Pennsylvania Legislature

The past several weeks saw much action, but little advancement, on proposals to reduce the number of seats in the state House and Senate.

Pennsylvania has the largest full-time legislature in the country, with 253 state lawmakers. Efforts to thin the ranks ground to a halt over the past several weeks.

Opponents argue that membership cuts will lump more constituents in each district, leaving them with representation of lesser quality. They say a big shrink would concentrate legislative representation in more populated urban areas.

Though Gov. Tom Corbett signed the 2014-15 state budget, he line-item vetoed $65 million in General Assembly spending and an additional $7.2 million in legislative designated spending.

He said he did this because the lawmakers sent him a budget that was filled with discretionary spending but refused to deal with the unsustainable public pension system.

Instead, he said the Assembly increased its $320 million budget by two percent – which he said would cost taxpayers an additional $5 million.

State lawmakers unceremoniously sidelined a public pension overhaul bill Tuesday, disarming House Republicans in their efforts to advance a priority topping Gov. Tom Corbett’s legislative wish list.

Midway through floor debate on the measure, Rep. Gene DiGirolamo (R- Bucks) asked to send the pensions proposal to his committee for further study over the summer.

“There are too many unanswered questions about the proposal and about the amendment that we have before us,” said DiGirolamo.

Gov. Tom Corbett is holding off on signing the $29.1 billion commonwealth budget approved by state lawmakers Monday evening.

The announcement came just after the final vote on the spending plan, which includes no new taxes but leans heavily on one-time revenue sources and hopeful revenue forecasts.

In a written statement, the governor took issue not with anything in the spending plan, but with the Legislature’s failure to pass another one of his top priorities: changes to public pension benefits for future state and school employees.

The state House passed a $29.1 billion spending plan Wednesday, five days before the July 30 budget deadline. The measure now heads to the Senate, which looks likely to make big changes to the revenue sources assumed in the plan, if not the final spend figure.

House Republicans heralded the proposal as a reflection of their priorities: holding the line on spending, without raising taxes, and passed before July.

With about a week left before the state budget deadline, House lawmakers have advanced an actual spending plan.

Until now, the House has been teeing up a bill referred to merely as vehicle - last year's budget in new legislation, a placeholder for whenever the Republican majority put together the plan it intended to send to the Senate.

And in some ways, the $29.1 billion spending plan voted out of the House Appropriations Committee Tuesday is still just a vehicle. It's likely to undergo some big changes before heading to the governor's desk.

State lawmakers are heading into the final stretch of June, and for the first time in four years, a budget agreement doesn’t appear to be on the horizon.

Gov. Tom Corbett, who ran for office promising timely state budgets, has said he’ll forgive a late spending plan in return for passage of two other legislative priorities: an overhaul of public pensions and changes to how alcohol is sold in Pennsylvania.

Gov. Tom Corbett says he’ll make do with a late budget this year and possibly renege on his no-taxes campaign pledge.  

“Given the difficulty of this budget, I have allowed — I have informed — the legislators, we need to get this done and we need to get it done right, rather than quickly,” said Corbett at a news conference Tuesday. “So, if we are not able to finish by June 30, we are not able to finish by June 30.”

It’s shaping up to be a longer-than-usual work calendar for state lawmakers negotiating the commonwealth’s budget.

House and Senate Republican leaders aren’t expecting to meet the state constitution’s end-of-June budget deadline.

“It’s unlikely that we will finish our work by June 30,” Republican Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi said he told his caucus’s members. “Certainly be prepared for at least the first week in July.”

When pressed for more details (for example: just how far should lawmakers and staff push back holiday plans?), Pileggi was reticent.

A debate is raging over ways to update the various codes that govern construction in Pennsylvania.

A new code requiring sprinklers in a building — is it a life saver or a costly mandate? The answer to that question depends on whether you make your living building homes or selling sprinklers.

Every three years, a state review panel is faced with hundreds of new model codes to adopt or reject. The state Senate has passed a proposal to give the panel more time (two years instead of one) to consider each code.

Affordable housing hasn’t been an agenda-topper for state lawmakers this year faced with too many line items and not enough money. But a bipartisan group of senators are backing a plan that could boost residential housing stock by letting the real estate market do the heavy lifting.  

The state’s one percent tax on real estate transfers is being eyed as a way to pay for it.

Revenue updates continue to leave state lawmakers cold, but partisan tensions may be starting to thaw as leaders sense tough decisions ahead.

The news is bad and not getting better for anyone interested in finishing a state budget by the end of June. April tax collections were down by hundreds of millions of dollars, followed by a May haul that came in roughly $100 million below estimate. On Wednesday, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bill Adolph (R-Delaware) said June revenues are expected to contribute to the growing deficit.

The full Senate will take up a measure to reduce the size of Penn State’s Board of Trustees, thereby responding to criticisms of how the university handled the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse case.

Under the proposal, Penn State’s current governing body would go from 30 to 23 voting members. Changes, by attrition, would go into effect in 2016.

Sen. John Yudichak (D-Luzerne) proposed the overhaul to address concerns voiced in the aftermath of the Sandusky scandal.

State lawmakers are toying with the idea of allowing online bets as a way to boost state tax revenue.

Making online gambling legal could yield $68 million its first year for the state, and $110 million annually in later years. That’s according to policy consultants who assessed Pennsylvania’s gambling landscape for the state Legislature.

Fewer legislators, fewer judges and no lieutenant governor — that’s the vision approved by a state Senate committee this week.

