By Eric Boehm and Melissa Daniels | PA Independent
HARRISBURG — Lawmakers have a full plate, but the real question is whether they are hungry.
After spending summer back home in the district and attending the occasional hearing, the General Assembly will reconvene on Sept. 23 for the first of eight scheduled weeks of the fall legislative session. Historically, fall sessions are less productive in terms of major initiatives than the spring session, which concludes with the mad rush of passing the state budget.
The fall brings less immediate pressure, but after leaving so many high-profile issues unfinished in June, lawmakers have been feeling the heat all summer.
Here’s how the fall shapes up in Harrisburg.
More hearings were held during the summer and Barry Schoch, the secretary of transportation, made good on his promise to start adding weight restrictions to Pennsylvania bridges.
But there is still no sense that a sweet spot has been found. Though the state Senate enthusiastically backed a $2.5-billion spending plan that would hike gas taxes along with various licensing and registration fees, a strong conservative faction in the state House says that spending total is far too high.
Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delware, said transportation funding has been by far the most active conversation this summer. Still, there’s no set agreement between the House and the Senate on how to proceed, Pileggi said.
Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, said his caucus wants to see the House pass a transportation plan that, even if it a slightly lower figure, would have the same ratio of funding for mass transit, about 20 percent.
Both Pileggi and Costa indicated passing a transportation plan becomes far more difficult after this fall, as 2014 elections creep up.
“The closer we get to next November, the more these issues become politicized and people make decisions based on political consequences,” Pileggi said.
Since the transportation plan involves hiking gas taxes, it’ll be tougher for Republicans — and some Democrats — to vote yes on such a plan with the idea of attack ads about raising taxes in their heads.
Costa also said he thinks this issue could advance if it were “decoupled” from a liquor privatization plan.
It is somewhat telling that most of the discussions of liquor privatization this summer revolved around whether selling of the state liquor stores was still tied to transportation funding. The two issues were locked in a legislative tango during the final weeks of the June budget session.
“I think folks are finally realizing that transportation funding, the safety of our roadways and bridges, has become conditioned upon the passing, or held hostage by the passage, of wine and spirits passing,” Costa said this week.
Pileggi said this comes down to a matter of members priorities, and what they want to see pass. Though he has met with House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, there is still no resolution.
“I think everyone agrees they are two separate issues that should stand or fall on their own merits,” Pileggi said.
In the House, where it seems everything hinges for now, the coalition-building continues.
“We’re working on the liquor compromise and the transportation compromise, and we understand the need to deal with critical needs of Pennsylvania’s infrastructure,” said Steve Miskin, Turzai’s spokesman. “The Legislature has shown it can do multiple things.”
Not everyone in Harrisburg would agree.
Pennsylvania’s two state pension systems have more than $49 billion in unfunded debt, which will grow to as much as $65 billion within a few years. Much of the problem was caused by the Legislature, which deliberately underfunded the plans for a decade and continues to do so, even as they try to find a solution to the mess.
There is virtually no appetite among Democrats for any changes to the pension systems — they say the state has to keep meeting its obligations, even as those obligations grow larger — leaving any changes up to the Republican majority.
Gov. Tom Corbett and his top staffers are keeping up the pressure to address the problem. He said wants to see future hires moved into a new type of retirement plan, while current employees would see future benefits cut.
But making any changes to current employees surely would trigger a court challenge from labor unions, and lawmakers seem unwilling to risk that situation.
Pileggi said the Senate is eyeing a plan to move future hires into a 401(k)-style retirement plan, then solve the unfunded liability issue separately.
“I think the sooner we deal with the issue, the sooner we can deal with the other separate issue of the unfunded liability and how to manage that best,” he said. “It is hard to manage the unfunded liability when the system lends itself to being unsustainable.”
An effort to force Corbett’s hand on Medicaid expansion partially failed in June, though the Senate did pass a bill that put Corbett on the clock to make a decision before June 2014.
Democrats, and some Republicans, are ready to push for full expansion in the fall. The issue is tied up with the federal Affordable Care Act, which proposes to expand Medicaid coverage — as long as each state goes along with it — to all individuals earning at 133 percent of the federal poverty line.
Conservative Republicans will continue their efforts to repeal or change the state’s prevailing wage law, which requires all public projects to be done on a union pay scale, even if a non-union contractor is doing the work. Opponents of the law say it costs taxpayers extra money by driving up the cost of public projects by as much as 30 percent.
Unions obviously favor keeping the law in place, and it is unlikely to be repealed entirely. Any efforts in the fall will focus on freeing municipalities from the wage requirement in certain situations, or on lifting the threshold — set in the 1960s and never updated — for determining when the higher wage must be paid.
Property tax reform
The annual effort to change Pennsylvania’s property tax system will continue, but there are few observers who think any meaningful action will take place.
Reducing the size of the General Assembly
A populist plan from Speaker of the House Sam Smith, R-Jefferson, would reduce the size of the state House to 153 members from the current 203. A separate bill would cut the state Senate down to 38 members from the current 50.
Correction: This story was updated to reflect the state Senate voted on a bill that would require the administration to make a Medicaid expansion. The state House did not vote on that language.