Pennsylvania lawmakers deadlock on school vouchers, drilling fee

Posted: December 15, 2011

HARRISBURG - In the end, despite hours of both backroom deliberation and floor debate, state legislators on Wednesday could not reach agreement on two of the marquee issues in the Capitol this year: a natural-gas extraction fee and taxpayer-funded vouchers for children in failing public schools.

Shortly after 11 p.m. Wednesday, the Senate narrowly approved a bill to redraw congressional districts, making that measure one of the few on a fast track to Gov. Corbett's desk before lawmakers depart for their winter break.

But the drilling fee and voucher questions - both priorities for the Corbett administration - now seem certain to be pushed into 2012, where their fate remains uncertain. Next year is an election year for most legislators, who will be wary of tackling controversial topics before facing voters.

On redistricting, the Senate voted 26-24 on 18 new congressional districts as part of the once-in-a-decade process of redrawing those boundaries as well as state legislative lines. Pennsylvania's congressional lines are drawn by the legislature, where both chambers are controlled by the GOP.

Although the map was on track to be approved - the House is expected to do so next week - it has been criticized by Democrats, who call it a thinly veiled attempt by Republicans to gerrymander districts.

"To all the spin doctors out there: Good luck, because you're going to have a hard time defending this," Sen. Lisa Boscola (D., Northampton) said on the Senate floor. "I'm glad I'm not you. The voters are very intelligent, and they will see through this."

In particular, the proposed new district for U.S. Rep. Pat Meehan (R., Pa.) has been singled out, with Democrats alleging it was drawn to excise Democratic areas in favor of more solidly Republican ones.

A favorite pastime Wednesday was conjuring up the animal - or monster - that the proposed district resembles. State Sen. Andrew Dinniman (D., Chester) came up with Cerberus, the three-headed dog in Greek mythology that guarded the entrance into the underworld.

Meehan's district will now include parts of five counties - Delaware, Chester, Lancaster, Montgomery, and Berks.

Democrats late Wednesday tried to amend the map, but their GOP counterparts swiftly swatted that effort down, saying it was skewed to benefit Democratic candidates. They defended their plan as fair and appropriate.

"Is it perfect? No. But it is a solid, constitutional map," said Sen. Chuck McIlhinney (R., Bucks).

On the drilling fee, the Senate and House for months have been wrangling over how to best apply a so-called local impact fee on natural-gas extraction from the Marcellus Shale.

The Senate has championed the proposal, but the House has been more divided on both the logistics of a fee as well as on whether one is necessary. The impact fee appears headed toward a legislative conference committee, where bills go when there is an impasse between the two chambers. Or it could just die.

Last week, House Speaker Sam Smith (R., Jefferson) had said that if no action was taken on a Marcellus Shale bill before Corbett's budget address in February, the measure would be in danger of being mired on the legislative sideline.

"The longer it goes, the more it allows detractors to muck it up," said Smith.

On vouchers, House Republicans spent hours behind closed doors Wednesday debating a scaled-down version of the bill that the Senate passed in October. In the end, it was a no-go, and that bill, too, will get pushed into 2012.


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

or @AngelasInk on Twitter.

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