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Four out of five Pa. legislative bills fail

During the 2019-2020 legislative session, nearly 4,200 bills were introduced by members of the General Assembly in Harrisburg, the largest number since the administration of Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell (2003-11).

Many of these bills were either ignored or languished in committee, never again to see the light of day. Some of these bills never had a prayer for passage, and the sponsoring legislator knew it. They were merely window dressing to send a message (news release) to constituents that a legislator wasn’t just sitting on his or her duff while claiming a $90,000-a-year salary plus some pretty nifty perks.

Ultimately, 311 made their way through the legislative process, and of those just 290 were signed into law by Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat.

It shows the enormous power of committee chairs, who almost single-handedly determine the fate of whether a bill is considered.

The legislative process in one respect is intentionally agonizingly and constitutionally slow and circuitous, because hastily enacted laws have a way of creating major problems for the public as well as the legislators who passed them.

This type of fast-paced legislation usually winds up with loopholes and other flaws that then have to be dealt with at considerable time and expense. One that comes to mind is the fireworks-expansion bill that is creating so much controversy in communities all over the state because of the noise and disruption of people’s quality of life, to say nothing of its impact on pets and other domestic animals.

Even when bills appear to be no-brainers, there is no guarantee that they are going to curry favor with the committee chair or other legislative colleagues.

We have one of the largest, most expensive and least efficient legislatures in the nation, yet a legislator-reduction bill introduced by Rep. Valerie Gaydos, R-Allegheny, and broadly supported by Rep. Jerry Knowles, R-Schuylkill/Carbon, who nearly succeeded in getting it through a previous session of the Legislature, was assigned to the State Government Committee on Feb. 9, but it’s seen no movement since.

Because legislators will be super busy with congressional and legislative reapportionment in conjunction with the 2020 Census, the likelihood of this bill coming up for floor action, in my view, is slim to none.

Pennsylvania’s 253-person Legislature - 203 state representatives and 50 senators - is the largest full-time body in the nation. Each rank-and-file legislator earns $90,335 annually, next only to those in California and New York, with generous fringe benefits. Committee chairs and legislative leaders earn considerably more

In Pennsylvania’s Republican-controlled Legislature, it is nearly impossible for a Democrat to get a bill passed unless he or she is able to enlist overwhelming bipartisan support or is able to latch on to an issue that is so top of mind awareness that legislators are almost compelled to take action.

Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre, said voters are not so much concerned with quantity as they are about the quality of the legislation enacted.

Introduced bills range from the ultra important to those which could be considered self-serving to those that are even laughable.

When a bill is introduced, a number of things must happen before it can become law.

First, anyone may draft a bill, but only members of the General Assembly can introduce legislation, and this person becomes the sponsor.

In addition to bills, there are House and Senate resolutions. It becomes official when the bill or resolution gets a number - “HB” signifies a “House bill,” while “SB” is a Senate bill.

Then the bill is referred to a committee and printed by the Legislative Reference Bureau. Generally, bills are referred to standing committees in the House or Senate according to carefully delineated rules of procedure.

When a bill reaches a committee it is placed on the committee’s calendar. It is at this point that a bill is examined and its chances for passage are evaluated. If the committee does not act on a bill, it is the equivalent of killing it. (Of course, such harsh language is never used among legislators themselves.)

If a bill makes it through committee, it goes to the House or Senate floor for debate. This is where rules determine the conditions and amount of time allocated for debate. After the debate and the approval of any amendments, the bill is passed or defeated by the voting members. If passed, it goes to the other chamber where it mostly follows the same route through committee to floor action.

This chamber may approve the bill as received, reject it, ignore it or amend it. If only minor changes are made by the other chamber, it is common for the legislation to go back to the first chamber for concurrence. When the actions of the other chamber significantly alter the bill, however, a conference committee is formed to reconcile the differences. If the conferees are unable to reach agreement, the legislation dies. If agreement is reached, a conference report is prepared describing the committee members’ recommendations for changes.

Both the House and the Senate must approve the conference report. After a bill has been approved by the House and Senate in identical form, it is sent to the governor. If the governor signs it, the bill becomes law. The governor also can take no action for 10 days, in which case it automatically becomes law. If the governor vetoes a bill, the General Assembly may attempt to override it with a two-thirds roll call vote of the members of both houses who are present “in sufficient numbers” for a quorum.

In most cases, the veto is not overridden, so this is where those who wrote the state Constitution believe a major legislative safeguard is in place.

The new game in town to circumvent a gubernatorial veto is to go straight to the voters with constitutional amendments, such as the two which passed in the May primary stripping the governor of some of his emergency declaration powers.

By Bruce Frassinelli | tneditor@tnonline.com

The foregoing opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of the Editorial Board or Times News LLC.