new legislative session in January. 

Many of the lawmakers who voted on these measures are at the tail end of their time in office and won’t face voters again. More than a dozen sitting House and Senate members are retiring at the month’s end, while a handful lost reelection on Nov. 3.

The General Assembly typically keeps a light agenda during this so-called lame duck period – the brief window between the election and the end of a legislative session, when outgoing legislators still have a say on public policy.

But nothing in the state constitution or House and Senate rules strictly limits the business they can conduct. 

As a result, lawmakers used their final days in Harrisburg to advance a raft of bills that had languished since the spring.

Pa.’s unspent stimulus cash will pad out $35B budget

Some passed with wide bipartisan support, such as a measure creating a $5 million grant program to help finance broadband internet projects in rural parts of the state. 

Others, including a pair of House bills eliminating firearm restrictions that kick in when Pennsylvania is in a state of emergency, squeaked out of both chambers on party-line or near-party-line votes. 

Wolf has already said he will veto those firearm bills, which House lawmakers introduced in the early days of his COVID-19 disaster declaration this spring.

Environmental advocates are also calling on the Governor to veto a pair of bills he received from lawmakers this week, including:

  • A bill that changes waste regulations to designate plastic incineration as a form of recycling;
  • Legislation relaxing environmental regulations for gas drillers, which Wolf has already promised to veto. 

One of the most substantial policies the Legislature passed this week emerged from the House Friday. It amounts to a sweeping overhaul of Pennsylvania’s liability laws, shielding businesses, schools, healthcare providers and manufacturers from legal action if they expose someone to COVID-19. 

Schools have been seeking such protections since the summer, saying that they were reluctant to fully reopen for in-person instruction while the threat of lawsuits loomed large. 

But the General Assembly didn’t take up the issue until this week. By then, the proposed liability protections had expanded to cover virtually every firm that does business in the Commonwealth. 

Sen. Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia, voted against the bill. He told the Capital-Star it included necessary protections for schools, but also shielded bad actors from COVID-19-related claims. 

He also thinks it only stood a chance before a lame duck Legislature.

“It’s traditional at the last minute to sneak things in you might not pass otherwise,” Williams said. “[Lawmakers] coming and going impacts what you put on the floor.”

Until about a decade ago, lame duck sessions were prime time for “a little bit of mischief,” said Gene DiGirolamo, a Bucks County Commissioner who served 25 years in the House.

“When you have people who are not going to be facing the voters in the next [election] next cycle, they are more apt to have an open mind to vote for issues they might have voted for or would not have considered if they had to face the voters again,” DiGirolamo told the Capital-Star. “You have a better chance of twisting arms to get things done that might be controversial.”

DiGirolamo said the Legislature started to take a more measured attitude after the 2006 pay raise scandal, when lawmakers voted in a late-night meeting to give themselves a pay bump.

More than a dozen legislators paid the price when voters ousted them in the next election cycle. 

Since then, lame duck periods have been staid, with lawmakers not even returning to Harrisburg in some years following an election, DiGirolamo said.  

DiGirolamo noted that lame duck sessions didn’t necessarily breed profligate or uncountable lawmaking – they could also be a highly productive period for leaders to push bills across the finish line. 

By the end of a two-year legislative session, lawmakers are typically sitting on a pile of bills that have cleared committees and floor votes, but remain just a few steps short of landing on the Governor’s desk. 

Unfinished bills and resolutions expire when a legislative session ends on Nov. 30. If a few lawmakers decide during the lame duck session to change their votes, those pieces of legislation just might find a second wind.

Williams, however, saw potential for last-minute mischief this year. In October, he proposed a temporary rule that would confine lawmakers to budget- and COVID-19-related legislation when they convened in Harrisburg in November.

“[This] will ensure that we are focused on the task at hand and not distracted by partisan policy goals during this critical period,” Williams wrote in a memo seeking support for the measure. “Otherwise, we risk the public trust in this institution to carry out the will of the voters.”

Republican leaders who decided which bills to run never brought Williams’ resolution up for a vote. But as the 20-year Capitol veteran told the Capital-Star Friday, “it is what it is.”