Capitol's late show goes on

Posted: July 01, 2013

HARRISBURG - The legislature had reformed itself. It would not do the public's business after 11 p.m. But when push came to shove over liquor privatization Friday night, the Senate fell off the wagon.

Needing time to secure a few more "yes" votes, Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware), got Democrats' consent to go past the 11 p.m. curfew - a reform imposed after the furor over the 2005 legislative pay raise.

So the Senate kept debating until 1:20 a.m. Saturday, when changes in the liquor bill were finally voted.

The scene reminded some of sessions that ended as the sun rose over the Susquehanna River, and of the year a lawmaker scaled the wall of the House chamber to turn back the clock.

What happened to a tenet of post-pay-raise "reform?" That's what Sen. Andrew Dinniman (D., Chester) asked in a speech on the Senate floor.

He said later, "It just seemed to me all the promises of reform after the debacle of 2005 were so quickly forgotten." That summer, lawmakers voted themselves a raise - at 2 a.m.

The ensuing outcry shook the Capitol to its core. The raise was repealed, dozens of lawmakers were voted out of office, and a task force on transparency and accountability was formed.

Reforms followed. Costs were trimmed. Legislative information was made public online. A rule said the Senate "shall not recess later than 11:00 p.m. unless the Senate adopts a motion that sets forth the need to recess later."

A 2010 grand-jury report said the reforms should go further, abolishing state-funded per-diems and party caucus accounts.

For now, though, legislators can't even make curfew some nights. Pileggi spokesman Erik Arneson said the 11 p.m. rule had been suspended "a handful of times" since its adoption. He noted that the vote in the wee hours Saturday was merely on amending a bill, not its final passage.

"It's just plain bad government," Barry Kauffman, executive director of Common Cause of Pennsylvania, said Saturday. "They know every year there's a June 30 budget deadline and continuously manage for failure."

Furthermore, Kauffman said, there's the fatigue factor - "We need legislators to be intellectually sharp to read what is a complex document."

By Saturday night, it was unclear whether lawmakers might go late again. Lobbyists went tieless or wore flip-flops as they sat on folding chairs in the unair-conditioned Capitol Rotunda, waiting for votes.

Dinniman, elected in 2006, wondered why major legislation such as the liquor bill, transportation funding, and the annual budget waited until the last minute.

After all, he said, "These bills have been around for months."

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

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