Featured sound system is an independent, non-partisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with PennLive / The Patriot-News, TribLIVE / Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and WITF Public Media. Sign up for our free newsletters.
HARRISBURG – The Pennsylvania General Assembly is heading for a long summer break after a flurry of legislative activity. But several key issues remain unresolved and will have to wait until lawmakers meet again in the fall.
Democrats have indicated they want to see more government spending to deal with the economic fallout from the pandemic. Republicans who control both legislative chambers hope to focus on electoral reform and facilitate economic growth by extending pandemic regulatory waivers and prudently spending federal dollars.
Here are the issues to watch out for.
Gov. Tom Wolf vetoed an electoral reform bill drafted by Republicans last week, saying it would result in voter suppression. GOP lawmakers countered that it would provide additional security measures while expanding access to the ballot boxes.
The measure included stricter voter identification requirements, shorter deadlines for applying for a postal ballot and a plan to introduce early voting by 2025.
Republicans are expected to resuscitate the problem upon their return. Jason Thompson, spokesperson for Pro Tempore Senate Speaker Jake Corman (R., Center), said electoral reform will be “one of our top priorities” when the legislature reconvenes.
Senator David Argall (R., Schuykill) introduced a bill in June that would give counties the option to start processing postal ballots before election day and extend the deadline for requesting a vote by correspondence. The bipartisan Association of Pennsylvania County Commissioners lobbied for the reforms, arguing they are necessary to avoid delays in reporting results – an issue they faced in the November 2020 election.
With Wolf’s veto, Republican lawmakers this fall could consider stand-alone bills with a better chance of winning the governor’s signature while pursuing a path that brings more controversial issues directly to voters.
Earlier this week, a key Republican – York County Rep. Seth Grove – expressed support for Wolf’s bypass and extending voter identification in Pennsylvania through a constitutional amendment. A resolution was passed by the state Senate in June and sent to the House for consideration.
The General Assembly must approve the measure in two consecutive two-year sessions to send the issue to voters. The earliest the question could appear on the ballot is 2023.
$ 5 billion in federal relief dollars
Pennsylvania’s $ 40 billion budget envelope allocated $ 2 billion in federal bailout funds for social services, highway construction, retirement homes, and higher education. But the state still has $ 5 billion in relief funds.
Democrats want to see these funds spent on more financial aid for Pennsylvanians. Democratic Senate spokesperson Brittany Crampsie told Spotlight PA that lawmakers will advocate for those dollars to be spent on rent assistance, public health initiatives and worker training programs.
“Whatever legislative process we have to go through to get this money to the people as it was intended, that’s what we’re going to do,” Crampsie said.
But Democrats will certainly meet Republican resistance.
GOP lawmakers fear spending federal money too quickly, pointing to budget deficit more than a decade after Pennsylvania used one-time stimulus dollars to increase funding for basic education. If the state uses relief funds to increase funding for a program or create a new one, lawmakers will eventually need to find another source of revenue, which may require higher taxes.
“Despite what Democrats have said, when you start a program you can hardly ever get rid of it,” Republican House spokesman Jason Gottesman said. “Our main priority was to use this money… prudently over the long term to make sure we don’t come back to taxpayers to continue funding programs.
To boost Pennsylvania’s economic recovery, Republicans would prefer to consider extending certain regulatory waivers. Before lawmakers vote to end Wolf’s declaration of pandemic emergency in June, lawmakers extended many regulatory exemptions from the ordinance until September. These waivers relaxed state regulations on telemedicine, out-of-state nurses, and unemployment benefit requirements.
“I think we are moving in a positive direction with a lot of [emergency declaration] warrants being removed, and as we get a bit closer to fall, we’ll be focusing on which waivers we want to keep and those we want to let expire, ”said Thompson, spokesperson for Corman.
States have until 2024 to spend federal money, which means time is running out.
Take away cocktails
Despite bipartisan support, lawmakers failed to expand a popular provision during a pandemic which allowed bars and restaurants to sell take-out cocktails.
The option of selling ready-to-go cocktails ended when the legislature voted to end Wolf’s declaration of emergency.
The House passed a bill in May, with bipartisan support, that would make the sale of take-out cocktails permanent. But an amendment to the bill by Sen. Mike Regan (R., York) widened the scope of the measure and lost support from Democrats, including Wolf.
Regan’s proposal would have allowed private retailers to compete with state stores by selling canned cocktails. Under current law, state liquor stores are the only retailers allowed to sell them in Pennsylvania. Regan has family ties to industry.
The House withdrew the amendment from the bill and returned it to the Senate, who refused to act before the legislature suspended for the summer. Restaurants are now banned from selling take-out cocktails and will no longer be able to do so unless lawmakers pass legislation in the fall.
Leading Republican lawmakers have indicated that lobbying reform will be a priority for them this session. Thompson, a spokesperson for Corman, told Spotlight PA that the senator plans to unveil a lobbying reform bill “any day now” to be voted on in the fall.
In a May statement, Corman said he hoped to tackle lobbyist transparency, ethical conduct and limiting influence on the General Assembly. Some of the proposed changes include a requirement for lobbyists to disclose conflicts with their clients, a ban on campaign consultants from being registered lobbyists, and a requirement for lobbyists to take ethics training.
In addition, several lobbying reform bills have already been tabled in the House.
Legalization of cannabis
Pennsylvanians could attend debates over cannabis legalization in the House and Senate this fall. Recreational cannabis is legal in the District of Columbia and 18 states, but Pennsylvania is not one of them.
While more Democrats have defended legalization than Republicans, the issue enjoys some bipartisan support. Senator Sharif Street (D., Philadelphia) and Senator Dan Laughlin (R., Erie) introduced a bill last February to legalize use by adults.
Wolf also supported legalization, saying it would strengthen “Potential economic growth and restorative justice where necessary. “But the measure is pushed back by the GOP-controlled legislature, leaving its fate uncertain.
WHILE YOU ARE HERE … If you learned anything from this story pay for it and become a member of Featured sound system so that someone else can in the future to projectorpa.org/donate. Spotlight PA is funded by foundations and readers like you who are committed to accountability journalism that gets results.