Pa. lawmakers have been busy. But did they get anything done? That depends
Despite some major gaps. GOP House leaders defended their record so far during this fall’s session
House Democratic Leader Joanna McClinton, of Philadelphia, speaks at a press conference in favor of increasing public school funding on June 8, 2021 (Capital-Star photo).
After three weeks in session, the Pennsylvania House broke Wednesday having accomplished some key wins for Pennsylvanians — or nothing in the face of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. It just depends on who you ask.
The GOP-controlled lower chamber cut its summer vacation short, returning to session to undo Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s school mask mandate. That effort fell by the wayside amid internal divisions.
In its nine days of voting session from Sept. 20 to Oct. 6 — lawmakers typically work Monday through Wednesday in Harrisburg — the 203-member body did approve a handful of bills, to:
- Expand the public’s access to public health data through public records requests. It now heads to the Senate.
- Require schools to post all teachers’ lesson plans and instructional materials online for the general public. It now heads to the Senate.
- Suspend hundreds of state health care and other regulations for another six months. Wolf signed the bill into law.
- Extend Wolf’s disaster emergency for Hurricane Ida damage until Oct. 27, preserving access to federal aid for thousands of impacted Pennsylvanians.
At a Wednesday press conference, House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, also pointed to the chamber’s approval of legislation that expanded eligibility for private school scholarships and allowed 17,000 seniors to continue to receive state prescription drug benefits.
However, unmentioned in the press conference were some of the bigger topics that House Republicans have not yet addressed.
Besides ducking an up-or-down vote on Wolf’s school mask order, the Republican majority suffered a rare floor defeat when 18 Republicans defected on a school voucher measure.
And this week, the House’s GOP majority did not advance its own omnibus election bill, or legislation that would put five constitutional amendments — including mandatory election audits, an elected secretary of state, and expanded voter ID requirements — in front of voters as soon as 2023.
Regardless of what remains to be tackled, Benninghoff argued that the House’s accomplishments were independent of what still hadn’t passed.
“We’ve got a lot of bills across the finish line, you’re only focusing on ones that still are yet to be worked on,” he told reporters Wednesday, adding: “When the interest level rises on [bills], we bring them up for votes — if we get enough votes to get across the goal line.”
Efforts to get the votes among Republicans — and to talk with Wolf to find a compromise on elections — were ongoing, he added.
“We’re moving on,” Benninghoff concluded. “There are things that we can get accomplished.”
Future topics this fall could also include infrastructure spending and tax code changes, Benninghoff said.
Other Republican leaders have floated different priorities. House Speaker Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, has pushed for the passage of a lobbying reform package this fall, including stricter disclosure rules and prohibiting campaign consultants from lobbying.
In the GOP-controlled state Senate, Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, said that passing a regulatory framework for telemedicine and addressing the opioid crisis is on her list.
Early committee action in the House also suggests that the General Assembly may take a run at charter school reform once again.
However, seemingly not on the agenda is spending any more of the state’s $7 billion in excess funds — including $2 billion in state tax revenue surplus and $5 billion in leftover federal stimulus dollars from last spring.
The excess dollars are in the bank after Wolf and Republican legislative leadership instead agreed to a parsimonious spending plan in June, eying future budget deficits.
House Appropriations Committee Chairperson Stan Saylor, R-York, told the Capital-Star last week that the money had been set aside to respond to any needs that pop up as the Delta variant spreads.
“We didn’t know if any businesses would be closed, what the nursing homes would need, any of those things — child care, schools, so on and so forth,” Saylor said. “We’re going to continue being very conservative until we see how this all plays out into the fall.”
Republicans’ insistence on not spending the leftover stimulus money was House Democrats’ top complaints at the close of session Wednesday.
“While we have had a few important votes over three weeks, we have not done the hard work that Pennsylvania’s need us to do,” House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia, said.
Democrats reiterated their push for the General Assembly to pass a broad spending plan they crafted in spring for the federal stimulus dollars, targeting everything from broadband and paid family leave to business grants and lead remediation.
“This is your money that we could be doing something for you with,” House Minority Whip Jordan Harris, D-Philadelphia, said, “but instead folks want to hold it up here.”
Absent a sudden change of heart by the Republican majority, Wolf and his Democratic legislative allies still have about $345 million in federal money to spend at their discretion.
The budget allocated $370 million to Wolf to spend with few strings attached. Of that, $20 million was put to grants for hair salons and barbers, and $6.5 million is funding student loan aid and job training for nurses.
Rep. Matt Bradford, of Montgomery County, the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, said conversations were ongoing with Senate Democrats on how to spend Wolf’s remaining stimulus dollars.
The spending would likely mirror their previously introduced spending plan, Bradford added.
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