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With Pa. House, Senate gone, big issues remain unresolved

Some of those issues might come up in the fall, while others might get passed over for measures that make good campaign fodder.

Members of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives debate, Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2015, at the state Capitol in Harrisburg. An overturning of Roe v. Wade could clear the way for the legislature to pass a bill banning abortion.
Members of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives debate, Wednesday, Oct. 7, 2015, at the state Capitol in Harrisburg. An overturning of Roe v. Wade could clear the way for the legislature to pass a bill banning abortion.Read moreAP Photo/Matt Rourke

HARRISBURG — When state legislators fled for summer break last week, they stranded a pile of important bills on hot-button issues such as domestic violence, fraternity hazing, redistricting, abortion, and cutting the size of the legislature.

Although some could come up for votes this fall, others are likely to get passed over for less controversial measures ahead of the November election.

The stakes, after all, are high: Every state House seat and half the seats in the Senate are on the ballot. Each chamber has scheduled just nine voting days before the election, and controversial votes can and will be used in campaigns.

Steve Miskin, spokesperson for Republicans who control the House, said that chamber's priority when it returns to session is limiting regulations, including a proposal to give the legislature power to revoke individual rules. In the Senate, Republicans who hold the majority plan to make school safety measures one of their top priorities, according to spokesperson Jennifer Kocher.

Less clear is what the legislature might do with several stalled high-profile bills.

Among them is an anti-hazing measure sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman (R., Centre), motivated by the death of Pennsylvania State University student Tim Piazza. The bill would increase penalties for hazing, create stricter reporting requirements for universities, and add a safe harbor provision for some students who seek help in an emergency.

The hazing bill sailed unanimously through the Senate and made it out of a House committee but still needs additional votes in the House. The delay disappoints the Corman camp, which had wanted the new reporting requirements to go into effect for the upcoming school year.

Privately, some Senate Republicans have said they believe House Speaker Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny) delayed votes on hazing to try to push the Senate to hold a vote on his bill that would ban abortion based solely on a diagnosis of Down syndrome.

That bill is highly controversial. Proponents describe it as an effort to prevent eugenics and say it's similar to a section of the current law that prohibits abortions based on the sex of a fetus. Critics argue that it infringes on private health decisions, and it's unclear how such a law could be enforced. And having to vote on the bill could endanger senators in swing districts.

Gun bills are also politically touchy. Even measures requiring people with domestic-violence convictions or restraining orders against them to forfeit their firearms to law enforcement or a gun dealer were derailed.

Rep. Marguerite Quinn (R., Bucks), a sponsor of one of the bills, learned on her way to the Capitol that a Western Pennsylvania-based gun rights group that had previously taken a neutral position was now opposed. The bill was stopped in its tracks.

"I was caught off guard," Quinn said. She hopes for a floor vote in September.

"I believe that firearm owners respect the fact that with the right [to carry] comes a responsibility – and if you've committed a crime, they understand a penalty will follow," she said. "When they recognize what is in the bill and what it does, it will have support."

Kim Stolfer, president of Firearms Owners Against Crime, said changes to the bill were being made at the last minute, prompting his group to oppose it. He called Quinn's bill "a constitutional nightmare."

"We are not going to accept unconstitutional and unworkable sections of the law that will violate people's rights and create unintended consequences. That is what Quinn's bill is," Stolfer said.

In addition to those bills, others that deal with gun restrictions — including measures that would ban rapid-firing devices known as "bump stocks" or would allow people with mental or physical health concerns to voluntarily surrender guns — also remain in limbo.

Also left on the table: a bill by Rep. John Taylor (R., Phila.) that would have allowed the use of up to 12 speed cameras on Roosevelt Boulevard, a longtime city priority for one of its deadliest roads. Philadelphia has about 100 traffic-related fatalities a year (93 in 2017), and typically 10 percent happen on the Boulevard. Seven of the nine fatal crashes on the road in 2017 involved pedestrians.

Two measures pushed by government reform groups also stalled. One would create an independent commission to draw election district boundaries lines; another would reduce the size of the legislature. Because they require amending the state constitution, they must pass in the exact form during two consecutive sessions and then be approved by voters.

The redistricting commission measure is in its first session — but it would need to pass by the end of the week because of advertising requirements. In addition, there are 607 proposed House amendments in the House.

With that many proposals, "you can never get to the underlying discussion about what the bill does," Miskin said.

A separate bill that would reduce the size of the legislature has flip-flopped between both chambers amid a disagreement over whether they should trim both chambers or just one.

When it passed last session, it was written to reduce just the size of the 203-seat House. But this time around, an amendment was added to scale back the size of the Senate too. The Senate, with 50 members, stripped out that amendment and bounced it back to the House, where the bill now sits.

Asked whether the House would vote to reduce its own size, Miskin said, "I don't know. That is still being worked on."

Rep. Jerry Knowles (R., Schuylkill), one of the champions of the bill to reduce the House's size, said, "I just scratch my head about how this could possibly happen."

Knowles said that measure had passed comfortably in the last two-year session, and that many of the members who voted for it then are still in the House now.

"I think the problem is that some of them [House members] voted for it because it was the popular thing to do – and never really dreamed it would get this far,"  Knowles said. "And shame on them if they did that.

"To me, it's an easy vote," he added.