What will Pa. House Democrats do with a majority? First, they’re moving long-stalled priority bills.

by Stephen Caruso and Kate Huangpu | April 27, 2023

HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania Democrats used the first full week of session since they solidified their majority in the state House to make their priorities clear: They intend to pass long-requested changes to election administration and anti-discrimination laws.

Committees in the House considered dozens of bills this week, and sent more than 40 to the floor for votes by the full chamber. Democrats argue the half-dozen GOP-sponsored proposals they included in that blitz show they intend to run the chamber in a bipartisan way.

“All bills, whether introduced by a Democrat or Republican, will be considered if they have a positive impact on Pennsylvania,” said Beth Rementer, spokesperson for House Majority Leader Matt Bradford (D., Montgomery).

However, the biggest proposals represent top priorities for Democrats alone and advanced out of committee in party-line votes. These include a proposal to ban sexual orientation discrimination in housing, employment, and all other public accommodations, legislation that has been introduced and shut down in Harrisburg for 22 years.

Advocates around the Capitol expressed hope that not all these priority bills will get a totally partisan reception on the floor. But Democrats say that after a decade-plus of being stymied in the minority, they feel emboldened to respond to their base.

“We would protest and have events in the main rotunda about bills that were very popular with the public, and they would go nowhere in Harrisburg,” state Rep. Kevin Boyle (D., Philadelphia), who chairs the House Insurance Committee, told Spotlight PA. “So I think the responsibility is on the likes of me to make sure that those measures are passed out of committee and then ultimately, pass our state House.”

Read on for Spotlight PA’s rundown of key bills that show House Democrats’ early priorities, and what they say about the way this session could unfold.

Election administration

A top priority for county administrators got a boost this week when the Pennsylvania House State Government Committee approved a bill that would give counties seven days before each election to open and prepare mail ballots for a final count on Election Day. That process is commonly known as pre-canvassing.

It passed without any support from the Republicans on the committee, and state Senate Republicans have already indicated they won’t approve it without significant changes.

Votebeat previously reported the bill would also allow counties to accept mail ballots that are undated or lack a secrecy envelope, a so-called naked ballot. Additionally, it would require counties to contact voters who forgot to sign the outer envelope of their mail ballot so that they have a chance to fix it.

Another change under the bill is that voters would have four fewer days to remotely request a mail ballot — tightening the timeline from a week before Election Day to the second Friday before an election. That change matches a common demand from counties for more time to turn around ballot requests.

The bill’s final language also included a provision that would let voters request a mail ballot in person at their county election office until the day before Election Day. That addition raised concerns with the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, which represents election workers.

“Any benefit counties would see … by pre-canvassing in the seven days before is likely to be undermined by adding workload, including processing last-minute updates to poll books, during the exact same time,” said Lisa Schaefer, executive director of the association, in a statement.

Other interest groups are also weighing in. Voting rights advocates have argued that pre-canvassing is a bare minimum update to the law, and hope to see Democrats expand ballot access by approving changes such as same-day voter registration and in-person early voting.

As for the GOP-controlled state Senate, they’ve made clear they expect an expanded voter ID law to be part of the election conversation. Senate GOP spokesperson Kate Flessner told Votebeat this week that the provision is “a key component” of any “holistic” election bill.

Threading that needle is now up to new Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro and the divided legislature — a tall order, but one that state Rep. Scott Conklin (D., Centre), who chairs the House State Government Committee, said must be tried.

“After 25 years of being elected, I found that not everybody always gets exactly what they want,” Conklin said. “But if we can come close and do something that’s good for the public, that’s the most important thing.”

LGBTQ nondiscrimination

After 22 years of repeated introduction and inaction in the legislature, a bill that would ban discrimination against LGBTQ individuals received a committee vote Monday.

LGBTQ people who feel they have been fired or denied another service on the basis of their sexual orientation can already file a complaint with the Human Relations Commission thanks to a Dec. 2022 administrative change pushed by former Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf.

That policy is based upon the 2020 U.S. Supreme Court ruling Bostock v. Clayton County, which found that the definition of “sex” in federal law includes sexual orientation and gender identity.

Republicans, who unanimously voted against the nondiscrimination bill in committee, pointed to the ruling and the state rule change to argue the proposal was unnecessary.

They also brought up concerns that trans individuals would lodge complaints against doctors who refused to provide gender-affirming care, or against domestic violence shelters that refused to host them.

