Pennsylvania House Speaker Mark Rozzi presides over a special session Feb. 21, 2023. (Capital-Star photo by Peter Hall)
As the Pennsylvania House moved closer to passing legal relief for sexual abuse victims on Thursday, Speaker Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, released a preview of his proposal for rules to govern the chamber for the 2023-24 session.
Rozzi, who was elected with bipartisan support to lead the House as an independent, carried out a listening tour to gather input from Pennsylvania residents on how they want the chamber to function after a stalemate last month over the rules. Rozzi did not follow through on his commitment to become an independent.
The proposed rules would focus on ending the ability of majority party leaders to bottle up legislation in committees, changing the partisan makeup of committees, and giving rank-and-file members the ability to call for a vote on legislation as a special order of business.
“I pledged to introduce a fair set of House Rules that would rein in hyper-partisanship and allow measures supported by a majority of the members of the House, whether that be Democrats, Republicans, or a coalition of both, to pass legislation regardless of where legislative leaders are on the subject,” Rozzi said in a statement.
Additionally, Rozzi’s proposal would include a rule that referendums for proposed Constitutional amendments cannot be placed on primary election ballots, where voter turnout is typically low and that bills for proposed amendments include only one subject.
Last year, the General Assembly passed a bill grouping together proposed amendments to explicitly exclude the right to abortion from the state constitution, require voter identification, mandate election audits, change the way the lieutenant governor is elected, and increase the General Assembly’s control over regulations from the executive branch of state government.
Last month, the state Senate passed a bill that grouped the voter ID and regulatory review amendments with a constitutional amendment to give adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse whose legal claims have expired a two-year window to sue their attackers.
That set up a likely clash between Rozzi, who is adamant about passing the survivors’ amendment as a standalone proposal, and Senate Republicans, who have vowed not to back down on the other proposed amendments.
Rozzi’s proposal will also include an expansion of the House sexual harassment policy to cover people outside of the chamber’s organizational structure such as other state employees, lobbyists, and constituents.
During a hearing on Rozzi’s listening tour in Philadelphia, a union lobbyist alleged that she had been sexually harassed by a sitting member of the House during a meeting in which he persistently touched her leg. The lobbyist, Andi Perez of Service Employees International Union, noted that she was unable to file an ethics complaint against the lawmaker under existing rules.
The House held its second consideration of two bills to provide statute of limitations relief to sexual abuse survivors.
The first, House Bill 1, is the standalone version of the amendment language passed in the last three sessions. The amendment was due to go before voters in 2021, but an error in advertising the proposal by the Department of State set the effort back.
The other bill, House Bill 2, would enact a change in state law to give survivors whose claims have expired a temporary exception to the statute of limitations to bring legal claims against their attackers.
On the floor Thursday, Republican lawmakers proposed several changes to the amendment, all of which failed.
Rep. Eric Nelson, R-Westmoreland, said the amendment as it is written would expose Pennsylvania school districts to billions of dollars in liability for financial settlements by eliminating their sovereign immunity — the legal doctrine that allows government entities to set the conditions under which they can be sued.
Thursday’s action in the House also saw rekindling of a falling out between Rozzi and Rep. Jim Gregory, R-Blair, who called for Rozzi’s resignation as speaker last month after he failed to change his registration from Democrat to “no affiliation.” Rozzi and Gregory, who are both survivors of childhood sexual abuse, have been allies in the effort to pass legal relief for abuse survivors.
Gregory, on Thursday, demanded that his name be removed from the bill to provide legislative relief for survivors, saying that it was included without his knowledge or consent, setting a dangerous precedent for all members of the House in the future. Rozzi said he does not support the legislative route because it would be subject to court challenges that would further delay relief for survivors. Rozzi apologized to Gregory from the speaker’s rostrum.
The House is set to reconvene at 9 a.m. Friday when a final vote on the survivors’ bills is expected.
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