Pa.’s lawmakers return to Harrisburg this month. Here’s their plan.
Expect arguments on everything from energy to guns, from criminal justice to wages, and more.
The state legislature is emerging from its long summer recess this month, with the House back in session Tuesday and the Senate returning next Monday.
Lawmakers are about halfway through their two-year session, and they left a lot unfinished when they took their post-budget break. Here’s what to look for during the impending flurry in Harrisburg.
The great energy debate
House Republicans say of all the bills on their agenda, the first priority is a package dubbed “Energize PA.” Caucus spokesman Mike Straub predicted most of the already-introduced components will begin moving through the approval process this week and next.
The package consists of eight bills which would, among other things, make it easier for companies to get environmental permits, encourage development on abandoned industrial sites, and make it cheaper to run natural gas lines to businesses.
Broadly, Energize PA is intended to bolster Pennsylvania’s large natural gas industry. It also serves as a repudiation by Republican leaders of Gov. Wolf’s energy plan.
Wolf unveiled Restore PA several months before Republicans announced theirs. It’s a sweeping proposal to overhaul the commonwealth’s infrastructure, from expanding high-speed internet, to handing out grants to prevent flooding and stem stormwater pollution, to repairing roads and bridges. It overlaps with GOP priorities in a few places; for instance, both aim to help companies install utility lines.
All told, he estimates it would cost $4.5 billion—which would be covered by a proposed sliding-scale severance tax on natural gas drillers. The money would be borrowed up-front, and the state would pay it back over 20 years.
It’s the fifth such tax Wolf has proposed, and Republican leaders have given the entire proposal a thoroughly chilly reception. So far, there haven’t been any signs things have warmed up.
Minimum wage fight will continue
Much to the chagrin of Wolf and Democratic leaders, Pennsylvania’s wage remains at the $7.25 federal minimum, and the Republicans who control the state House and Senate have, so far, been unmoved by efforts to change it.
In his initial proposal for the now-passed 2019-20 budget, Wolf pitched a wage increase that would have taken workers to $12 an hour, and gradually up to $15. GOP leaders deemed that too extreme, though some did indicate there could be a compromise.
Back in February, Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman said a conversation on the wage “needs to happen.” Ultimately, it never really did.
Nevertheless, House Democratic Spokesman Bill Patton said when the caucus gets back to the Capitol, that’s still their top priority.
“Pennsylvania’s lowest-paid workers haven’t had a raise in more than a decade,” he said. “Raising the minimum wage is way overdue.”
Stalled talks on child sexual assault might resume
The state House has already passed two related bills that would overhaul the commonwealth’s statute of limitations on child sexual abuse cases.
The measures have been in the works for a long time, but gained traction last summer thanks to public outrage following the discovery of decades of alleged child abuse within Pennsylvania’s Catholic dioceses. Since then, they’ve been among the most contentious bills the legislature has considered.
One of the bills would get rid of the criminal statute of limitations for future child abuse cases and extend the statute for civil suits. Among other things, it would also hold institutions responsible if they knew about abuse but failed to stop it. The second bill would open a window for retroactive lawsuits on old abuse cases for which the statute of limitations has expired.
The bills have a major hurdle remaining, though. Senate Republicans have so far refused to pass measures that would allow suits on old cases, arguing it would be unconstitutional and could bankrupt churches.
A spokeswoman for the caucus didn’t comment on what leaders plan to do. They have previously supported bills that do not include windows for retroactive lawsuits.
Reforms to sentencing, probation, and parole
A group of bills aimed at overhauling several parts of Pennsylvania’s criminal justice system easily passed the Senate earlier this session. But the package, known as the Justice Reinvestment Initiative 2, now faces a path through the House that appears a little less certain.
One component of the JRI 2 would update sentencing guidelines to allow automatic parole for some low-level offenders. Another would create a parole advisory committee aimed at helping counties, and the third is a constitutional amendment that looks to keep victims better informed about developments in their cases, and would make it easier for them to be compensated.
House Democrats support the measures. But on the GOP side, progress is expected to be less breezy. Straub, the caucus spokesman, said there is “an interest in addressing best practices to ensure those incarcerated are provided the best opportunities to succeed once they leave prison,” but didn’t weigh in on automatic parole.
He said instead, House Republicans are interested in a different criminal justice measure not included in the JRI 2: they want to take “a look at certain sentencing practices to ensure the worst offenders are not getting out.”
Guns, guns, guns
Historically, Pennsylvania’s legislature has had some trouble passing laws related to guns.
Last session they made their first significant move in many years, approving a bill that aims to make it more difficult for domestic abusers to possess firearms.
Now, another similarly-targeted bill is making laborious headway through the chamber. The extreme risk protection bill—often called a “red flag” bill—would let family members request that a court temporarily take weapons from a person who may be dangerous or suicidal. That person would get an expedited hearing before a judge, and could have their firearms seized for three months to a year.
The measure would grant police a search warrant to take a person’s guns if there’s probable cause they haven’t been relinquished.
Companion bills in the House and Senate have support from Democrats, and are both sponsored by moderate Republicans. But the bulk of Republicans—particularly in the House—have been reluctant to support them.
Straub said as far as guns go, the House GOP caucus is “interested in examining penalties for straw purchases and those who obtain illegal guns,” but that there “is not strong interest in forcing additional regulations on legal gun owners.”
That recalcitrance hasn’t stopped Democrats from trying to move forward with more significant gun control measures. A spokeswoman for the Senate’s Democratic caucus said, with or without support from the GOP majority, they plan to push bills that would establish universal background checks and ban assault weapons, along with the extreme risk measure.
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