Where for Art Thou?: PA legislature leaves town with job undone

Member Group : Lincoln Institute

After missing the constitutionally-mandated deadline for passing a state budget by 101 days the Pennsylvania General Assembly promptly adjourned and went home for a month’s vacation.

The decision to leave Harrisburg was made by Speaker Keith McCall over the strong objections of House Republican Leader Sam Smith who issued a fiery news release condemning the action, or more precisely the inaction. Smith correctly pointed out a large backlog of legislative business remains on the agenda.

In fact, the legislature has left major components of the budget agreement undone. Feeling the impact are state-related universities, museums and hospitals whose $730 million budget appropriation remains to be approved. That hasn’t happened because action has yet to be taken on legislation to legalize table games at Pennsylvania’s casinos.

It remains unclear as to how or why funding for state-related universities is tied to an expansion of gambling. But what is clear is that the new budget faces a gaping revenue hole of approximately $200 million if table gaming is not approved. Aside from the obvious irresponsibility of balancing a budget with a revenue stream that does not yet exist, the issue of expanded gambling is itself a matter of great importance and there are many in the General Assembly who are opposed to it.

Significant disagreement exists over the specifics of the proposed legislation to legalize table gaming. Being debated is the amount casinos will be charged to obtain a state license. This is important as it is the only revenue from potential legalization of table gaming that will flow into state coffers during the current fiscal year. Also at issue is the percentage amount profits from the activity will be taxed. That will have an impact on future state budgets.

Of course the usual behind-the-scenes – and out of public view – negotiations over the gambling bill are taking place. Tied to that legislation, and viewed by many as a mandatory prerequisite to it being considered, are reforms to the original law which legalized slot machine gambling. That deeply flawed law was passed in a similar manner: crafted in the back room and with little public debate once the bill took final form.

And, while these serious issues related to legalize gambling languish, and state-related universities go without their money, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives remains in adjournment.

The 101 day budget stalemate also pushed aside the many other issues pressing for their time on the legislative agenda. So even if the table gaming bill is not ready to come to the floor it is logical to assume there are many other issues that could occupy the time of Pennsylvania’s supposed full-time legislature.

But is the legislature really full-time? Consider that having adjourned in mid-October the House of Representatives does not plan on returning to session until November 9th. When they do return the house is scheduled to be in session for only five days before adjourning for the Thanksgiving holiday and of course mandatory time off for deer hunting season. When they do return in December, lawmakers plan to work only six days before adjourning for their Christmas break.

Perhaps the time has come for a return to a part-time citizen legislature. Even during the budget stand-off those legislators who are not part of leadership, which is to say almost all of them, complained vocally about not being involved in the process.

It has become crystal clear that Pennsylvania’s legislative process is broken and dysfunctional. It is equally clear there is no need for a full-time legislature as the one we have neither works full-time, nor does it produce the results taxpayers would expect from their investment in a full-time legislative body.

We the people of Penn’s Woods would be better served by a part-time legislature similar to those operating in Texas or Maryland. In Texas, the legislature meets only every other year. In Maryland, the legislature is in session during the first 90 days of every year, and then it adjourns.

A shorter, more focused legislative session it in order. And then, after doing the people’s business, our part-time legislators can return to their jobs and businesses and live under the laws they have passed. That alone would ensure better lawmaking from along the banks of the Susquehanna.

(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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