Peter Hall, Pennsylvania Capital-Star
December 26, 2023
The Pennsylvania Legislature made history in 2023, shattering glass ceilings and flipping control of the state House for the first time in more than a decade.
But with Democrats holding a “humble majority,” of 102-101 in the House and Republicans continuing their nearly 30-year hegemony in the Senate, lawmakers encountered partisan discord at nearly every turn of the legislative process.
Legislation with bipartisan appeal, such as the long-running effort to give sexual abuse survivors legal relief, foundered as the priorities of House Democrats and Senate Republicans clashed.
Gov. Josh Shapiro’s first state budget was delayed nearly six months when a deal with Senate GOP leaders to include a school voucher program collapsed under opposition from House Democrats.
But in the final session week of the year, Shapiro brokered a deal with the divided Legislature to complete the budget and pass priorities for both sides, including expansions of the private school scholarship program and the state earned income tax credit.
Here, in no particular order, are the top news stories from the Legislature this year.
Three years ago, Sen. Kim Ward (R-Westmoreland) was part of a historic ascension of women to the role of floor leaders for the first time in the General Assembly’s 244-year history.
This year, Ward made history again when she was elected unanimously by the GOP-controlled Senate to the third-highest position in state government. Ward is the first woman to serve as Senate president pro tempore.
Ward replaced retiring Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman (R-Centre) and Sen. Joe Pittman (R-Indiana) took Ward’s place as Senate majority leader.
The Senate president pro tempore is second in the gubernatorial line of succession, following the lieutenant governor. The post also holds responsibility for appointing committee chairpersons and members of the Senate’s 22 standing committees. The individual also serves as an ex-officio member of all committees and presides over the chamber when the lieutenant governor is unavailable.
After House Democrats secured their majority in special elections, Rep. Joanna McClinton was elected speaker of the House on Feb. 28, becoming the first Black woman to hold the position.
Like Ward, McClinton was among the first women to be elected to leadership positions within their caucuses in 2020. But McClinton’s election as speaker was doubly noteworthy, as she is only the second Black person to serve in the role.
McClinton, a former public defender, recognized the significance of her election by remembering Rep. K. Leroy Irvis, the first Black speaker of the House, and the first women elected to the Legislature and higher offices, including Rep. Crystal Bird Fauset, the first Black woman elected to any state Legislature.
“But there’s still so much farther for us to go,” McClinton said, noting that no woman has served as governor or U.S. Senator in Pennsylvania. “And we, in this moment in time right now, have to pinch ourselves because it was almost 250 years before a woman could stand at this desk, not just to give a prayer, but to get the gavel.”
Democrats won a 102-seat majority in the House in November, but the death of an incumbent representative, and the resignation of two others, all Democrats, who were also elected to higher offices, meant that Republicans had a 101-99 majority on swearing-in day Jan. 3.
They won back their majority on Feb. 7, retaining three seats in Allegheny County, again on May 16 retaining a seat in Delaware County where Democrat Heather Boyd was elected to replace former Rep. Mike Zabel, and yet again on Sept. 19 back in Allegheny County, where Democrat Lindsay Powell won former Rep. Sara Inamorato’s seat after she stepped down to run for county executive.
House Republicans also retained a north central Pennsylvania seat on May 16, when Rep. Michael Stender (R-Northumberland) won the seat vacated by Sen. Lynda Schlegel Culver, who resigned after winning a Jan. 31 special election for a vacant Senate seat.
The House will go into the new year with a 101-101 split, following former Rep. John Galloway’s (D-Bucks) resignation to take the district judge position to which he was elected in November. A special election has been set for Feb 13.
The narrowly divided House convened on swearing-in day without a clear picture of who would lead it or whether the question would be decided.
Neither party appeared to have the votes for a nomination for speaker to succeed and a motion by Democrats to adjourn until after special elections in February failed with a tied vote.
A fellow lawmaker’s half-joking quip to Rep. Mark Rozzi (D-Berks) about what it would take for him to flip to the Republican caucus set the wheels in motion for Rep. Jim Gregory (R-Blair) to nominate him as an independent. Rozzi never changed his party affiliation, prompting Gregory to later call for his resignation as speaker.
