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New Pennsylvania House rules must come with new political will

State House has more options to advance popular bills, but experts warn lawmakers themselves could stand in the way.

  • Sam Dunklau
Lawmakers in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives were sworn in on Jan. 3.

 Matt Smith / AP Photo

Lawmakers in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives were sworn in on Jan. 3.

Voter advocates say the Pennsylvania House is better prepared to approve a number of bipartisan-backed proposals this year, thanks to its new operating rules. But doing so will require a lot of political will.

The House voted along party lines Wednesday to approve procedures that govern how, when and where bills can be debated on and voted on, among other things. The lack of those procedures stalled business in the chamber for weeks, which a committee formed by former Democratic Speaker Mark Rozzi worked to resolve.

Issues ranging from raising the state’s $7.25 minimum wage to improving election access have long been popular in Pennsylvania, but have faced procedural roadblocks. At times, lawmakers who head up the committees that first consider bills have prevented popular legislation from getting a vote. Last year, leaders of both the House Health and Judiciary committees refused to take up measures that had bipartisan support.

“There are issues that have been looming in Pennsylvania for decades that need to be addressed, and this opens the door to have them addressed,” said Carol Kuniholm of good government groups Fair Districts PA and Fix Harrisburg.

“But that will depend on the legislators themselves,” she added. “[Will] they take the opportunity to get things done?” 

Kuniholm’s group was among those that pushed for many of the internal changes that debuted this week. A key revision allows House lawmakers to now force votes on popular measures in committee as long as 25 of them from each party support doing so. Bills can also receive an immediate vote on the House floor if a majority of lawmakers sign off on the move. 

That’s where voter groups see opportunities to urge votes on ideas that have languished in the past. Salewa Ogunmefun, who directs the group PA Voice, said her group wants to make it easier to vote. She argues the state could tackle that by approving things like same-day voter registration and allow counties to distribute more resources for non-English speakers.

“There’s appetite for that, and that appetite is not partisan,” Ogunmefun said. “That appetite isn’t based on race. That appetite isn’t based on geography. Across all of those different categories of people, Pennsylvanians want it to be easier and more convenient for all eligible voters to cast their ballot.”  

Ogunmefun acknowledged some lawmakers have made voting law changes a target of partisan debate. For instance, Republican leadership in the state House and Senate have routinely blocked measures to let counties process earlier mail-in votes before Election Day, or have tied them to other measures like stricter voter ID rules that Democrats have in turn rejected. 

Still others have been motivated to change Pennsylvania’s voting laws over manufactured or inaccurate claims about the security of the state’s voting system. Audits, investigations and court rulings over the last two years have proven Pennsylvania delivers reliably accurate election results.

But, she said, House rules could make it easier to bypass those roadblocks.

“Again, that question remains: do we have the political environment where we’re going to be able to meet the needs the community is asking for and make it easier to vote? I believe we can and we do,” Ogunmefun added.

There are plenty of other legislative ideas that both parties support: improving lead testing in water systems and telehealth access in rural parts of Pennsylvania, and increasing state funding for volunteer fire departments and EMT agencies are among them.

Rabbi Michael Pollack’s advocacy group March on Harrisburg has its sights set on a bill banning lawmakers from accepting gifts. While a key House committee green-lit the idea last year, it stalled in the House before the full chamber could consider it.

Pollack said that measure will face fewer hurdles under the new House rules, but it will still need the support of leadership.

“These rules still leave in place a lot of opportunities to gate-keep, a lot of opportunities to bottleneck bills and stop them up in the system,” he said. “We see this in session after session, where legislators will say they support something but the votes just never happen. That completely shields them from accountability.”

In the future, Pollack added, he wants individual lawmakers to be able to call up a bill they support for a vote. A proposal to let a House member submit a list of “priority” bills never made it into the final rules package.

March on Harrisburg believes the chamber should also reduce the power of committee chairs, something Pollack said would go a long way toward making the House more democratic.

“The rules aren’t the only thing that make our legislature function in this way,” Pollack said. “Our entire campaign financing setup empowers good fundraisers to rise to the top of our legislature and assume these leadership positions. There’s a lot that allows a pyramid-like structure to exist.”

All three voter groups said they plan to pressure lawmakers to support bipartisan measures over the next two years.

“Unless the public, unless voters, unless constituents insist that they be heard, even with better rules, there’s no guarantee that we’ll see the bills pass that we need to see pass,” Carol Kuniholm said.

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