Tuesday, February 1, 2011

House Reform Debate Shows Progress

The Pennsylvania State House is moving on, after a messy dispute over voting rules. On Monday, the House approved five reform bills, setting the measures up for final passage next week. The vast majority of the afternoon’s debate was civil and low-key – a far cry from the screaming and hyperbole that dominated Wednesday’s Rules Committee meeting. Republican leaders did not call a vote on a resolution restricting members’ ability to amend measures on the floor, and stripping a Democrat from each House committee. When asked whether Republicans will press forward with the rules change, Majority Leader Mike Turzai of McCandless was eager to shift the topic to the bills the House approved on second consideration. “Look, the package that is going to get voted on next Monday – and we’re back on course – is probably the most substantive reform package that has been put together as a group since the Thornburgh Administration,” he said. The measures increase penalties for lobbyists who break rules, expand “Right to Know” governing state contracts with private companies, and bar lawmakers from operating non-profit organizations that receive tax dollars, among other changes. A Democratic spokesman says he’s worried Republicans will keep the rules change on the table as a “potential weapon” to use against the minority party in the future, if Democrats try to slow down the legislative process.

Turzai kept shifting the topic back to the reform bills, each time reporters asked whether the rules changes – House Resolution 6 – had been tabled for good. Several times during the afternoon’s debate, Allegheny County Democrats offered amendments expanding the measures to include the domestic partners of the lobbyists or state employees impacted by the changes. Every time, Republicans voted down the proposals as not germane to the bill at hand. State Rep. Dan Frankel of Lawrenceville said the House was “burying its head in the sand.” “We live in a world where people live together in domestic partnerships,” he said. “Long-term, interdependent, financially interdependent, emotionally interdependent relationships. 270,000 Pennsylvanians live this way.” After the debate, Turzai said he’d be happy to take a look at the potential loopholes, but in separate bills. “if [Democrats] feel that it’s applicable, then you can introduce a bill and make their case,” he said, arguing language like that needed to be vetted in committee, and not offered on the floor at the last minute.

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