Current Legislative News for Week of 3/21/16

Medical Cannabis On The Move

After months of stalling, the Pennsylvania House made historic progress last week on the legalization of medical cannabis, a hot-button issue among Republicans throughout the state. 

Senate Bill 3, which was introduced by Sen. Mike Folmer (R-Lebanon), was passed by a 40-7 vote of the full Senate in May of 2015. The bill would allow doctors to prescribe medical cannabis to patients who demonstrate a need, typically those who suffer from chronic pain or seizures. Folmer, who is one of the Senate’s most conservative members, has drawn the ire of several socially conservative advocacy groups who claim that the bill opens the door to future efforts to legalize recreational cannabis use.

After passage by the full Senate, the bill was referred to the House Health Committee, chaired by Rep. Matt Baker (R-Tioga), who voiced his strident opposition to the measure.  When members of the committee pushed back on his strong opposition without resolve, they banded together in a vote to have the bill referred to the House Rules Committee, which is chaired by Majority Leader Dave Reed.  In fear of a clear path forward, bill opponents filed more than 120 amendments, forcing the House to consider every amendment if the bill would be brought up for a vote.  For months, the stall tactic worked, until Rep. Dave Reed recently announced that the House would be proceeding with consideration of the bill and its many amendments. 

After two days of debate over subtleties in policy language, the House finally adopted a more restrictive omnibus amendment that curbs the maximum strength of prescribed dosages and addresses issues related to workplace drug testing.  Because the amendment dealt with a significant number of concerns that were lingering, the bill finally proceeded to a vote.  In its final vote in the House, the bill was approved by a 149-43 vote, with all 43 negative votes coming from Republicans.

The bill now heads back to the Senate for concurrence on the House amendments, where leaders have indicated that the new restrictive structure could cause concerns with previous supporters.  With the Governor in full support of the measure and eager to sign SB 3 into law, its immediate fate remains unclear.

Budget Plan Looks Familiar to Many

In early February, when Governor Wolf delivered his second budget address, he lashed out at House Republicans who he claimed had gone back on their commitment to a $30.8 billion spending plan for 2015-2016.  It was their disingenuous negotiating, he claimed, that led Pennsylvania to the current situation where only 86% of the budget is in place.  In January, Wolf line-item vetoed education spending, claiming that the legislature did not provide sufficient spending for public schools.  Instead, he chose to release emergency funding to schools on an as-needed basis.  Because 2016 is a heavily contested election year, several Democrat lawmakers began to break ranks with the Governor, slowly leaning toward support for a veto override. This week, the House sent the Governor House Bill 1801, which provides for the final 14% of funding for the 2015-2016 fiscal year.  Facing an almost certain veto override in both the House and Senate, the Governor announced that he would allow the bill to lapse into law, per the Pennsylvania Constitution, without his signature.  His February budget address, however, told a much different story for the coming year.

As Gov. Wolf delivered the excoriating message to lawmakers, the Office of the Budget released specifics about the budget plan.  While the legislature felt confident in their message that they would not support tax increases or new taxes, the budget plan was a stark comparison.  The plan includes: an 11% increase in the state’s personal income tax rate retroactive to January 1, 2016; a new 6.5% severance tax on Marcellus Shale gas operations; a 6% sales tax expansion to include: cable television, movie theatres, and other amusements, and digital downloads; an increase in tobacco taxes; and an 8% tax on casino slot machine and table game winnings.  The list goes on – in all, there are more than a dozen new taxes and tax increases.  With the state operating at a fiscal level of $30.2 billion in 2015, the new budget proposal proposes a $33.3 billion spending level, one of the highest increases in Pennsylvania history.

Lawmakers decried the budget immediately after the address, infuriated over the message and appalled at the proposal.  “If you won’t take seriously your responsibility to the people of Pennsylvania,” the Governor challenged, “then find another job.” 

As legislators remain committed to a budget with no tax increases, 2016 will provide a challenge as Pennsylvania’s hold harmless clause ensures school districts must receive as much this year as they have in previous budgets.  In addition, Pennsylvania’s pension obligation continues to grow with the veto of several pension reform bills last year. 

Gridlock Strikes Again: Who's To Blame?

With Congressional approval levels at roughly 9% - the lowest ever in history – it’s not hard to understand the rise of an “outsider” like Donald Trump in the 2016 election cycle.  Most Americans can’t point to a single policy victory on either side in several years, and just as things seem like they might be getting better, they seem to get worse.  It took Congress 38 extensions to pass a long-term highway spending bill, which most agree is a core function of government.  It took three full government shutdowns for Congress to pass a budget.  And the issues go on and on. 

Things aren’t much better at the state level.  After four years of a Republican-controlled legislature and Governor’s office, the list of victories was paltry.  No significant policy changes and no new initiatives have been implemented, leading to no direction forward.  So, in 2014, voters spoke up, booting Tom Corbett and making him the first Governor in Pennsylvania history to serve one term.  In 2015, after years of inability to agree on any major policy, the Republican controlled legislature found a new challenge:  a Governor willing to veto.  In his first year, Governor Tom Wolf vetoed more than half a dozen major reform bills, including: a no-tax budget, pension reform, liquor privatization, temporary spending bills, and more.

So who’s to blame for all the gridlock?  Republicans blame Democrats.  Democrats blame Republicans.  Who’s right?  Well… everyone.

For decades, Republicans and Democrats have agreed on one issue: redistricting.  Every ten years, both parties come together to create legislative districts that ensure incumbents a better chance at re-election.  As the process ensures officials a safer ride through the election process (while also increasing the cynicism and contempt of their constituencies), it also erodes the legislative process.  As Republican districts get more conservative and Democrat districts get more liberal, elected officials are less and less able to vote for compromise.  As parties and legislators get further and further apart, more and more policy falls off the table, eliminating any chance at getting something done.  In Pennsylvania, over a dozen legislators are retiring this year.  While many cite the intransigent budget process of 2015, a closer look shows most of the retirees to be a dying breed of moderate compromisers.  While voters have been demanding accountability and steadfastness from their elected officials, the redistricting process continues to ensure a tough battle for those who want to get something done.