With McClinton’s endorsement, Rozzi was elected speaker by a 115-85 vote. He promised to use his position to pass legislation to give survivors of childhood sexual abuse an opportunity to sue their attackers and the organizations that enabled them.
A lobbyist for one of Pennsylvania’s most influential unions spoke in January at a public hearing on House rules about being physically harassed by a sitting state lawmaker.
Service Employees International Union lobbyist Andi Perez did not name Zabel at the time, but other women, including Rep. Abby Power (R-Armstrong), came forward also accusing Zabel of harassment.
The scandal highlighted the limited protection provided by House ethics rules, which did not allow for complaints from people who did business with state representatives such as constituents, lobbyists and journalists.
The House adopted new rules expanding the range of people who can lodge complaints, but Republicans were critical of the rules for limiting the prohibitions on harassment and discrimination to work settings.
In one of his final acts in office, Gov. Tom Wolf called the General Assembly to a special session in January to hold the second round of constitutionally required votes on an amendment to retroactively extend the time for adults who were abused as children to file lawsuits.
Facing a deadline to get the measure on the ballot for a May referendum, Rozzi, as speaker, vowed to halt all other legislative action until both chambers passed it.
But that set the stage for a clash with Republican leaders who said the survivors’ amendment should not be prioritized over amendment language proposed to provide for voter identification, election audits and legislative review of regulations.
Although both chambers have passed bills containing the child abuse survivors’ amendment, the legislation remains unfinished.
Pennsylvania’s 2024 presidential primary election is set for April 23, during Passover, when many Jewish people who observe the holiday do not drive, write or use electronics.
An effort to move the primary date to avoid conflicts with religious holidays, while simultaneously giving Pennsylvania voters an earlier and more consequential role in selecting presidential nominees, fizzled out this fall.
The Senate first passed a bill in September to move the primary to March 19. As election officials across the state warned time was of the essence, House and Senate lawmakers traded at least six versions of the legislation with various dates and amendments to include election reform measures such as voter ID.
Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman in mid October declared the matter closed in the upper chamber and called House efforts too little, too late.
Commonwealth Court Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer ruled in February that Pennsylvania’s education funding system, which is heavily reliant on the real estate values, puts students in poorer areas at a disadvantage.
Faced with the court’s determination after a decade of litigation that the school funding scheme is unconstitutional, state lawmakers and Shapiro are faced with developing a fair method of distributing resources to school districts across the state.
A panel of 15 lawmakers and Shapiro’s education and budget deputies began a series of hearings in September to gather information and experiences from educators and advocates across the state. The Basic Education Funding Commission has a Jan. 11 deadline to deliver recommendations to Shapiro and the Legislature.
In one of the few bipartisan slam dunks to come out of the General Assembly this year, lawmakers approved legislation to require enhanced insurance coverage for breast cancer screening and genetic testing.
Shapiro signed the bill — his first since taking office — in May. The first-of-its-kind nationwide, the law removes out-of-pocket costs associated with genetic testing for hereditary breast, ovarian, prostate, and other cancers. It also covers supplemental breast screenings for women with a high risk of breast cancer.
From March to December, the 2023-24 budget process moved in fits and starts as House and Senate lawmakers retrenched on legislative priorities before finally reaching a compromise.
Shapiro’s first budget address on March 7 focused on the three themes of his gubernatorial campaign — improving the economy and employment opportunities, bolstering public safety, and building a stronger public education system — that led to his election by historic margins in November.
It didn’t mention school vouchers, a policy Shapiro announced on the campaign trail, and the issue that would derail budget negotiations for more than five months.
The Senate sent its version of the budget bill to the House in June with funding for a scholarship program to pay private school tuition for students in distressed school districts. House Democrats killed a separate bill authorizing the program and Shapiro vowed to line-item veto $100 million for the scholarships when the bill got to his desk.
The Senate returned from recess for a day in August to send the budget to Shapiro, but without legislation authorizing the state to spend some of the money; funding for new programs such as school mental health grants, a rate increase for ambulance companies, and repair grants for low-income homeowners would remain locked up.
The House and Senate approved the final pieces of the budget on Dec. 13 — the last scheduled session day of the year — amid a frenzy of legislation that put goals for both Democrats and Republicans on Shapiro’s desk to be signed.
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