HARRISBURG - Following a nearly three-month summer break, legislators return Monday to the Capitol, where the burning question will be not what bills they will have time to pass but which ones they won't.
High on the priority list for the House and Senate's truncated fall season are charter schools, more corrections reforms, and funding for capital projects.
But the big-ticket issues, the ones that keep public policy experts up at night, will largely be left untouched until next year. They include reducing the cost of public employee pensions and solving Pennsylvania's transportation funding crisis.
The reason: Legislators in both chambers are in Harrisburg for only three weeks before breaking again in mid-October to return to their districts, where many will campaign for reelection. And, as is typical in an election year, few lawmakers have the political will to take up controversial topics.
Nonetheless, the next few weeks are expected to be a frenzied dash to the finish line: Any bills that do not pass this fall will die and have to be reintroduced again in 2013, when the legislature begins its new two-year session.
And though everyone has his or her own agenda, all sides seem to agree that topping the list of priorities this fall will be changes in the way charter schools are regulated. That is a key part of the governor's effort to create taxpayer-funded alternatives to traditional public schools.
"We came very, very, very close to getting charter reform," Gov. Corbett said last week. "And now, we need to get that done."
It is an issue that was left over from budget negotiations this past summer.
During those talks, the governor had pushed for a measure giving the state a larger role in regulating charter schools. He wanted to create a state commission to authorize new charters, taking that power from school boards.
A compromise fell apart just hours before Corbett signed the budget.
But the governor has said he is optimistic his administration and legislators can finish work on the measure in the next few weeks.
Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware) agreed, saying in an interview Friday that leaders from both the Republican-controlled House and Senate have used the summer to iron out differences.
"I don't see any reason why we should not be able to resolve them," Pileggi said.
Pileggi said one of his caucus' top priorities was building on a prison reform package that the legislature passed during the summer, and that was signed into law by Corbett. The measure aims to reduce state prison populations and cut down on prison costs by diverting less serious offenders to county prisons, treatment programs, and house arrest.
The two chambers are now working on legislation to harness some of the savings and send the money to the counties for improved policing and probation, as well as for housing offenders in county prisons.
Also on the must-resolve list this fall: the so-called capital budget, which is approved annually and authorizes borrowing to fund public highway and bridge repairs, flood-control projects, and other construction. It also includes funds for private projects through the Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program.
Several Republicans, among them House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny), are pushing a proposal to lower the state's borrowing limit for such projects, and change the requirements for seeking the funding and reporting how the money is spent.
Another bill that could get traction: one to amend the state's Right-to-Know law to include the state-related universities such as Temple and Pennsylvania State.
The push for the change grew out of the scandal surrounding former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, convicted on 45 counts of child sexual abuse involving 10 boys he met through a charity he ran for underprivileged youths. Intense interest in how Penn State officials and campus police handled past complaints about Sandusky's behavior sparked calls for placing tougher disclosure requirements on the state-related universities.
Unlikely to get much, if any, legislative debate are two issues that are arguably the most financially pressing for the state.
Both Republicans in the legislature and Corbett said they want to start public debate as early as this fall on public employee pensions - the state's pension contributions are projected to hit $1.6 billion in this year's budget and to go as high as $10 billion by 2035.
Momentum has been growing for enrolling all new state workers in 401(k)-style plans that would require larger employee contributions. But no one expects any serious movement on the issue.
Also stuck on the legislative sidelines: transportation funding. A commission assembled by Corbett last year recommended a number of ways to close the $3.5 billion transportation funding gap that the state faces.
The governor has yet to act on his transportation panel's recommendations. The House has also not signaled it is ready to tackle the issue.
"We are ready to move forward just as soon as the House and the governor are ready," said Pileggi. "But it does not appear that the House or the governor think that is an issue to be dealt with this fall."