Pennsylvania’s legislative session ended at midnight Nov. 30. Across the commonwealth, organizations and commissions are reviewing their priority bills for the 2021-2022 session and acknowledging that once again top concerns have not been addressed.
Organizations of elected officials, representing huge majorities of Pennsylvanians, found their priorities blocked by legislative leaders. Bipartisan commissions, chosen by PA legislators, found their carefully researched recommendations ignored by the same leaders who selected them.
This impacts every sector of PA life. Education funding, election law, broadband access, municipal finance, emergency medical services, food production...dig in and you’ll find outdated laws in need of revision or long-standing problems unaddressed due to legislative inaction.
Evidence and examples could fill an encyclopedia. Here’s just one:
In 1976 the Governor's Commission on Fire Prevention and Control issued a report called Pennsylvania Burning, highlighting a crisis in funding, staffing and training of Pennsylvania's firefighters and emergency medical personnel. Recommendations were ignored. The crisis grew.
A quarter century later, the Senate Resolution 6 Report of 2004 pointed to “a myriad of reports prepared and testimony taken on the status, needs, dilemma, and frustration of providing these services within the Commonwealth.” That report contained 23 specific legislative recommendations. Few were considered in committee in that session or the following decade. The crisis grew.
In 2017, another Senate resolution formed yet another commission. The resulting 2018 Final Report noted earlier reports, earlier recommendations and concluded:
“It is the consensus of the Commission that a public safety crisis is unfolding due to the continuing decline in the ranks of our emergency service volunteers. According to the Pennsylvania Fire and Emergency Services Institute, the number of volunteer firefighters has shrunk from 300,000 in the 1970’s to about 60,000 in the early 2000’s and to 38,000 in 2018.”
That report proposed 92 recommendations. Many were unanimously approved by commission members representing voluntary and professional firefighter associations, health providers and leaders of organizations representing municipal and county elected officials. Of the recommendations introduced as bills, few have made their way out of committee. Fewer still have made it into law.
Complex problems require careful solutions that include feedback and input from a wide mix of stakeholders. PA’s legislative processes allow individual committee chairs to act as both gatekeepers and final arbiters, undermining efforts at collaboration and limiting legislative effectiveness. Part-time legislatures in many other states enact needed solutions quickly, with little partisan drama or backroom negotiation. Sadly, PA’s legislative process is too often focused on who introduced a bill, who might get credit, which chamber has the upper hand. Half the bills passed in one chamber, many unanimously, get no vote in the other.
For decades PA has been in the lowest percentile in number of bills enacted and percent of introduced bills enacted. The 2021-2022 session hit a new historic low: just one bill introduced by a House Democrat and two bills introduced by Senate Democrats made it into law. The total of bills enacted: 293, less than 8% of total bills introduced.
The next session will be sworn in on Jan. 3 with a more divided General Assembly. For the first time since 2010 the GOP does not hold an unshakeable majority. That could mean even less gets done, or it could provide incentive for leaders in both chambers and both parties to rethink legislative rules. In PA those rules are decided at the start of each new session. The rules can allow just a few leaders complete control, or can open the door to collaboration, deliberation and carefully negotiated legislative solutions.
PA has real-life problems that demand immediate legislative action. The County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania School Board Association, the PA Farm Bureau, the Firefighter's Association State of Pennsylvania, scores of PA groups from all walks of life and all political affiliations can point to important, non-partisan, much-needed legislation ignored year after year by PA’s General Assembly.
Will 2023 be the year those bills get a vote? Will leaders emerge with political will and personal courage equal to the task of putting better legislative rules in place?
What happens in legislative chambers in PA impacts us all. The air we breathe, the water we drink, our health, our safety, our education, our economy: legislative inaction puts all at risk. Together we can demand attention to laws that address long-standing problems, that reflect current realities and that serve us all well. Find out more at FixHarrisburg.com.
Carol Kuniholm chairs Fair Districts PA.
This article originally appeared on The Intelligencer: Singularly unproductive legislative session ends in Harrisburg