HARRISBURG, Pa. — There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical that the Pennsylvania Legislature will accomplish much in 2018 — it’s an election year and a yawning partisan gap has divided the Republican priorities of the General Assembly and the Democratic agenda of Gov. Tom Wolf over the past three years.
All three of the most recent state budgets have involved excruciating negotiations, with two languishing for months after the state’s fiscal year ended before deals were struck.
All 203 House seats and half the 50-member Senate will go before voters this year.
Here are some of the issues and proposals that could produce action in the General Assembly in the year ahead:
Several bills designed to combat domestic violence are pending, including proposals to toughen bail for defendants in domestic abuse cases, to provide police escorts for people going to their homes before or after a protective order has been served, to stop allowing those ordered to relinquish guns to give them to a third party, to ease the process of extending protective orders and to help victims of domestic violence move within a county’s housing program.
The impact of the opioid crisis has absorbed much of lawmakers’ time and attention in recent years, and it’s likely that topic will be back in the forefront in the coming year. Some of the proposals that have been floated include setting up a task force to examine the impact on children, regulating pain management clinics and changes to criminal sentencing guidelines. Wolf said in October he supports a Senate-passed proposal to limit opioid prescriptions in most cases to seven days.
SIZE OF THE LEGISLATURE
A proposal to amend the state constitution to shrink the size of the state House from 203 members to 151 could make it out of the General Assembly this year and into the hands of voters, who would get the final say. Amendments need to pass both chambers in two consecutive sessions, which passage in both chambers this year would accomplish. Republican leaders say they are determined to put it up to another round of votes. If approved, the changes would be implemented as new House districts are drawn following the 2020 U.S. census. The Senate would stay at 50 seats.
As the nation has experienced a new focus on sexual misconduct, there’s a proposal in the Senate to prevent non-disclosure agreements that stop people from reporting such claims to law enforcement. It also would keep courts from enforcing such agreements in civil lawsuits and retroactively invalidate agreements entered into under duress, while impaired or by a minor. Efforts to determine what lawmakers should do on the topic are described as being in the early stages.
MARCELLUS SHALE TAX
A tax on natural gas extraction in the Marcellus shale formation continues to be a priority of Wolf and his fellow Democrats, although the opposition in the Republican-dominated state House was strong enough to prevent it last year, despite a massive budget gap. House Republicans say they will be looking for ways to cut taxes.
MUNICIPAL PENSION REFORM
Lawmakers and Wolf enacted changes to the state’s two large public-sector pension systems, and this year could take steps to enact similar reforms for municipal pensions.
Decisions may soon be issued in two lawsuits that challenge the congressional district map approved in 2011 by the GOP majority and then-Gov. Tom Corbett, also a Republican. One case awaits a decision by a panel of three federal judges, while the other is set for oral argument before the state Supreme Court on Jan. 17. It’s possible lawmakers could be directed to redraw the lines in time for the May 15 primary election. Senate Republican leaders say they have put wider redistricting reforms on hold while the cases are pending.