Pa. lawmakers' mad rush to pass bills before recess

Pa. House working on the state budget. Bills flew through both chambers in the week before the deadline.
Pa. House working on the state budget. Bills flew through both chambers in the week before the deadline. (BRADLEY C BOWER / AP)
Posted: July 04, 2012

HARRISBURG - It's an obligatory stop for the schoolchildren who stream through the Capitol every year: the noisy Rube Goldberg contraption designed to show how a bill becomes law.

Balls representing pieces of legislation bounce and roll through metal chutes, clanking and whirring as they go, in an exhibit designed to illustrate what an accompanying placard calls the "extremely careful and deliberative" process of lawmaking.

That's not what happened in the Capitol over the weekend.

The run-up to the annual June 30 budget deadline (and legislative summer recess) was more like a bill-passing frenzy. Big-ticket items with far-reaching consequences for Pennsylvania citizens zipped through the House and Senate straight to Gov. Corbett's desk.

Sixty bills in all flew through both chambers in the week before the deadline - and that's only a fraction of the proposals on a multitude of issues that won approval by getting tucked into other pieces of legislation.

Pressed against the deadline, both chambers took the rare step Saturday of lifting their rule ending debate at 11 p.m. They did so to advance a number of controversial bills that few of them - even Corbett - had had time to read.

They approved a moratorium on gas drilling in Southeastern Pennsylvania. They expanded Philadelphia's red-light-camera traffic enforcement program. They authorized public-private partnerships on huge transportation projects such as repair of roads and bridges.

"So much went on that was down and dirty," said Sen. Jim Ferlo (D., Allegheny). "I thought, 'Here we go again,' with the middle-of-the-night, clandestine way of doing things."

That way was what gave rise to the 11 p.m. cutoff in the first place. Both chambers instituted the rule after public outcry over the postmidnight vote in 2005 granting pay raises to legislators and judges.

House Republican spokesman Steve Miskin said the lower chamber had previously suspended the rule only once since it was imposed in 2007, and only for a few minutes' debate.

He noted that it took a two-thirds majority to suspend the rules. "There are circumstances," said Miskin, "when you need to get the work of the people done."

In the rush to beat the end-of-the-fiscal-year deadline, Corbett started signing some of the budget bills at 11:45 p.m. Saturday, even as other key pieces of the budget package were still being debated in the Senate.

Tucked into the fiscal code, a complicated bill that authorizes state spending, was an 11th-hour stunner: a moratorium to be imposed on natural gas drilling in the state's southeast corner.

Added to the bill Friday, the provision gives Bucks and Montgomery Counties a reprieve from any gas drilling until 2017.

No bill was introduced, no hearings held, no studies conducted. Nor was there time for public comment, or even advance notice giving the governor time to read the bill.

Asked to comment on the moratorium during his post-budget bill signing news conference, Corbett said he was not prepared "to publicly address the issue." He added: "Can we talk about it Monday or Tuesday? Actually, want to give me a week?"

Some Democrats contended that the lawmaker behind the measure, Sen. Charles McIlhinney (R., Bucks), was seeking political cover for his support of the recently enacted legislation governing drilling in the Marcellus Shale region. That law imposes what Democratic critics consider a too-modest "impact fee" on gas drilling, and removes most local zoning authority in gas-rich areas.

"People should be outraged," said Ferlo. "Talk about chutzpah. It's completely violative of the fiscal code."

McIlhinney did not return several calls for comment.

Another Bucks County legislator, Republican Rep. Marguerite Quinn, said the moratorium was needed because the federal government had only recently released a report identifying gas-drilling potential in the so-called South Newark Basin that underlies several Southeastern counties.

"We need a better understanding of this formation before we move forward, and this legislation will allow us to do just that," she said.

Then there was the bill allowing private-public partnerships in road and bridge projects, which many other states already do. The measure opens the door to private control and funding for public infrastructure, which supporters say will jump-start stalled projects, and which critics see as a route to less local control and more toll roads.

And the Philadelphia red-light-camera bill: It needed to be enacted by the existing law's expiration date, 12:01 a.m. Saturday, but did not get final legislative approval until 1:30 a.m. Sunday, amid debate over language to expand the cameras' use to other localities.

The missed deadline meant that in Philadelphia, red-light-camera ticket processing was suspended until the governor signed the bill, which he did Monday night.

Some political scientists say all the late-night theatrics may have little effect on the public's already low opinion of its lawmakers.

Among registered Pennsylvania voters, only 27 percent approve of the way the legislature is doing its job, while 51 percent disapprove, according to a Quinnipiac University poll conducted in June.

The public generally doesn't pay much attention to the legislative process, but people do look at the outcome and want to know if legislators got done what they said they would, said Christopher Borick, director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion.

Unless, said Borick, lawmakers use the process to enrich themselves - such as in 2005, when legislators famously infuriated the public with that middle-of-the-night vote to approve their own raises.

"If it smacks of the elected officials using it to help their own bottom line, then you're going to get a lot of backlash," said Borick. "If it's shown that they used the urgency of a budget deal or the bending of rules to help out their own stature and pocketbooks, the public will be up in arms, especially in this political climate."


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


 

Inquirer staff writer Michael Macagnone contributed to this article.


 

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