It is crunch time in Harrisburg.
The next 60 days will likely be the most productive – or unproductive – period of legislating under the capitol dome this year. From budgets and taxes to liquor privatization and pensions a wide range of controversial and difficult issues vie for legislative attention.
Most importantly, the state constitution requires a budget be adopted by the close of business on June 30th. Lawmakers don’t always fulfill their constitutional obligation. Under former Governor Ed Rendell the commonwealth went eight straight years without passing a budget on time. It has been a source of pride for Governor Tom Corbett that his three budgets were done by the deadline, but revenue shortfalls and election year politics threaten that streak.
This year, budget aside, June 30th looms as a very important date. That is because the General Assembly traditionally adjourns immediately after passing the budget for a two and a half month summer vacation. Last year, even with the governor’s top three legislative agenda items unresolved, the legislature left town. When lawmakers return in mid-September the General Election will be just six weeks away. With every member of the state House and half of the state Senate up for election you can bet the mortgage nothing controversial will get done during the Fall session.
For decades the legislature would return to session for two weeks after the General Elections in a so-called "sine die" session to complete business. However, such sessions have fallen into disrepute because they were often used so members who lost or were retiring could cast politically difficult votes knowing they would never again face the electorate. As part of the meager reforms that took place during the backlash over the infamous middle-of-the-night pay raise vote, sine die sessions have either not been held or limited to routine administrative business.
Depending on the outcome of the gubernatorial election, this year could test the resolve of leaders to not call a sine die session. Despite its control of both chambers the GOP has not been able to agree on key issues. Should the Democratic nominee win the governor’s race, then the last chance to forge an agreement on such issues and get them signed into law will come in November. After that, Republican dominance would end. If, however, Governor Corbett is re-elected, sine die becomes irrelevant and legislative battles will wait until the new session convenes in January.
Adding to the drama is that each major issue is complicated by associated issues. The budget, for example, also depends on the outcome of a Democratic push to enact a severance tax on Marcellus Shale drillers and lavish election-year spending on education. Under the House-passed bill privatization of the state’s liquor stores would inject much needed cash into the system, but the Senate has yet to come up with the votes to pass that legislation.
Meanwhile other big issues are at play. After decades of talk and debate there actually are two property tax reform bills gaining traction. The problem is the bills take significantly different approaches to shifting property taxes to other forms of taxation triggering an internal battle over how to proceed.
And then there are key labor power issues. Most notably there is a push for Paycheck Protection, or outlawing the automatic deduction of labor union dues from government workers’ paychecks. That bill appears to have enough votes for House passage. But, organized labor has a stronger foothold in the Senate GOP caucus, so the fate of the bill is up in the air. Governor Corbett has pledged to sign the legislation.
Illustrating how difficult it is to get anything accomplished in the current legislative and political climate is that a bill which would eliminate loopholes in state law that actually allow stalking, harassment and the making of threats to use a weapon of mass destruction during a labor dispute remains unresolved. Polls show nearly 90% of voters want to make such actions illegal. Both the House and the Senate have passed a bill to do so – but the Senate added some language that the House has yet to agree upon.
The failure to pass a law with such widespread support calls into question the ability of the legislature to deal with more complicated issues like pension reform. The sad fact is it will take an enormous effort by the governor and legislative leaders to accomplish anything of substance given the political climate in which they are currently operating.
(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman & CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the weekly Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is [email protected].)
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