Slim lead muddies Dems’ control in House

By Gillian McGoldrick (Staff Writer)

HARRISBURG — After weeks of stalled government — and more than a dozen years in the minority — Democrats will officially control the state House. But just by the skin of their teeth.

Democrats came to Harrisburg at the start of January having won 102 seats in November. But three vacancies in Allegheny County — one due to a death and two members who won higher office — put them in a slight minority at the start of the year.

With wins in Tuesday’s special elections for those seats, Democrats will return to Harrisburg at the end of February finally in control of the chamber.

Still, so much about the rest of this legislative session remains unpredictable. And it’s the residents of Pennsylvania who will suffer if lawmakers can’t compromise, experts and advocates said.

The 102-101 Democratic majority will allow House Democrats to finally pursue their top political priorities, such as raising the minimum wage and increasing state funding for public education.

But such a closely divided chamber means House Democrats will need to ensure every single member of the caucus supports their legislation. Then they’ll need to reach compromises with the GOP-controlled state Senate.

“These majorities, there’s no room to maneuver,” said Stephen Medvic, a political science and government professor at Franklin & Marshall College. “There’s no room to make a mistake. There’s no room to lose anybody. It’s going to be pretty tense and really difficult to navigate.”

Can Rozzi’s rules better Harrisburg?

House Speaker Mark Rozzi (D., Berks), who was unexpectedly elected speaker by House Democrats and Republican leadership, will reconvene the House on Feb. 21.

He’s spent the last month hosting a listening tour around Pennsylvania, and convened a special work group of three Republicans and three Democrats to look at how such a closely divided chamber should operate. Rozzi promised to keep the doors to the House chamber locked until they reached an agreement.

The group will meet one last time this coming week to finalize a rules package for a special session to consider legislation to provide long-awaited justice to adult victims of childhood sexual assault, Rozzi said.

Lawmakers will return to Harrisburg on Feb. 21 to pass two measures that would provide childhood victims of sexual assault a two-year window to file a civil suit against their abusers or the institutions that protected them, Rozzi told The Inquirer this past week.

Once that passes, he will “reassess” his speakership, signaling for the first time that he may consider stepping down from the House’s top post so Democrats could elect their presumed choice for speaker, Democratic Leader Joanna McClinton (D., Philadelphia).

Rozzi said he supports a number of rule changes mentioned during his listening tour. Requiring all bills with wide bipartisan support to get a vote is one. Traditionally, the chair of a committee or leadership has final say about whether a bill gets considered, meaning legislation supported by members of both parties can die before lawmakers ever get to vote on it.

Rozzi said a Republican lawmaker once offered to become the prime sponsor of one of Rozzi’s bills because the then-GOP committee chair vowed that he would never run a Democrat’s bill.

“How stupid is that? How ridiculous is that?” Rozzi said. “That is not representing the people of Pennsylvania. I make it clear back home I will vote for a Republican or a Democratic ideal, as long as I know it’s good for the 126th District. I’m not going to stand in the way of a good bill if it’s sponsored by a Republican. That is the stupidness that goes on by members in the majority.”

Rep. Jason Ortitay (R., Washington), a member of Rozzi’s work group, said the listening tour opened his eyes to the many ways residents want to have more access to their government, such as always requiring a livestream of committee meetings.

In their private work group meetings, Ortitay said, the sometimes-heated discussions helped rebuild trust between the two parties.

“It’s the first time in a long time, at least since I’ve been around here, where Republicans and Democrats could sit down at a table and talk candidly,” Ortitay added. “Starting with the six of us, I think it’s going to help build and mend those bridges.”

Republican Leader Bryan Cutler said he’d been working with Democrats before the November election to improve the chamber’s rules, such as changing committees to a 13-12 split instead of a 15-11 split that gives the majority party total control over what legislation moves to a full floor vote.

Republicans’ learning curve

House Republican leaders cut a surprise deal with Rozzi, a rank-and-file Democrat, to elect him speaker if he changed his political party. (Rozzi never did, but said he believes he’s kept his promise to Pennsylvanians and will continue to act independently from Democratic or Republican leadership.)

The relationship between Rozzi and Cutler (R., Lancaster) only deteriorated from there. Cutler has escalated his attacks on Rozzi in recent weeks, calling on him to resign and for Gov. Josh Shapiro to investigate him. Cutler and Rozzi have traded barbs, with Rozzi calling him a liar on multiple occasions.

“I find it very offensive that [Rozzi] would question my integrity, particularly when I’ve delivered for him,” Cutler said, noting how he helped advance Rozzi’s childhood sexual assault amendment in the past. “Looking at the long list of promises he made to me and all the citizens of the commonwealth, he’s failed to live up to any of them.”

One thing is clear: Cutler is escalating his attacks on the Democratic House speaker he helped elect. Just like Democrats will need to learn how to act in the majority, Cutler will have to learn how to be in the minority.

And Cutler must explain to his dissatisfied caucus how Republican leaders flubbed their deal with Rozzi.

Cutler said he’s approaching this the same way he always does: he tells the truth.

“[Rozzi] didn’t just lie to me. … He lied to everybody when he got up and gave his speech,” Cutler said.

Expect 2024 jockeying to begin

Both parties will likely use this tight margin to help them position themselves for the 2024 election, Medvic said. Democrats will use this legislative session to bolster their numbers and try to create a larger majority next session. Republicans will use it to try to win back the House, Medvic said.

“Essentially, this all boils down to the next election cycle,” he added. “If you have a majority of 20 or so seats, then you can govern in a different way.”

The soon-to-be House Majority Leader Joanna McClinton projected Democratic unity Tuesday night after the special elections.

“Our caucus has never been more unified,” she said from a union hall in Allegheny County.

Whether lawmakers get anything done will depend on if they value true bipartisanship over political stunts. If not, they’ll have great talking points about how the opposing party blocked their great ideas — but nothing to show for it, Medvic said.

“It’s always better to be able to go to the voters with a record of some real accomplishments,” he said.