Unfinished business: Pennsylvania Legislature has plenty of work to do
The most expensive, least respected state legislature begins its fall session.
The Pennsylvania Legislature returns from its summer recess to plenty of unfinished business and historically low job approval numbers.
The state Senate begins the fall session Sept. 17. The House of Representatives returns Sept. 24.
Legislators expect to deal with many issues left unresolved in the first half of the year, including energy and health initiatives proposed by the governor, open government and campaign finance reform, a smoking ban, transportation funding and the conundrum of property tax relief.
If these issues sound familiar, that's because they were debated for months without resolution before the House and Senate adjourned for summer breaks after a 16-day budget impasse that damaged the already battered reputation of the state legislature considered the most expensive in the nation.
Only 30 percent of Pennsylvania residents approve of the way their Legislature is doing its job, according to a recent Quinnipiac University poll. The poll also found that 47 percent of residents blame the Legislature for the budget impasse that brought a one-day furlough of 24,000 state workers. The delay was the fifth consecutive budget impasse under Gov. Ed Rendell.
Only 21 percent of those interviewed for the Quinnipiac poll blamed the governor and 20 percent blamed both parties equally for the partisan bickering.
Area lawmakers say the lack of achievement in 2007 was due partly to new leadership in both the House and Senate and an over-ambitious agenda proposed by Rendell.
State Sen. John C. Rafferty Jr., R-44th Dist., who is emerging as an influential member of several key Senate committees, expects the Legislature to rebound from its slow start and approve significant measures during the fall session.
One of the first things Rafferty will push in Harrisburg is money for cleanup of hazardous sites, a major concern for his constituents in Berks, Chester and Montgomery counties.
Funding for the Hazardous Sites Cleanup Act was left out of the 2007-08 state budget.
Rafferty has been talking to Senate colleagues throughout the summer and anticipates that at least $30 million from the existing state surplus of $300 million can be diverted to fund HSCA projects for the rest of the year. A long-range solution to funding cleanup of hazardous waste sites could come from legislation Rafferty has proposed that would impose a 5-cent deposit fee on all bottles sold in Pennsylvania. A similar law in Massachusetts generated annual revenues of $32 million last year, Rafferty said.
"This is something that would benefit both the state's recycling efforts and cleanup of hazardous waste sites," Rafferty said.
Rafferty is also working with a coalition that includes Sens. Jane Orie, R-40th Dist.; John Eichelberger, R-30th Dist.; and Mike Folmer, R-48th Dist., on a Senate bill to eliminate property taxes. The group plans to hold a press conference this month to announce the Stax relief measure, which is similar to the School Property Tax Relief Act of 2007 working its way through the House.
State. Rep. Tom Quigley, R-146th Dist., said he has been working closely with Rep. Sam Rohrer, R-128th Dist., to bring House Democrats on board with the tax relief measure, formerly known as the Commonwealth Caucus Plan.
While some House Democrats have been pushing H.B.1600 this summer, the bill has received sparse support during several public hearings held across the state. More than 200 people attended an Aug. 29 hearing in Berks County and nearly all panned the tax-shift proposal, calling it a rehash of the Act 1 referendums soundly defeated by voters in the May primary.
"I am hopeful that at the end of the day, the Democrat leaders will see that H.B. 1600 is another Band-Aid solution, and realize that the School Property Tax Elimination Act of 2007 is the way to go," Quigley said.
Rohrer's plan has been endorsed by the Pennsylvania Coalition of Taxpayer Associations, which represents 21 groups across the state.
House Majority Leader Bill DeWeese and Majority Whip Keith McCall have hinted they are willing to support the School Property Tax Relief Act of 2007, which would eliminate property taxes and replace them with an expanded sales tax.
While Rohrer and other Republicans have been meeting behind the scenes with Democrats to drum up support for the tax elimination plan, a public pronouncement of support for the plan by the House Democratic leadership is what is needed to get things moving, Quigley said.
In addition to the property tax measure he plans to introduce, Rafferty said the Senate wants to reform school funding. The formula the state uses to provide funding to schools has not been reviewed since the mid-1990s and has led to widespread discrepancies across the state, with some districts receiving 18 percent of their funding from the state while other districts receive as much as 70 percent.
"We have to look at that formula and restructure it to make it fair to some of the districts that are only getting 18 or 19 percent from the state," Rafferty said.
Rafferty said he is part of a group with Sens. Steward Greenleaf, R-12th Dist., and Robert Tomlinson, R-6th Dist., that is working on legislation to address the inequity in state funding of schools.
As part of the budget compromise reached in July, the House and Senate agreed to convene in special session this month to deal with Gov. Rendell's "Energy Independence Strategy" first outlined in February. Rendell wants to create an $850 million Energy Independence Fund that he says would reduce Pennsylvania's reliance on foreign fuels, increase the state's clean energy production capacity and expand in-state energy production.
While the Legislature agreed to talk about Rendell's proposals for wind power and other alternative energy sources and a tax on electricity use to fund the projects, the agenda may not go very far, Rafferty and Quigley predicted.
House Democrats have already announced a 16-bill package to be introduced during the Special Session on Energy.
