HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Voters who kept three Pittsburgh-area state House seats in Democratic hands this week effectively also flipped control away from the Republican majority that has run the chamber for more than a decade, one of a handful of legislative bodies across the United States where partisan control shifted in recent months.
In a chamber where majority control has been used to prevent many of their priorities from getting any serious consideration, Pennsylvania House Democrats are eager to take the reins.
“It will mean common sense bills that have been held up in committee for a decade can finally be debated and voted on, and it will mean working with the new governor to deliver on an agenda that puts Pennsylvanians first,” said Democratic caucus spokesperson Nicole Reigelman.
But with the Pennsylvania Senate firmly in Republican hands, the governorship retained by Democrats in November and a bare, one-seat state House margin, the recent elections can’t be expected to make much change in Harrisburg’s deep partisanship or its lengthy periods of inaction.
WHAT HAPPENED TUESDAY?
The three special elections left House Democrats with 102 members and Republicans with 101; the GOP number will drop to 100 when a member departs soon after winning a special election for state Senate last week.
The three new members will be seated once the results are fully tabulated and certified. Democrats are suddenly able to convert their agenda into actual legislation, but they are still going to need help from the Senate to send anything to the desk of Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro.
WHAT’S GOING ON WITH THE SPEAKERSHIP?
Despite their wins, Democrats were unable to elect their first choice as speaker, Rep. Joanna McClinton of Philadelphia, when the chamber met for the start of session on Jan. 3. Republicans, however, also failed to muster a majority for their preferred candidate, Rep. Carl Walker Metzgar of Somerset County.
The result was a compromise choice, Reading area Rep. Mark Rozzi, a Democrat known mostly as a prime supporter of giving victims of childhood sexual abuse a two-year window during which they would be able to file otherwise outdated lawsuits.
Rozzi has said he wants to keep the job and has spent the past month working with a handpicked group of six lawmakers, three from each party, on what could be dramatic changes to how the House operates.
If they can develop rules that attract support across party lines, Rozzi might be able to prevent or at least forestall efforts to replace him with McClinton or some other candidate when the House returns to session Feb. 21.
Rozzi told The Philadelphia Inquirer on Wednesday that he expects the child sexual abuse lawsuit legislation to be considered that week, after which he might “reassess” whether he wants to keep the speakership.
MIGHT THERE BE MOVEMENT ON ISSUES?
Two of the country’s most hotly disputed political issues, changes to election procedures and access to abortion, have not seen movement in the past few years in Pennsylvania, largely because of its divided government.
Democrats pushing to give counties more advance time to process mail-in ballots have run into Republican hopes of reducing mail-in voting and making other changes. Shapiro has said he wants Election Day voter registration and automatic voter registration, policies legislative Republicans have largely ignored.
Shapiro, like his predecessor, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, is a backer of abortion rights and, like Wolf, has said he will veto any restrictions.
With the House majority, however, Democrats have no reason to send any bill that limits access to abortion to Shapiro. The political fallout from last summer’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling on abortion makes swing state Pennsylvania even more unlikely to be the site of abortion-related policy changes in the near future.
“The most likely outcome for a lot of things is going to be nothing changes, right?” said Dan Mallinson, a public policy professor at Penn State-Harrisburg. “With abortion, you’re just not going to see the type of legislation that Republicans were talking about leading to the election.”
HOW DOES THIS AFFECT THE NEW GOVERNOR?
As a candidate and during his first month in office, Shapiro has conspicuously touted bipartisanship and pushed business-friendly policies.
But one of the first things the GOP-controlled Senate accomplished last month was to bundle together and pass the child sexual abuse lawsuit proposal along with expanded voter ID requirements and a measure to give lawmakers greater power to cancel a governor’s regulations.
By the time the next state budget is passed around the end of June, there should be clear evidence about whether Shapiro’s claim to have a “mandate” to bring people together and work with Republicans can translate into legislative wins.
His press secretary, Manuel Bonder, said Shapiro sees room to work with both parties on education, public safety and economic issues. “Pennsylvanians have rejected extremism and elected leaders to work together and make progress on the issues that matter most — and that’s exactly what Gov. Shapiro will remain focused on doing every day,” Bonder said.
ROLE OF HOUSE REPUBLICANS
Republicans lost a net of 12 seats and the majority, but they have only one fewer vote than Democrats and could return to the majority if additional vacancies occur or they can persuade someone to switch parties. There are local races and judge elections that may well thin the Democrats’ ranks later this year.
The House Republican spokesperson, Jason Gottesman, said his members want to get the session underway.
“Democrats, over the last three months, have argued in public and the courts that they have a majority,” Gottesman said. “Hopefully, with last night’s elections having come to a conclusion, Democrats can reverse their recent patterns and practices and stick to their word in joining with us to truly move Pennsylvania ahead for the people who live here.”
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