Lawmakers Leave State Capitol For Summer With Bills Dangling

Jun 27, 2018

Of all the bills that stalled this week in Pennsylvania's Capitol, perhaps the most remarkable is the derailing of a measure designed to force people with a domestic violence conviction or restraining order against them to forfeit their firearms more quickly.

Rep. Marguerite Quinn, R-Bucks, said she had never left the Capitol with tears of anger in her eyes until Monday. That was after House Republican leaders ended the session for the summer amid growing questions over provisions of her bill, tanking a floor vote until at least September.

On Sunday evening, a Pennsylvania-based gun rights group, Firearms Owners Against Crime, emailed lawmakers to announce its fresh opposition, citing various provisions of the bill in a letter that Quinn said was full of inaccuracies.

"There were a lot of things in the letter that are just not true," Quinn said. "It was a well-timed letter to disrupt the voting process on the last day of session for the summer."

House Republican leaders ended the session without giving Quinn time to settle questions about the bill and get it to a floor vote.

All bills die when the two-year legislative session ends Nov. 30, and both chambers are expected to schedule nine to 12 session days in September and October.

Other bills left hanging when lawmakers left for the summer include measures to amend the state constitution to shrink the number of seats in the House of Representatives and to create a citizens' commission to draw legislative and congressional district boundaries.

Lawmakers say the Department of State told them July 6 is the deadline to approve a redistricting measure to meet constitutional guidelines if a commission is to be operating by 2022's elections. That's when states must redraw boundaries to adjust for decade-long population shifts identified in the census.

But House Republican support for a redistricting commission is shaky, while Democrats oppose a Senate-passed measure that includes provisions to change how appellate judges are elected and potentially undo the state Supreme Court's Democratic majority.

The Senate left without voting on legislation that passed the House in April to prohibit abortions in Pennsylvania when the sole reason is that the fetus has or may have Down syndrome. The bill was championed by House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny.

Meanwhile, the House did not take up Senate-passed legislation to combat sex trafficking or increase criminal penalties for hazing, a measure inspired by the death last year of a Penn State pledge after a night of heavy drinking.

Anti-domestic violence advocates have worked on the provisions in Quinn's bill for four years and, in March, it passed the Senate unanimously, spurred in part by February's Parkland, Florida, high school shooting that killed 17 people.

Law enforcement groups broadly supported it and Firearms Owners Against Crime and the National Rifle Association had dropped their opposition to the Senate's bill after winning 11th-hour changes to it.

But it underwent a series of changes in the House last week after three months awaiting a committee vote. Kim Stolfer of Firearms Owners Against Crime viewed at least one of those changes as backtracking on a provision to which he had agreed in the Senate's version.

Stolfer insisted he had not spread inaccuracies about the bill, but said he and his group's lawyers had had to scramble to keep up with last week's series of changes.

The process was confusing and chaotic and, in the end, his lawyers believed the bill was packed with poorly written and conflicting provisions, Stolfer said.

"We're not the bad guys here, and we're being painted as that," Stolfer said. "And that's not fair."

House Majority Whip Brian Cutler, R-Lancaster, said the bill remains viable for the House's fall session, although it will require finding out anew how much support the bill has.