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The public has a message for Pa. House Speaker Mark Rozzi’s listening group: ‘Let us be heard’

The speaker’s group has been gathering public feedback about how to draft better rules for the chamber this session.

  • Sam Dunklau
A composite image of screenshots shows some of the Pennsylvanians who testified at a listening tour about state House rules held by Speaker Mark Rozzi in State College on Feb. 1, 2023.

 Sam Dunklau / via

A composite image of screenshots shows some of the Pennsylvanians who testified at a listening tour about state House rules held by Speaker Mark Rozzi in State College on Feb. 1, 2023.

Pennsylvania House Speaker Mark Rozzi (D-Berks) is continuing to hear from people about how the chamber should operate over the next two years. Their message has been clear: the public should have a greater say in policymaking.

Rozzi was elected as a compromise candidate by a House that is narrowly controlled by Republicans now, but is expected to become a Democratic majority once three special elections are held next week. It would be the party’s first in more than a decade.

The Berks County lawmaker said he wouldn’t caucus with either party, and formed a panel of seven lawmakers to help create new procedural rules. Some groups like the Commonwealth Foundation have said that’s a “delay tactic” designed to stall business until Democrats have a majority. The House has been entirely deadlocked since Rozzi was elected speaker in early January.

So far, the speaker’s workgroup has heard from crowds in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and State College – and is scheduled to make its final stop in Wilkes-Barre Thursday night.

“A decade of ever-increasing hyper-partisanship has left Harrisburg in a gridlock,” Rozzi said in State College Wednesday. “We can’t do the same thing and expect different results. We need fresh ideas.” 

Melanie Morrison, a self-described community activist from Millheim, was among the several dozen people who testified at the State College hearing. She vented frustration that stricter gun laws she has advocated for have been stymied by unsympathetic House committees, despite bipartisan support.

Last summer, the House Judiciary Committee, then led by Republicans, refused to consider a slate of proposals around things like gun storage after Democrats forced the issue in the wake of a mass shooting in Philadelphia.

“Fighting for valid safeguards and watching them die before they reach committee or could be moved to the floor is not only painful, but an immense waste of time, money and energy, for us and for you,” Morrison said.

Her solution to the problem?

“If there is a bill in committee that has overwhelming bipartisan support, it should automatically be brought up to the floor for a vote,” she said. 

For at least the last decade, the state House’s rules have advantaged the majority party and those in leadership positions. A committee chair almost always decides whether legislation will be brought up for a vote. Lawmakers technically can force a vote on any bill in a committee by majority vote, but the move has rarely been used in recent years. 

The Majority Leader has similar power over whether bills get to be voted on once it gets to the floor.

Retired Penn State Education teacher Ron Williams said he also wants to make popular bills easier to vote on. He argued that would give the public more confidence that their state lawmakers are acting when the public demands it.

“House rules can buttress an even higher priority, which is protecting our democracy…by promoting a House legislature that operates more democratically,” Williams added.

George Otto of College Township, another speaker at the State College hearing, said Rozzi’s House panel also should make sure policies aren’t rushed through the chamber without public input. He points to how the state Senate approved a few constitutional amendments last month in committee meetings that weren’t even recorded.

“Such cynical disregard for due process is offensive, and I hope that you and your House colleagues will use this opportunity to craft rules that disallow similar shenanigans in your body,” Otto said.

Margaret Dobrinska of State College said she’s worried about the effect partisan gridlock might be having on young people. She said kids she has spoken with in her community are increasingly more cynical about whether their voice matters in state government.

“Our kids are smart. They can figure out pretty quickly that it doesn’t,” she said. “The way our Pennsylvania state legislature is set up [right now] and the way it operates, it really doesn’t matter. It gets harder and harder to get them enthused about participating.” 

Rozzi has pledged that the workgroup will use public input to fashion new House rules, which must be approved by a majority of state representatives. 

The Berks County Democrat is also collecting ideas about how to aid survivors of childhood sexual abuse. A survivor himself, Rozzi has locked the doors of the House in a move aimed at forcing a vote on a measure that would allow survivors with cases that expired under now-defunct statutes of limitations to sue their abusers and any institutions that housed them. 

Advocates have long sought such a window. State lawmakers were poised to vote on a constitutional change to that effect last month, but the effort was scrapped when the state Senate joined the measure with less-popular ones around voter ID and regulatory review.

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