Written by Marley Parish and Peter Hall, Pennsylvania Capital-Star
The Pennsylvania General Assembly starts a new two-year legislative session when members return in January. And lawmakers have been busy circulating plans to introduce and reintroduce bills since Dec. 1 — addressing election reform, education, health, safety, and economic development.
Here is a look at some of the legislation the Capital-Star is watching so far during the 2023-24 legislative session:
When the newly elected Republican leadership team held their first press conference together, interim Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, said the caucus would prioritize legislation that helps Pennsylvanians.
Ward identified strengthening the economy and helping working families as bipartisan issues, saying lawmakers have already proven that in recent years, citing increased education funding, the Educational Improvement Tax Credit Program — which provides scholarships for state students to attend private schools — and a reduced Corporate Net Income Tax as “big moves for Pennsylvanians.”
She also noted voter identification, which is included in a five-part constitutional amendment package, as a priority for Republicans, citing polling that shows support for the requirement. She added that Senate leadership is willing to discuss the proposed amendments with Democratic Gov.-elect Josh Shapiro.
Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, said in November that the caucus plans to focus on climate change, health care affordability, protecting abortion access, and passing non-discrimination legislation.
Sen. Judy Ward, R-Blair, reintroduced a proposal requiring that voters show identification in every election, regardless of whether they vote by mail or at the polls.
“The premise behind voter ID laws is to ensure that individuals are not misrepresenting themselves when voting and, thus, potentially negating the votes of others,” Ward said in a memo seeking legislative support, adding that identification requirements “increase public confidence in the election process.”
Under Ward’s proposal, the same forms of acceptable identification first-time voters show when they vote are acceptable.
If a voter cannot present a valid photo identification, they must show two forms of non-photo identification, Ward said.
“I believe that this approach strikes a balance between the goal of protecting the integrity of each vote cast and the goal of ensuring that eligible voters possess or can obtain necessary valid ID,” she said.
A proposal from Sen. Elder Vogel, R-Beaver, offers guidance for telemedicine services and clarifies insurance company reimbursements was reintroduced. A previous version of the bill had bipartisan support.
The legislation requires payment for telemedicine services, but the provider and the insurer will decide what they are.
“With the use of telemedicine, specialists and other health care providers can expand their reach to patients,” Vogel wrote in a memo seeking legislative support. “This would allow medical services to be provided to some of the most vulnerable Pennsylvanians who otherwise would not be able to receive these services due to various circumstances.”
A proposal for a so-called curriculum transparency bill was introduced by Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Franklin.
Resembling a GOP-authored House bill that Gov. Tom Wolf vetoed last year, the proposal would require schools to post every textbook, course syllabus, and the state academic standards for each course offered on a public website.
Democrats argued the legislation would increase workloads for school officials and possibly affect how they teach social studies in school.
Schools should update the information “no later than 30 days after it is revised” without violating intellectual property rights, Mastriano wrote in a memo seeking support.
“By having easy access to an online link that is periodically updated, time-strapped parents will be better informed of what their children are learning,” Mastriano wrote. “Openness and transparency should be promoted in all facets of our taxpayer-funded government entities, and that especially includes local schools.”
Sens. Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-York, and Pat Stefano, R-Fayette, have introduced four pieces of legislation that would implement lobbying and state appointment reform in Pennsylvania.
Phillips-Hill reintroduced two proposals to extend the state’s prohibition on public officials or employees from lobbying the Legislature to two years and to prohibit lobbyists from serving on state agency boards, committees, councils, commissions, and state-owned and state-related universities.
“No paid lobbyist should be able to also have an inside track in advising state agencies, commissions, and schools on matters that may pose as a conflict of interest,” she wrote in a memo seeking her colleagues’ support.
Existing law lets lawmakers and their staff leave the General Assembly and return as lobbyists after one year, meaning they can come back during the same legislative session.
Stefano reintroduced legislation prohibiting convicted public officials from lobbying in Pennsylvania and banning lawmakers from appointments to governmental bodies for one year after leaving office.
Democrats in the Senate have announced plans for legislation that address a series of gun-related safety measures they’ve long advocated for in the General Assembly, including a proposed assault weapons ban, universal background checks, and storage requirements for firearms in Pennsylvania.
HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
House Democratic and Republican leaders will go into the new session with horns still locked over control of the chamber.
While Republicans will have a 101-99 majority on swearing-in day, Jan. 3, the majority is expected to swing to the Democrats after special elections for three Allegheny County seats left vacant by one death and two resignations.
But the parties are also fighting over who has the authority to set dates for the special elections, with Republican Leader Bryan Cutler calling for two of the positions to be filled on primary election day in May. Cutler and Democratic Leader Joanna McClinton both called for Feb. 7 election for the third seat, although each challenged the other’s authority to do so.
Under those circumstances, neither caucus has laid out an agenda for the next two years. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle nonetheless have proffered dozens of co-sponsorship memos seeking support for legislation to tackle issues with elections, reproductive rights, education, lobbying, property taxes, and guns.
In the 2020-21 session, House Republicans, led by the chair of the chamber’s State Government Committee, Rep. Seth Grove, R-York, sent an omnibus election reform bill to Gov. Tom Wolf’s desk.
Although the bill included adjustments to expand the timeline for preparing to count mail-in ballots before election day, it also included a voter identification mandate and other provisions Wolf said would restrict ballot access. Wolf vetoed the bill in June 2021.
Grove introduced similar legislation this year but it never advanced beyond the House.
Democratic lawmakers have proposed a slate of legislation to improve voter turnout and ballot access.
That includes proposals by Rep. Liz Hanbidge, D-Montgomery, to allow election officials to take portable voting machines to people with disabilities; by Rep. Melissa Shusterman, D-Chester, to involve high school teachers and students in efforts to register young voters; and by Rep. Brandon Markosek, D-Allegheny, that would allow 16- and 17-year-olds with state identification to pre-register to vote.
Rep. Regina Young, D-Philadelphia, proposed a bill that would prevent election officials from rejecting a ballot because a voter’s signature doesn’t match the one on file without giving the voter a chance to prove their identity.
Since 2019, when Pennsylvania voters gained the ability to vote by mail without an excuse, election results have been delayed by a restriction that prevents counties from preparing to count mail-in ballots before election day. Such delays have been attributed as a source of declining trust in the state’s election process.
Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, D-Philadelphia, proposes legislation that would allow counties to begin pre-canvassing mail-in ballots two weeks before Election Day.
“The state, and indeed the nation, should no longer be kept in suspense, waiting for election results days after the polls have closed in Pennsylvania,” Kenyatta said in a co-sponsorship memo.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision that overturned the right to abortion the court found nearly 50 years ago in Roe v. Wade, was a staggering blow to reproductive rights across the country.
While abortion remains legal and accessible in Pennsylvania, a GOP-led effort to amend the state Constitution to foreclose any right to abortion could end up before voters in the May primary election.
Hanbidge and Rep. Danielle Friel Otten, D-Chester, have proposed a bill that would amend the state Constitution to explicitly enshrine the right to privacy and bodily autonomy.
“This amendment would ensure that every individual has a right of privacy with respect to personal, sexual, and reproductive healthcare decisions, including the right to choose or refuse an abortion, the right to choose or refuse contraceptives, and the right to choose or refuse fertility care, all without discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion, or relationship status,” Hanbidge and Friel Otten wrote in a co-sponsorship memo.
Following the Dobbs decision, more than a dozen states enacted or reverted to a total or near-total bans on abortion, prompting women in those states in need of reproductive health care to travel to states where abortion is still accessible, including Pennsylvania.
Reps. Elizabeth Fiedler, D-Philadelphia; Dan Frankel, D-Allegheny; and Friel Otten have proposed a pair of bills that would protect those women and health care providers from prosecution in states where abortion has been criminalized.
One piece of legislation would prohibit health plans, healthcare clearinghouses, and healthcare providers from disclosing information about a person’s reproductive health services without the patient’s written consent.
The other would protect nurses from having their licenses suspended or revoked as a result of criminal or civil action for providing reproductive health services that would be illegal in a patient’s home state.
