Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Budget in hand, Pa. lawmakers turn to hot buttons

HARRISBURG - Early last week, the Republican-led House of Representatives suddenly pivoted and devoted all its efforts to a long-dormant issue: imposing stricter limits on abortion in Pennsylvania.

HARRISBURG - Early last week, the Republican-led House of Representatives suddenly pivoted and devoted all its efforts to a long-dormant issue: imposing stricter limits on abortion in Pennsylvania.

By Thursday, the Democratic governor had taken a step in the other direction, bypassing legislators to impose executive orders that expand antidiscrimination protections for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender citizens.

With issues like school funding and pension reform still mired in gridlock, leaders in Harrisburg were suddenly switching gears and channeling energy into social issues - measures that given the ideological divide here have little chance of getting even a public hearing, let alone becoming law.

It is, say legislators and other longtime Capitol observers, a way to divert attention from the stubborn impasse on complex fiscal issues just as primary voters prepare to head to the polls this month.

Most incumbent legislators up for reelection face no challengers. Still, many are taking advantage of the small window between the unceremonious end to the budget stalemate and the start of tense negotiations on the next spending plan to trumpet hot-button issues they believe are important to their constituents.

"The cloud of the budget has passed - at least for the time being - and there is a primary coming," said Andy Hoover, legislative director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania. "This is a time when everyone is answering to their base."

The House did as much last week when it quickly moved an abortion bill without a public hearing.

The measure would ban most abortions after 20 weeks, four weeks earlier than the current 24-week limit. It would also sharply curtail use of dilation and extraction, a medical procedure used to terminate a second-trimester pregnancy. Proponents of the legislation believe it will minimize pain fetuses feel during an abortion.

House Democrats who oppose the measure tried to delay a vote on it, noting that it was introduced only a week ago, rammed through the Health Committee without input from the medical community - several medical groups have since opposed it - and placed for a final vote as early as Monday on the House floor, where advocates expect it to pass.


Abortion-rights groups say that, if enacted, the measure would represent the biggest shift in decades in the state's abortion laws.

The chances of that happening, however, appear slim. The Senate has not said whether it will even consider the bill if passed by the House.

In an interview late last week, Wolf urged the House to pull the legislation from consideration and said he would veto it if it ever made it to his desk. He called the measure "antiwoman," "wrong for Pennsylvania," and "probably unconstitutional."

Rep. Michael H. O'Brien of Philadelphia was among the Democrats who unsuccessfully tried to block action on the bill.

"Isn't it interesting this issue is coming up three weeks before the primary?" he said. "I think it's politically driven. Whenever something gets too hot for the Republicans, like the budget, they bring up a social issue so they can go home to their constituents and say, 'I am protecting you.' "

Republicans counter that the same can be said for Democrats - and Wolf in particular.


Late last week, the governor signed a pair of executive orders strengthening antidiscrimination protections for LGBT state employees and applicants, and expanding those policies to firms seeking or holding state contracts.

In doing so, the governor also urged the legislature to move on long-stalled legislation to add sexual orientation and expression in the list of protected classes under Pennsylvania's antidiscrimination law.

Steve Miskin, spokesman for House Republicans, noted that in the previous 16 months working with the legislature, Wolf had never made the issue a priority.

He only did so last week, said Miskin, to capitalize on the national conversation on equality that emerged after North Carolina moved to limit gay rights. "That's one of the only things that motivates him - political opportunism," Miskin said in an interview.

He would not say if House Republicans will consider acting on the otherwise dormant antidiscrimination legislation.

Republicans have, however, taken major legislative steps this year on other key social issues that traditionally were backed by Democrats.

Last month, the GOP-led House passed a bill legalizing medical marijuana, even though the chamber's more conservative members have for months lobbied against its even being considered.

The legislation is a variation of a measure already approved by the Senate with strong bipartisan support. If the two chambers can iron out their differences, it will go to Wolf, who has said he would sign it.

And last week, a key House committee moved long-debated legislation to abolish the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse in criminal cases and lengthen the amount of time sexual-abuse victims have to bring civil cases.

Political analyst and pollster G. Terry Madonna said frustration over the inability to resolve the larger state budget dispute - one likely to flare again in coming weeks - is driving both sides to act now on issues over which they feel they have some control.

"It adds to the sense that they are getting something accomplished," he said.

'Budget brain'

Rep. Frank Farry (R., Bucks) said budget negotiations have taken up so much time for legislators that it has been difficult to tackle much else. Farry said that during the last impasse, he began to suffer from what he called "budget brain" - fogginess due to exhaustion from trying to negotiate a solution.

Though he opposes the abortion bill, and has concerns about the speed with which it is moving, he understands why his colleagues are trying to branch out.

"I tell people we can walk and chew gum at the same time, but the budget has sucked the life out of ability to legislate," he said.

Rep. Mike Vereb (R., Montgomery) agreed. But he said there are issues where Republicans and Democrats can make progress, such as tackling Pennsylvania's opioid addiction problems.

"We have brought Washington, D.C., politics to Harrisburg by virtue of having divided government," Vereb said. "If we work on issues that aren't 'gotcha Governor,' we can really start getting something done."