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Groups seek to keep Pennsylvania lawmakers from ignoring popular bills

They say a procedural change would increase bipartisanship.

  • Brett Sholtis
A pedestrian walks past the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., Monday, March 22, 2021.

Matt Rourke / AP Photo

A pedestrian walks past the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., Monday, March 22, 2021.

(Harrisburg) — Every year in the Pennsylvania state legislature, thousands of bills quietly die. 

The reason is simple. Bills are brought up by majority leaders. When a bill is referred to a committee, the committee chair, often with the majority leader’s input, can ignore it if they don’t like it.

Many people consider this business as usual, but a coalition of government reform groups says the rules prevent ideas that are popular with voters and lawmakers alike from getting a fair hearing. 

Those ideas often have bipartisan lawmaker support, said Carol Kuniholm. She chairs redistricting reform group Fair Districts PA and is leading the effort to get lawmakers to tweak the rules when they start the next legislative session in January. Five other groups are also involved. 

Brett Sholtis / WITF

Carol Kuniholm, the chair of Fair Districts PA.

Kuniholm said under the current rules, “partisan gatekeepers” keep proposals from getting brought up for a hearing and a vote. Some of those ideas include a perennial bill that would prohibit elected officials from accepting gifts from lobbyists, as well as redistricting reform bills and efforts to update the rules on topics such as charter schools and telemedicine. 

“Those bills do not get passed,” Kuniholm said. “And the bills that do get passed are often commemorative or very, very partisan — and we are looking for bipartisan solutions, substantive bipartisan solutions that would serve Pennsylvania.”

FairDistrictsPA

A graph that shows how many bills were introduced in the 2019-2020 legislative session in Pennsylvania and how far those bills went.

The groups note that on the first session day, lawmakers set procedural rules that guide the next two years of legislation. “Rank and file legislators are pressured to vote rules into place, sometimes without even reading them. While these rules could be changed at any time, that rarely happens.”

She pointed to a report from Fairvote and the Bipartisan Policy Center that found that states where agenda-setting power was least concentrated had less polarization and passed more bipartisan legislation.

In contrast, many bills in Pennsylvania that initially have dozens of lawmakers supporting them get referred to committees where one Republican committee chair decides their fate, she said. 

“And so, just a handful of people elected in one district by 15,000 or 20,000 people can block a bill that millions of Pennsylvanians have asked for year after year after year,” Kuniholm said. 

One recent example of this is the Patient Safety Act, which would set rules for how many nurses are required to work at health care facilities. Republican state Reps. Tom Mehaffie of Dauphin County and K.C. Tomlinson of Bucks County introduced it, and it has 107 co-sponsors — enough that it could pass if it were brought up for a vote. Nurses have rallied in support of the bill for years. 

Brett Sholtis / WITF

Pa. state Rep. Kathy Rapp, R-Warren, serves as chair of the House Health Committee Tues., Sept. 14, 2021.

However, because it is in the House Health Committee, Republican state Rep. Kathy Rapp of Warren County, the committee chair, keeps it from moving any further. Rapp has said she does not plan to bring the bill up because she thinks it would put too much burden on rural hospitals. 

Mehaffie emphasized that dozens of House Republicans and Democrats support the bill. He and Tomlinson recently sent a letter to Republican leadership to put together a consensus-building group on the issue. 

Mehaffie said he would be open to a procedural rules change next year, while adding that rules are sometimes in place for good reasons.

“And I believe that times have changed, and we have to have an open and honest conversation about what is best for the commonwealth,” Mehaffie said. “This particular rule that you’re talking about, I believe that if you have over 102 co-sponsors, there should be at least a discussion.”

Ed Mahon / PA Post

After Senate Republicans moved to ignore their amendments, Democrats walked off the floor and held a tense press conference. They held a box of props– some of the toiletries, they said, that General Assistance allows poor people to buy.

State Sen. Jay Costa, the Democratic minority leader, said he would support a rule change.  

“Good bills are introduced in this chamber every year by members of the Democratic caucus and every year they languish in committee simply because of the party of the sponsor,” Costa said. “We are elected to pass laws that will help our constituents, but our ability to do that is limited by chamber rules that let the majority party kill bills with inaction.”

House Republican spokesman Jason Gottesman said the effort is a false narrative designed to “fool the public.”

“Legislative volume does not equate to legislative quality,” Gottesman said. “Good ideas typically garner broad support, not just at the top of the paper, but in committee and on the floor. Allowing for the fast-tracking of legislation based on fake metrics and feel-good platitudes circumvents the function of legislating and doing things truly in the best interests of the people represented in this building.”

Gottesman noted that most bills that have passed the House have done so “either unanimously or with bipartisan support.”

“To say that we do not work in a bipartisan fashion is not only uninformed, but laughable,” he said. “It is typical in this building for members to say there is no pride in authorship for good ideas. Maybe instead of whining, the minority party’s special interest allies should abide by that principle.” 

Pa. Republican lawmakers and the U.S. Capitol attack

As part of WITF’s commitment to standing with facts, and because the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol was an attempt to overthrow representative democracy in America, we are marking elected officials’ connections to the insurrection. Read more about this commitment.

Rep. Kathy Rapp (R-Warren) is one of several dozen lawmakers who signed a letter asking Congress to object to Pennsylvania’s electoral college vote –despite no evidence that would call those results into question.

This supported the election-fraud lie, which led to the attack on the Capitol.

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