With a new two-year session of the state Legislature set to begin on Jan. 1, the legislative branch hits the reset button on all the bills and issues left unresolved from the previous session.
The 2012 elections should have little impact on what to expect from Harrisburg, with the House and Senate staying firmly in Republican control and the same leaders returning for the upcoming session.
The most interesting development will be to watch how both legislative chambers handle Governor Corbett’s agenda as his 2014 re-election bid looms large over major policy decisions.
Despite one-party rule, the Republicans were unable to come to consensus on issues such as school choice and privatization of the state liquor stores, while the issues they were able to pass, such as Act 13 dealing with Marcellus Shale, Voter ID and the legislative redistricting maps were decimated by Republican-controlled appellate courts and are far from certain to survive constitutional scrutiny by the judicial branch.
Here are the five hot-button issues to watch for as the 2013-14 legislative session unfolds.
1. The State Pension Crisis
The state pension systems are underfunded for two separate reasons; the market collapse of 2008 and the fact that the state hasn’t been making the required payments for years now. The estimate of $41 billion in unfunded liability cited by Governor Corbett is a ridiculous number which assumes the pension system must be funded at 100 percent (it’s considered healthy at 80 percent and sits at about 69 percent now) and assumes every vested employeewould retire all at once, which is impossible.
It’s going to be tough to convince workers who have paid into their pension for years while the stateskipped their payments that the workers should bear the brunt of the sacrifice.
Reform is possible if Governor Corbett is really interested in a fair fix, but if it becomes clear he’s just trying to slash pensions of working Pennsylvanians who have paid their fair share into the system, it’s going to get ugly. This is the kind of issue that can short-circuit the state budget if it becomes about ideology instead of financial reality.
2. Transportation Funding
This will be a tricky one, because it’s the one issue where Governor Corbett must take a leadership role in proposing how we come up with the billions needed to fix our roads and bridges and fund mass transit. There’s no way to do this one without breaking the Grover Norquist ‘no tax’ pledge, which puts dozens of legislators in a bind.
The package will likely include raising the cap on the Oil Franchise Tax, which is paid by wholesalers like gas stations, increasing license and registration fees and utilizing public-private partnerships.
The governor will likely need Democratic votes in both chambers to pass any sort of plan, which should beinteresting to watch considering anyone who votes for it will likely get hammered by the Governor’s own party in the 2014 elections.
3. Marcellus Shale
There may be no trickier issue for the Legislature to address, especially if the Supreme Court throws out the portions of Act 13 that stripped local zoning powers for drilling activities. Act 13 passed by the slimmest and ugliest of margins in 2011, and there’s no way the Marcellus Shale Coalition could operate in the shadows like they did two years ago when they spent $1.8 million in three months lobbying the Legislature; the public is too educated and the media will be paying too much attention now.
If Act 13 is tossed, does Harrisburg just leave it alone or will the shale barons demand the Legislature takes another shot? This one will obviously be kind of a big deal for our region. FYI, I also happen to know a certain state representative (short guy, shaved head, great sense of humor) who will be doing everything in his power to expose possible corruption in the DEP on the issue of water quality testing and other Marcellus Shale-related items to ensure this industry is a long-term economic driver for our region and not a short-sighted bust with unsafe practices driven by bad actors.
4. Privatization of the Pennsylvania Lottery
This one is getting more unpopular by the minute. The lottery makes money, it has been scandal free for decades (according to my mother, Nick Perry going to jail for pulling the ‘666’ was one of the most traumatic moments of my childhood) and funds wildly popular programs benefitting senior citizens, the most valuable voting bloc in Pennsylvania. If Republicans in Harrisburg couldn’t pull off privatizing the state liquor system, which had strong theoretical support, privatizing the lottery will be a bridge too far for the Legislature.
5. The Sandusky Investigation
With a sweep of the statewide row offices, the Corbett administration will have to adjust to the reality of wielding less than absolute power, and nowhere will it be felt more than in the office of new Attorney General Kathleen Kane. She has been given a mandate by the voters to get some answers on how then-Attorney General Corbett handled the Jerry Sandusky investigation and whether politics played a role in the lack of resources and lengthy time without any prosecutions.
Her investigation and the consequences of her findings will likely have serious and long-lasting repercussions on Pennsylvania politics for a long time, and the worse it looks for Governor Corbett, the harder it will be for him to push his agenda through the Legislature.
These are just a few of the big-ticket items to watch out for as the wheels of state government begin to turn. Will any or all of them come to pass? Only time will tell, but it looks to be anexciting two years under the Capitol Dome in Harrisburg. Stay tuned…