Proposed constitutional amendments to shrink the size of government across the three branches have been sent to the full Senate for consideration. Under the measures, the House would go from 203 to 153 members, the Senate would lose five seats, two judgeships each would be eliminated from the state Superior Court and Supreme Court. The lieutenant governor would also get the axe.

Pennsylvania tax collections last month fell short by about $108 million, or five and a half percent.

The report wasn’t unexpected, but still came as unwelcome news for state lawmakers facing a budget deficit of more than $1 billion. Less than a month remains to hammer out a spending plan for the next fiscal year.

Republicans, who control the General Assembly, still aren’t sure how they’ll bridge the gap.

State lawmakers return to Harrisburg next week for the relatively action-packed month of June. It’s a time reserved for finalizing a state budget before the July 1 deadline, and all signs point to a tough road ahead.

A projected $1.2 billion deficit is likely to grow, as May tax collections have been lackluster.

“May’s collection numbers, to date, have been below what we would’ve hoped,” said GOP Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi. “So we’re very closely watching how the month of May will close.”

House lawmakers have the actuarial analysis they need to start collecting votes on a measure to overhaul the state’s pension plans.

A state commission central to the debate over changing public pension benefits in Pennsylvania says its consulting actuary finds that the amended House proposal would save more than $11 billion for the commonwealth over a 30-year span.

For a decade, Pennsylvania allowed undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. Now immigrants in the commonwealth face long odds to restore the old rule.

The undocumented Pennsylvania residents who gathered Wednesday at the state Capitol – some with U.S.-born children, some whose spouses had been deported – said that as Washington dithers on overhauling immigration laws, state lawmakers could do something to help immigrants contribute to the commonwealth’s economy.

Government reform activists say they haven’t forgotten state lawmakers’ pledges to address the blind spots in Pennsylvania law on accepting gifts.

On Tuesday in a relatively deserted state Capitol, Harrisburg’s most avid gadflies renewed their push to ban public officials from accepting any gifts.

“This has to be statutory. It has to be legislation. It has to impact all three branches,” said Eric Epstein, of Rock the Capital.

Proposals to block minors from using tanning beds in Pennsylvania has been kicked around the Capitol for at least three years.

The key to final passage? Don’t mess with prom.

The state Legislature has passed a measure to ban anyone 16 years old and younger from tanning salons. 17-year-olds would be good to go with a parent’s permission.

Sponsoring Rep. Frank Farry (R-Bucks) calls it the “prom carve-out,” and he said it was necessary to get political support for the bill.

A decades-long debate over enforcing local speed limits is about to resurface. Pennsylvania mayors and local police chiefs have banded together to form the “Radar Coalition.”

Members united over their shared covetous feelings toward the radar guns used by state police to identify vehicles going over the speed limit. State law bans local police from using the same tool.

Jim Nowalk, mayor of Whitehall in Allegheny County, said his police officers tell him enforcing speeding laws on hills and curved roads is too difficult without radar.

A Philadelphia  state senator is proposing laws so people don’t get “slapped” with unfair legal fees while utilizing their Freedom of Speech.

Senator Larry Farnese (D-Philadelphia) proposed legislation to combat what he calls "frivolous" litigation known as  Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP).

According to Cornell University Law School, SLAPPs are lawsuits often filed by corporations against an activist or group of activists that disagree with the corporation’s actions.

State Senate supporters of a plan to replace school property taxes with higher personal income and sales levies are shopping their proposal around to colleagues.

It’s hard to tell for sure if popular support for property tax elimination has grown, but rallies and hearings on the issue tend to be packed with people who say their property taxes are so high they’re in danger of losing their homes.

A Senate Finance Committee hearing on the issue Wednesday was no exception. But even co-sponsors of the “tax shift” plan under consideration now would create new winners and losers.

Talk of low state revenues is prompting Republicans in the General Assembly to suggest new taxes could be under consideration, including the the ever-polarizing severance tax on natural gas drillers. But there are no clear indicators an extraction tax could pass anytime soon.

The state Senate’s most junior member is getting down to his first official matter of business: redecorating.

Portraits of past House and Senate leaders hang in the hallways just off the Capitol Rotunda. Three are of former lawmakers sentenced for corruption charges in 2012.

“I think it’s wrong,” said Sen. Scott Wagner (R-York), just three weeks into his term. “What message does that send – that we’re OK with corruption?”

The state Senate will vote on a proposal to restrict cash gifts to public officials, a measure that aims to change state law, not just the rules that govern the Senate or the House.

Proposals to change how suspected child abuse must be reported in Pennsylvania are nearing the finish line after stalling for several months.

Two measures are awaiting final votes in the House and Senate to clarify who must report child abuse and how they should do it. But a plan that originated in the state Senate would now exclude lawyers from the list of people who will be mandated reporters, after House lawmakers voiced concerns about breaching attorney-client privilege: should lawyers be mandated reporters if filing a complaint could violate the trust of their client?

That sound you hear is the stampede of lawmakers rushing to propose a ban on cash gifts. The calls for reform are following revelations that four Philadelphia House Democrats accepted money from an undercover lobbyist working with state prosecutors in a quashed sting.

Pennsylvania’s ethics act is one of the weakest in the country, letting public officials accept gifts as long as they report those valued at $250 or more. The reporting trigger is $650 dollars if the gift is transportation, lodging, or hospitality.

Pennsylvania lawmakers are trying to decide if the states youth should have only limited access to tanning beds. Legislation that would regulate access to tanning salons for those under 18 is currently under consideration by the Senate. Pennsylvania would join 36 other states that have already imposed similar restrictions.

Pages