Republicans return to Harrisburg this week with a full plate

A part of the legislative agenda for House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny) is his bill to auction off the retail and wholesale operations of the state Liquor Control Board.
A part of the legislative agenda for House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny) is his bill to auction off the retail and wholesale operations of the state Liquor Control Board. (MARC LEVY / Associated Press)
Posted: September 18, 2011

HARRISBURG - School vouchers, a fee on natural gas drillers, privatizing liquor sales, and, now, a move to divvy up Pennsylvania's electoral votes: The Republicans who control the legislature have lined up an aggressive agenda as they begin returning to the Capitol this week for their fall session.

They are a different crew than the old guard in Harrisburg, vestiges of which go on trial this week, in a courtroom near the Capitol. But many of the issues they are poised to tackle have been kicking around for decades, without a consensus, without a solution.

This year, even with the legislative chambers in sync politically - Republicans hold the majority in both the House and Senate - there is still no meeting of minds on policy. In fact, there doesn't appear to be much agreement between the two chambers about what should dominate the discussion.

"Even if incredibly well-intentioned by all parties, it's unlikely everything will be fully resolved this year," said David W. Patti, president and chief executive officer of the Pennsylvania Business Council.

Patti, who follows the legislature closely, noted that although there has been "a lot of work over the summer to get the Republican leadership in the two chambers together more . . . there are still fundamental and institutional differences."

Even so, the odds look good for resolving one issue that has caused some of the biggest political headaches in recent years: whether to slap a levy or fee on extraction of natural gas from the Marcellus Shale.

On Thursday, Gov. Corbett said in no uncertain terms that he supports an impact fee, provided most of the money raised "will go to the counties," and in turn to municipalities dealing with the local impact of drilling. He didn't offer numbers but predicted "a huge amount" of money would be generated.

His words marked the distance Corbett has come in the months since he staked out a position that the industry should not be taxed or levied, period. He's closer to an accord with his party's top legislators.

"I am not telling you that we have an agreement, but we've made progress," said Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware), whose caucus has been pushing for a fee for months.

Still, the House could prove to be a rude awakening. There has been little enthusiasm among Republicans there for either a fee or a tax. And that hasn't changed over the summer.

The same goes for state-funded tuition vouchers designed to help families get children out of failing public schools and into private or parochial schools. Despite Corbett's saying last week that "school choice" was his top priority for the fall, it is nowhere near a done deal.

Several senators, including Anthony Hardy Williams (D., Philadelphia), have pushed the issue hard all year. But the debate has withered on the vine, in part because the House had reservations over how much it would cost and whether it would benefit all kids in the state.

Over the summer, negotiators have worked on it, but there is no agreement.

Asked whether it would top his caucus' legislative agenda, House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny) said in an interview: "Certainly that will be a topic of discussion at some point."

But he would not say when that "point" may come.

Turzai said his caucus' focus would be on legislation to create jobs and improve Pennsylvania's economy.

His bill to auction off the retail and wholesale operations of the state Liquor Control Board fits into that category, Turzai argued.

There is one small problem: the Senate.

Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson) has said he believes the state should stay in the liquor business for now, knocking some of the wind out of the momentum for privatizing. And privatizing is fiercely opposed by unions and many Democrats.

For Turzai, it remains a top priority.

Asked whether he was worried about Scarnati's stance, Turzai spokesman Steve Miskin replied: "Nope."

Even as they squabble over those issues, the legislature is also being tasked to figure out how to close the $3.5 billion transportation funding gap that Pennsylvania faces.

An advisory commission assembled by Corbett released a report over the summer, in which it recommended increasing the cost of titles, inspections, driver's licenses, and other documents in line with inflation.

The governor has yet to show his cards on where he stands on those recommendations. And that, in turn, will make it difficult for the legislature to tackle the problem.

One area where top Republican legislative leaders, at least, seem to have some unity is a plan to change the way Pennsylvania elects a president.

Led by Pileggi, Republicans want to scrap the winner-take-all system of apportioning electoral votes, and instead parcel out most of those votes to whichever presidential candidate wins the popular tally in each of the state's congressional districts.

News of the plan went off like a stink bomb in Harrisburg. Democrats called it a blatantly partisan move conveniently occurring as the GOP-dominated legislature is also redrawing the boundaries of congressional districts.

The idea has even divided Republicans, with some GOP members of Congress warning that it will ramp up Democratic campaign efforts in suburban swing districts. Also opposed: the head of the state Republican Party.

"The pushback has been substantial," said political analyst and pollster G. Terry Madonna. "I don't think they stopped to look at the big picture."

But if anyone needs reminding that accusations of partisan maneuvering are old hat in Harrisburg, they need only walk a few blocks from the Capitol. In a Dauphin County courtroom, one former House Republican and three former aides face trial this week in a case that has come to be known as Computergate. In an offshoot of the wide-ranging Bonusgate investigation, prosecutors allege that the House GOP, led by then-Speaker John M. Perzel of Philadelphia, used millions in taxpayer dollars to purchase sophisticated computer programs aimed at giving Republican candidates an edge in elections.

Perzel recently pleaded guilty in the case and is expected to testify against the remaining defendants, who include his former chief of staff, Brian Preski.


Contact staff writer Angela Couloumbis at 717-787-5934 or acouloumbis@phillynews.com.

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