But Democrats countered that the absence of a state law leaves Pennsylvania’s current nondiscrimination rule vulnerable to being overridden if the federal ruling is ever reversed.

“We talk about unintended consequences, but let’s talk about real consequences when we don’t have a state law that protects all LGBTQ Pennsylvanians,” said state Rep. La’Tasha Mayes (D., Allegheny).

During his campaign, Shapiro said making such a change was a top priority and that he would “use my political capital” to get it done.

Public sector workplace safety

Even during Republicans’ years of control of the General Assembly, organized labor always held sway within the halls of the Capitol. When the GOP set the agenda, that influence could be seen in unions’ successful lobbying efforts against bills they opposed, such as a measure that would have ended the automatic deduction of union political contributions from public paychecks.

But with Democrats setting the voting calendar, organized labor, which contributed dollars and manpower to Democrats’ election efforts, now has a chance to further its priorities.

“It is clear that the current Democratic majority in the House is a pro-worker majority, and we will continue to work with them on policies that improve the lives of AFSCME members and all working people in Pennsylvania,” said David Henderson, who heads Pennsylvania’s AFSCME Council 13, which represents more than 65,000 workers in the commonwealth.

One of those policies advanced this week, as the state House Labor and Industry Committee passed a bill that would create a board to monitor public sector workplaces for safety violations and levy fines of up to $10,000 for noncompliance. It is now before the full chamber.

The board would also oversee working conditions at any nonprofit, charity, or other private group “receiving grants or appropriations from Federal, State or local government.”

A study commissioned by Wolf in 2022 to estimate the cost of implementing public sector workplace safety standards found it would take $54.8 million to bring state government workplaces into compliance with such a law.

The bill is opposed by associations representing a number of local government bodies, including counties, cities, townships, and municipal authorities, which called for a complete study of workplace injuries and deaths before implementing a board.

“The expenditures [the bill] would entail, both in diversion of local funds and the cost to the commonwealth of establishing and maintaining a vast new regulatory regime, should be devoted instead to many other pressing and urgent needs,” they said in testimony on the bill last month.

According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, at least four nonfederal government workers died on the job in 2021, the most recent full year for which there are data.

Gun access

One of the most contentious meetings of lawmakers’ Wednesday session was in the state House Judiciary Committee, where Democrats put up a slate of bills exclusively related to gun violence. Every vote in the committee passed along party lines, with all Democrats voting in favor and all Republicans voting against.

This marks a significant change in the committee, which under Republican control has for years refused to consider legislation that would tighten gun laws.

Most recently, the former GOP leader of the committee, state Rep. Rob Kauffman (R., Franklin) blocked gun control bills that Democrats attempted to push through last June after a school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, killed nearly 20 students and two teachers.

The committee passed bills that would require gun owners to report lost or stolen firearms, mandate background checks for all firearms, establish safe storage rules, and allow a judge to temporarily take away a person’s firearms if law enforcement or family members deem them in crisis — commonly known as a “red flag” law.

Republicans repeatedly raised concerns about the bill’s enforceability, with the bulk of their questioning focused on the details of the “red flag” legislation.

State Rep. Joe Hamm (R., Sullivan) questioned whether the judges who would be charged with ordering a person’s firearms to be temporarily seized would have the training necessary to determine if that person is a risk, and argued that the bill may affect “law-abiding gun owners.”

“There are many fine judges, but there are certainly others who I would say … shouldn’t be hearing these types of cases because they don’t have the experience,” Hamm said.

State Rep. Darisha Parker (D., Philadelphia), who sponsored the safe storage bill, said that regardless of the bills’ fates on the House floor, Democrats had to advance stricter gun laws to signal to their voters that they take the issue seriously.

And with a key special election approaching in suburban Philadelphia next month that could make or break the party’s hold on the lower chamber, Parker said that Democratic voters need proof that their representatives can accomplish top priorities.

“Now I can go back to my neighborhood and say, ‘This is one of many things I ran on, said we’d do, and with your support we can get them done,’” Parker told Spotlight PA.

Brandon Flood, deputy director of advocacy group CeaseFire PA, added that while he felt there were some useful policy discussions in the committee meeting, some lawmakers’ complaints about the gun control bills seemed purely partisan.

“I don’t want to impugn anyone’s character, but certainly it seems like folks weren’t solutions-based as opposed to nitpicking,” Flood said. “Hopefully I’m wrong about that.”