Redistricting elbows out other issues in Harrisburg

Posted: December 04, 2011

HARRISBURG - When Gov. Corbett laid out an ambitious plan for his first year in office in his budget address in March, he said he wanted to deliver an on-time, trimmed-down state spending plan.

Plus, he wanted to privatize the liquor stores, a priority shared with state House Republican leadership; and introduce school tuition vouchers, an initiative that garnered bipartisan support in the Senate.

Add to that Senate Republican leaders' desire to set a fee on natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale. Corbett has warmed to this idea, too.

But with just weeks left in 2011, he and the legislature can check off only the first of those priorities: completing a trimmed-down state budget by the June 30 deadline.

Proving much harder - even with Republicans in complete control of the Capitol - is negotiating legislative agreements on the other items.

Now it appears passage of proposals addressing gas drilling, State Stores, and vouchers may have to wait until next year.

Bumping other agenda items aside for now is a task dear to the politicians' hearts: redrawing Pennsylvania's congressional districts.

"Everything else is off the table," said Steve Miskin, spokesman for House Majority leader Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny). "Congressional redistricting is the priority."

The once-a-decade reshaping of congressional districts based on the latest census figures leaves Pennsylvania with one fewer district, bringing the number of seats to 18 from 19. Currently, Republican incumbents hold 12 seats to the Democrats' seven.

In Pennsylvania as in many other states, remapping is fraught with politics because the majority party controls the process. This year is no different as lawmakers prepare to vote on a map that has yet to be revealed.

Committee hearings on the map are expected as early as this week. Both House and Senate have to approve the plan.

A similar process to reconfigure state legislative districts is nearing completion, with members of a commission poised to take a final vote on the new shape of 203 House and 50 Senate districts in the week of Dec. 12.

Court challenges are likely in both cases. In 2001, the GOP-crafted Pennsylvania congressional map went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it was upheld.

If other bills get pushed off, it doesn't mean that there won't be ample time in 2012 to consider school vouchers, LCB privatization and a shale fee; the General Assembly's two-year session doesn't end until this time next year.

But 2012 is an election year, and in such years, lawmakers tend to be less enthusiastic about wrestling with controversial issues.

Penn State fallout. Scheduled for votes this month are several measures addressing child sexual abuse: amendments to tighten registration requirements for convicted sex offenders under Megan's Law; and a resolution stemming from the sex-abuse scandal at Pennsylvania State University.

The resolution would establish a task force to examine what new laws are needed to protect children from crimes and cover-ups such as those described in the charges against former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky and two former Penn State administrators.

The House is also expected to give final approval to a bill - which, by coincidence, circulated before the Sandusky case - that would increase the penalty for "sexual assault by a sports official."

Moving toward a consensus on child protections may be easy compared with the long-running debate over proposals to levy some form of tax or fee on the state's booming natural gas industry.

A fee on drillers. Senate leaders say they would like to resolve differences with the House on two competing shale fee bills as early as this week. The proposals are starkly different, particularly on how much the fee should be and how it should be collected and distributed.

The Senate version would impose a fee of about 3 percent of the expected value of a well's production, with a sliding-scale levy of $50,000 per well in the first year to $10,000 in the 20th.

The Public Utility Commission would collect and distribute the fees, with more than half going to municipalities affected by drilling, and a percentage going to the state for environmental cleanup and other purposes.

The House bill - which Corbett has said he supports - would impose a fee of roughly 1 percent, with a per-well levy of up to $40,000 in the first year and $10,000 in the 10th. Under the plan, counties would decide whether or not to impose the fee - and 75 percent of the money raised would stay local, going to counties and townships directly affected by drilling operations; the remainder would go to statewide projects.

How - and whether - the two chambers resolve differences in the proposals remains to be seen.

"There is progress," said Drew Crompton, counsel and chief of staff to Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson). "But progress is not a final product."

Crompton noted that the Senate bill runs to 150 pages "with dozens and dozens of regulations and provisions," each needing legislative agreement. But he also stressed that Scarnati has "no interest in seeing this issue drift into the spring and become part of budget negotiations."

School vouchers. There seems little hope in either the House or Senate of striking a compromise on this highly contentious issue before the end of the year.

In October, the Senate pushed through a bill that would offer vouchers to low-income families in the bottom 5 percent of poor-performing public schools.

The bill would help families with incomes of $29,000 or less transfer their children to private or parochial schools by offering them state-funded vouchers of anywhere from $5,765 to $13,905, depending on the district. In the second year, the vouchers would also be offered to low-income students already attending private schools.

But House Speaker Sam Smith (R., Jefferson) said bluntly that he could not promise to air the bill on the floor before Dec. 31.

One of the bill's key sponsors, Sen. Jeff Piccola (R., Dauphin), has said that if the measure is not approved now, legislators would be less likely to want to tackle it in 2012 - because most of them will be facing reelection.

The Senate bill would also expand the number of charter schools, set new academic and fiscal standards, and lift the $75 million cap on the popular Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC), which gives tax breaks to businesses that provide tuition for low-income students.

Those liquor stores. And what of privatizing the LCB, a subject of on-and-off debate in the Capitol for three decades?

Corbett told reporters last week that while he would like to see vouchers approved and the shale fee resolved by Christmas, he thinks the sale of the stores can wait till 2012.

Turzai, the privatization bill's sponsor, wants to get it to a House vote by year's end, or at least come out of committee ready for a full House vote early next year. Poll after poll says most Pennsylvanians support privatizing the stores.

"We'd like to get it done," said Miskin. "When you go out and talk to people, they're not saying they want Marcellus or vouchers - they are talking about getting the state out of the liquor business. That's the issue people care about."


Contact staff writer Amy Worden at 717-783-2584 or aworden@phillynews.com or @inkyamy on Twitter.

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