Pa. Senate’s vote to curb executive power devolves into partisan shouting match

Senate minority leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, speaks on the Senate floor on Sept. 9.

(*This story was updated at 3:15 p.m. on 9/10/20 to correctly reflect when the Senate returns to voting session. The chamber returns to voting session on Sept. 21)

Capping off its first week of lawmaking following a lengthy summer recess, Pennsylvania’s state Senate left Harrisburg without approving changes to the state’s election code, which advocates and local officials say are essential to ensure safe and smooth voting in the Nov. 3 general election.

But the Republican-controlled chamber did pass two pieces of legislation to curb the powers of the state’s executive branch – including one that sparked a shouting match after the Republican majority took action that did not allow Democrats the opportunity to amend it.

Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, banged his gavel and chastised his colleagues Wednesday, as Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, accused him of squashing debate on a bill that curbs the regulatory power of the state Department of Environmental Protection. 

The measure sponsored by Rep. Jim Struzzi, R-Indiana, requires the agency to seek approval from the Legislature before it implements policies that curb greenhouse gas emissions. 

It would effectively bar Pennsylvania from entering the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a multi-state cap-and-trade program that limits carbon emissions.

Democrats said they planned to propose amendments to the legislation until Sen. Joe Pittman, R-Indiana, motioned to fast-track the bill for a vote.

The motion passed over the loud protests of Democrats.

Costa said the maneuver “defied the spirit of democracy” and deprived the Democratic minority of its opportunity to discuss legislation.

He also accused the Republican majority of resorting to technical maneuvers to stifle public debate – a tactic he said has become more common in the past two years in Harrisburg, and that would haunt the Republicans if they lost majority status in the chamber. 

“I don’t understand how you can sleep at night and go back to your constituents'” a frustrated Costa said. “You will rue the day you proceeded down this path.”

Costa and his colleagues excoriated the Republican majority for nearly an hour after the Senate concluded its voting Wednesday.

“We stopped democracy on the floor of the Senate,” Sen. Vincent Hughes, D-Philadelphia, said, calling the Republican maneuver a “nuclear option.”

Sen. Majority leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, said the action was technically permissible under the procedural rules that the chamber unanimously approved at the start of its legislative session in January 2019. 

He also said the legislation provided an important check on the executive branch, which is in the midst of the regulatory process that will allow it to enter the RGGI compact.  

The bill ultimately garnered some bipartisan support, and senators voted 33-17 to send it to Wolf. That margin is one vote shy of what the Senate needs to override the veto Wolf has already pledged.

The Democratic governor also plans to veto another bill the Senate approved Wednesday, one granting local school districts authority over school sports and extracurriculars during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The Senate passed the measure sponsored by Rep. Mike Reese, R-Westmoreland, by a 39-11 vote with broad bipartisan support.

Democrats who opposed the measure said it was unnecessary, given that school sports are already underway statewide. They also said it did not do enough to shield districts from legal liability if athletes and staff contract COVID-19.  

Wolf suggested last month that school sports should be postponed until Jan. 2021. He abandoned that push in mid-August.

Corman said districts needed their authority enshrined in state law so that Wolf could not amend guidelines for sports in the future. 

“What the governor gives us, the governor can take us away,” Corman said. “Without statutory authority … the decision is still at the whim of the chief executive.” 

*The Senate is scheduled to return to Harrisburg on Sept. 21, when it could take up a bill that gives voters less time to request absentee ballots and counties more time to process them ahead of the Nov. 3 general election.

The legislation was on track to advance out of the Senate this week, until a clerical error first reported by the Capital-Star forced the Senate to redo a key committee vote to comply with state open meeting laws.

Wolf has already said he will veto it in his current form, and a spokeswoman for Senate Republicans said Wednesday that negotiations on the election reforms are stalled.