HARRISBURG - Rushing against its winter-break deadline, the state legislature tackled abortion and liquor-privatization bills Tuesday, even as members continued a political tug-of-war over the best way to tax natural gas extraction.
The House voted, 151-44, to give final approval to a bill that would tighten regulations on abortion clinics. The bill was prompted by the arrest of Kermit Gosnell, the Philadelphia doctor charged with the murder of seven babies and an adult patient. Republicans contend the measure would help protect women, but clinic operators say it would require them to make changes so costly it would put them out of business.
Earlier this week, the House approved legislation to prohibit insurance companies from covering abortion care when they participate in the insurance exchange created by the federal health-care law. Exceptions would be made in cases of rape, incest, and imminent death.
Opponents contend the measures are thinly veiled attacks on abortion rights.
"The House continues its anti-women agenda," said Andy Hoover, legislative director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. "The House believes that it can make better medical decisions from the Capitol than women and their doctors can in a health-care facility."
The bill approved Tuesday would require clinics to meet the same standards as ambulatory surgical centers, subjecting them to stricter regulations and inspections.
The state subjects those ambulatory centers to annual inspections and unannounced visits to investigate complaints. They also must have larger rooms; wider, hospital-grade elevators; and a registered nurse on the premises at all times.
Abortion-rights advocates argue that many clinics would be forced to radically change their physical spaces, forcing them to close and giving rise to more abortion providers who would prey on women.
"They don't have an agenda for women's health care. They have an agenda to take away from women safe and legal abortions," Rep. Dan Frankel (D., Allegheny) said of those supporting the bill.
Rep. Matt Baker (R., Tioga), the bill's sponsor, countered: "We have a historical moment before us this evening to protect the health and welfare of women and children in abortion clinics."
Also Tuesday, the House Liquor Control Committee made radical changes to a bill that calls for auctioning off Pennsylvania's more than 600 wine and liquor stores.
The changes would open the door to privatization, but would not privatize. State Stores would continue to exist, but beer distributors would be able to obtain licenses to sell wine as well. The state-run stores would be the only ones permitted to sell hard liquor.
Rep. John Taylor (R., Phila.), the committee's chairman, said it was the only privatization bill that had moved out of committee since Prohibition.
"On paper, it looks to be privatization light," he said, "but it's much more significant than that."
One measure that doesn't seem to be going anywhere fast: the push to impose a local impact fee on the extraction of natural gas from the Marcellus Shale.
The Senate has championed the issue, but the House has been considerably less enthusiastic, putting Pennsylvania on track to close another year without an extraction levy on the drilling industry.