Pa. House adopts sweeping changes New House rules: An open House

Posted: March 14, 2007

HARRISBURG — The rules have changed.

In a move that some called historic, the state House last night unanimously adopted a set of new internal operating policies designed to open the legislative process to all members, limit a prized perk, and give the public greater access to records.

"This marks a new day in Pennsylvania," Speaker Dennis O'Brien (R., Phila.) proclaimed moments after last night's vote. "The populace in Pennsylvania has demanded that we make change. There are significant changes here."

Under the new rules, the public will be able to view House and committee votes and read testimony from hearings online. Representatives will no longer be able to spend up to $650 a month in public funds to lease a vehicle of their choice. Instead, they must now pick from a cheaper pool of state-leased vehicles. And the powerful Rules Committee can no longer gut entire bills at the last minute and insert other language.

"It represents a very substantial step forward in restoring the breach of trust that existed with some in Pennsylvania," said Rep. Josh Shapiro (D., Montgomery). "It ushers in a new era in Pennsylvania government, one of openness, one of transparency and one of empowerment."

Added House Majority Leader Bill DeWeese (D., Greene), "Things are changing. It's palpable."

The new rules also end the practice of allowing members to vote by proxy if away from the chamber. They now must be in their seats in order to have their votes counted.

Some members said that new rule didn't go far enough in policing "ghost voting" - a long-accepted House practice in which objects, from pennies to paper clips, are shoved into an electronic voting machine to record a member's votes although the member is not always present.

The House, however, narrowly rejected a proposal to require, in certain instances, each of the 203 members to cast votes verbally much like the smaller 50-member Senate does.

House Minority Leader Sam Smith (R., Jefferson), who supported the idea (Amendment 103 to House Resolution 108), characterized it as the "ultimate ghostbuster."

But the idea would "in effect shut down the people's business," said Rep. Mike Gerber (D., Montgomery). "We would just spend too much time shouting out names."

At one point yesterday, the debate devolved into partisan bickering.

Rep. P. Michael Sturla (D., Lancaster) accused Republicans of using parliamentary moves to block Democratic attempts to amend bills over the last 12 years when the GOP held the majority.

That set off Smith.

"The practices of this House have built up incrementally over years," a miffed Smith said on the floor. "This idea that Republicans were the evil people that perverted the rules is just crap."

The changes adopted yesterday - most of them recommendations of the Speaker's Commission on Legislative Reform headed by Shapiro and Rep. David Steil (R., Bucks) - will be in place for the remainder of the legislative session ending November 2008.

House members, widely criticized for casting controversial votes in the wee hours, also put themselves on a strict daily deadline: They will not work past 11 p.m. In a move to allow complete examination of legislation, the chamber has mandated a 24-hour waiting period after a bill is amended before a final vote is taken.

The package also prohibits House members from creating and running nonprofits that receive state funds. The idea was prompted in part by the indictment last month of Sen. Vincent J. Fumo (D., Phila.) who is facing charges of defrauding a nonprofit for personal and political gain.

The commission-recommended package was not accepted unscathed, however, leaving activists who had been pushing for more sweeping changes wanting more.

"We got a plate of spaghetti without the meatballs," said Eric Epstein, a Harrisburg activist and founder of RockTheCapital.org.

One provision - to prevent the Appropriation Committee from rewriting bills at the last minute - was rejected Monday night when the full House began its debate on the reform commission's recommendations.

Also on Monday, the House shot down two proposals that would have limited the use of state-funded TV and radio public service announcements that use images of representatives during election years. Instead, members adopted a policy, already in effect as a gentlemen's agreement, to bar PSAs within 60 days of an election.

Gene Stilp, a Harrisburg activist who has sued the legislature over its 2005 pay raise - the event that sparked the public outcry that led to last night's changes - said the new rules marked "the first step in a 12-step process."

"It's like reforming an alcoholic," he added.

Contact staff writer Mario F. Cattabiani at 717-787-5990 or mcattabiani@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff Writer Amy Worden contributed to this article.

State House's New Rules

Among the rules changes approved unanimously last night by the state House:

Rules Committee. Stripped of its long-standing power to gut entire bills at the last minute and insert new language. A similar curb on the separate Appropriations Committee's powers was defeated on Monday. Fleet cars only. Ends the stipend of up to $650 a month for legislators to lease the vehicle of their choice. Instead they must pick from a pool of cheaper state-leased cars. The Senate adopted a similar rule last year. Open records. All House expense records, including payrolls, will be available to the public electronically, upon request via e-mail. Ghost voting banned. House members must be present to have their vote count. A proposal to go even further by allowing floor leaders to order roll-call voice votes was rejected. No legislator-led nonprofits. Lawmakers can neither create nor run nonprofits that get state funding. Indictments. House members who are charged with crimes in office must give up leadership posts until the charges are resolved. This parallels an existing Senate rule. No smoking. Banned for the first time in all House-controlled areas of the state Capitol complex, including members' offices.

- Mario Cattabiani

To see how your state representative voted on the voice-vote measure, go

to http://go.philly.com/howtheyvoted. Click Session Info, then House Roll Call Votes. Find HR108, A103.

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