Republicans are planning to unveil their own comprehensive state energy plan Monday morning in Harrisburg. The GOP plan will emphasize lower energy costs for consumers, create new jobs and protect the state's environment, according to backers.
The governor is also pushing his Jonas Salk Legacy program, which passed the House by a 103-98 party-line vote. Getting it through the Senate will be difficult.
"The problem with this plan is that it takes money from the tobacco settlement that is earmarked for research and development for cures, and puts the money toward 'bricks and mortar' building of research facilities," Quigley said. "It's another opportunity for the governor to hand out checks and take photos at groundbreaking ceremonies."
Rafferty predicts a tough time for the governor's plan in the Republican-controlled Senate. "I'd rather see the money go for actual research and development" of bio-medical technology instead of construction of facilities, Rafferty said.
The much-debated public smoking ban will be brought up this fall, but don't expect a quick compromise. The Senate rejected the House version of the bill in the spring and won't consider it unless the House agrees to major exclusions supported by the Senate. "They need to come up with a new bill," Rafferty said matter-of-factly.
As for Gov. Rendell's proposal to provide health insurance to Pennsylvania residents who don't have coverage by forcing employers to pay a 3-percent surcharge, Rafferty and Quigley said it has no chance of passing the Legislature.
One area supposedly resolved in the spring ó long-term funding for mass transit and repair of roads and bridges ó unraveled over the summer and could create major contention this fall.
Rendell and the Legislature agreed on a proposal to fund transportation needs by installing tolls on Interstate 80, but two Pennsylvania members of Congress have introduced measures in Washington, D.C., to prevent the state from carrying out the plan.
This would jeopardize $1 billion in anticipated revenue that was going to subsidize the state's failing mass transit systems and help repair roads and bridges.
Pennsylvania ranks No. 1 in the nation in "structurally deficient" bridges.
The potential collapse of the I-80 toll plan has prompted the governor to resurrect his controversial plan to privatize the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
Leasing the Turnpike to a private company received little support in the Legislature earlier this year.
"The governor is talking to himself a lot," Rafferty said. "We're not interested."
What Rafferty wants to see in the area of transportation is more transparency in the way the state seeks bids and award contracts.
Reform and open government will be hot topics of discussion this fall.
"On the reform front, look for something to happen on open records and campaign finance," Quigley predicted.
The House State Government Committee held hearings on these issues over the summer, and a vote, particularly on open records, is expected, Quigley said.
Rafferty, who has championed open government for years, has new ammunition for his crusade with the growing scandal over bonuses and excessive spending by the agency that provides student-loans in Pennsylvania.
The Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency came under fire this year when it was revealed that it spent nearly $900,000 on lavish trips to resorts and provided expensive gifts for its executives, their spouses and members of the board that oversees it. The agency also spent $400,000 in legal fees in an unsuccessful bid to keep its expense reports secret when several news agencies sought access to them.
The final straw for many legislators was news that the PHEAA board approved $570,000 in bonuses to the agency's highest-paid executives, all of whom collect six-figure salaries.
"There's been a very blatant example of where reform is needed and that's PHEAA," Rafferty said. "All three branches of government need to be examined more closely. This sort of thing may be going on in other agencies and we just donít know about it."
Rafferty and Sen. Jane Orie, R-Dist. 40, have co-sponsored legislation to restructure the PHEAA board, which consists mainly of fellow legislators. The bill would also force the agency to submit to independent audits.
Quigley said the House will take up more of the recommendations from the Speaker's Commission on Legislative Reform.
One area that has been bubbling under the surface in the state Legislature could heat up this fall, according to Rafferty. Both the House and Senate are expected to take up measures to deal with the growing illegal immigrant population in Pennsylvania. Rafferty has two bills pending that would penalize employers who hire illegal immigrants. Republicans have also complained that Pennsylvania has done a poor job of policing its welfare rolls, allowing illegal immigrants to collect benefits. Senate Majority Leader Joe Scarnati, R-25th Dist., said in a recent television interview that Pennsylvania hands out $285 million a year in welfare benefits to illegal aliens.
Tony Phyrillas is a leading conservative political columnist and blogger based in Pennsylvania. He is a veteran journalist with 25 years experience as a reporter, editor and columnist for several newspapers. Phyrillas received recognition for column writing in 2010 from the Associated Press Managing Editors, in 2007 from Suburban Newspapers of America and in 2006 from the Society of Professional Journalists, Keystone Chapter. A graduate of Penn State University, Phyrillas is the city editor and political columnist for The Mercury, a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning daily newspaper in Pottstown, Pa. In addition to The Mercury website (www.pottsmerc.com), his columns are featured on more than a dozen political websites and blogs. Phyrillas is a frequent guest (and occasional host) on talk radio and has been a panelist on the "Journalists Roundtable" public affairs TV program on the Pennsylvania Cable Network (PCN). Phyrillas was named one of the '10 Leading Greek-American Bloggers in the World' in 2007 by Odyssey: The World of Greece magazine. BlogNetNews.com ranked Phyrillas the Most Influential Political Blogger in Pennsylvania for three consecutive years (2007-2010). You can follow Phyrillas on Twitter @TonyPhyrillas