Reps. Carol Hill-Evans, D-York; Emily Kinkead, D-Allegheny; and Chris Rabb, D-Philadelphia, have proposed legislation that would bar law enforcement and other state and local government employees from cooperating in another state’s investigation into abortions legally obtained in Pennsylvania.
Public school funding has been a point of disunion between Republican and Democratic lawmakers and that appears set to continue in the next two years.
Freshman Rep. Joseph D’Orsie, R-York, proposes a constitutional amendment in line with the conservative movement toward school choice.
The language would allow state education funding to follow students to create competition among public, charter, private and religious schools. D’Orsie asserts in a co-sponsorship memo that this would result in higher quality education and lower costs.
Democrats, on the other hand, have proposed legislation that would expand public school services and create greater oversight of publicly-funded charter schools.
Rep. Kevin Boyle, D-Philadelphia, said he plans to introduce a bill that would require public school districts to provide universal preschool.
“Although there are proven economic benefits to early education programs that can help students become contributing members of society, the goal of pre-kindergarten and other early education programs is to create educational environments and experiences that nurture children’s overall well-being and advancement,” Boyle said in a co-sponsorship memo.
Rep. Joe Ciresi, D-Montgomery, proposes legislation that would give elected school boards the ability to account for tax dollars that are provided to charter schools.
“Every dollar of taxpayer money should be accountable to an entity elected by those taxpayers,” Ciresi said in a co-sponsorship memo. “My bill would ensure that accountability by requiring every charter school board of trustees to have a member appointed by the local authorizing school board, or each of the authorizing school boards in the case of a regional charter school.”
Rep. Daniel Deasy, D-Allegheny, proposes legislation that would make cyber-charter schools subject to audit by the state auditor general.
Property Tax Reform
One area of agreement between Republican and Democratic lawmakers may be property tax reform.
Reps. Kristin Marcell and Joe Hogan, both Bucks County Republicans, propose legislation that would freeze property taxes for homeowners at least aged 65 and older whose income is less than $65,000 a year or who pay more than 10 percent of their income in property taxes.
“For the many seniors living in our districts on a fixed or limited income, we believe this program will provide a much-needed degree of financial certainty that will ensure they may remain in their homes,” Marcell and Hogan said in a co-sponsorship memo.
Deasy proposes legislation that would delay efforts by a municipality or county to claim and sell homes owned by senior citizens to recoup unpaid taxes to provide additional time for the owners to catch up.
House lawmakers have also proposed a slate of legislation to reduce gun violence.
Friel Otten proposes legislation that would address gun violence as a public health issue by gathering data on incidents involving firearms.
Rep. Jason Ortitay, R-Allegheny, proposes legislation that would replace Pennsylvania’s system for firearms purchase background checks with the National Instant Check System.
The change would make background checks more accurate and efficient without spending millions of dollars to overhaul Pennsylvania’s system, which produces many inaccurate results, Ortitay said.
The change would also improve the entry of protection from abuse orders into the background check system by providing state police with better access to identifying information to prevent people prohibited from having guns from obtaining them, Ortitay’s co-sponsorship memo said.
Noting that firearms deaths have surpassed automobile fatalities as the leading cause of death for children, Friel Otten proposes legislation that would create a statewide system for gathering data on gun incidents including gun crime, accidental shootings, and self-harm.
Friel Otten said in a co-sponsorship memo that a scientific approach similar to that used by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and PennDOT in vehicle safety and driver education could be used to tackle gun deaths.
“To reduce firearm injuries and fatalities, particularly in children, we need to look upstream and address the root causes and exacerbating factors,” Friel Otten said.
Rep. Perry Warren, D-Bucks, said in a co-sponsorship memo that a study in Pittsburgh showed that one-third of firearms recovered at crime scenes had been stolen from their lawful owners.
Warren proposes legislation that would require gun owners to report the loss or theft of a firearm to police within 24 hours.
“The simple step of requiring firearm owners to report the loss or theft of a firearm to law enforcement can assist in reducing the flow of firearms to the black market,” Warren said.
Kenyatta and Rep. Ben Sanchez, D-Montgomery, have proposed similar legislation that would require reporting a lost or stolen gun within 72 hours.
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