The 2017-18 Session of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives opened Tuesday with the election of Rep. Mike Turzai (R-Allegheny) as speaker after 200 of the 203 members of the General Assembly took their oaths of office.
The House also adopted a set of rules governing how the body operates.
“It’s a new year and a new legislative session for Pennsylvania,” Speaker Turzai said. “Pennsylvania voters sent a message last year to rein in government and reconnect it to the everyday values of its citizens. Those values will help guide us as we represent working families and work to strengthen Pennsylvania through controlled spending, smaller government, greater accountability and a strong free enterprise.”
In a House Chamber packed with family, friends and guests, including Gov. Tom Wolf, Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, Attorney General-Elect Josh Shapiro and Treasurer-Elect Joe Torsella, House members recited the oath of office administered by the Hon. Craig Dally of the Northampton County Court of Common Pleas.
Dally is a former House member, representing the 138th District in Northampton County from 1997 through 2010. Among the members taking the oath were 23 first-term lawmakers, including 12 Republicans and 11 Democrats.
Republicans and Democrats nominated Rep. Turzai for the position of speaker following the administration of the oath. Those members were: Rep. Tina Pickett (R-Bradford), Rep. Harry Readshaw (D-Allegheny) and Rep. John Lawrence (R-Chester).
Speaker Turzai was elected unanimously.
House Republican Priorities
“We have great opportunities in front of us, and we have the responsibility to govern,” Turzai said. “Working together, the members of this House will look at how government is structured from top to bottom and streamline operations to save taxpayer dollars.”
House Majority Leader Dave Reed (R-Indiana) spoke of the 2017-18 House agenda and the opportunity to reshape how government operates and delivers services.
“When the national unemployment rate drops and the state rate grows exorbitantly, something is wrong and needs to be fixed. The House will focus on improving the business climate so employers can grow and create family-sustaining jobs and better careers for Pennsylvanians,” Rep. Reed said. “The House will also focus on improving educational opportunities and ensure our schools and employers work together so Pennsylvania students get a practical and useful education.”
The leaders noted one of the biggest issues facing the state is the large deficit if nothing is changed in the budget. According to the Independent Fiscal Office and the Governor’s Office of the Budget, through natural growth, the state may face a $3 billion deficit if the current budget was to be adopted for the next fiscal year.
“Working Pennsylvanians pay the bills here, and we must always be mindful of those folks,” Rep. Reed said. “It’s time to take a hard look at wants versus needs, and we need to ensure our government protects our families from crime, educates our kids for today’s world, and fosters economic activity for everyone.”
Rep. Stan Saylor (R-York), Majority Chair of the House Appropriations Committee said, “It is no secret the Commonwealth faces some tough challenges with respect to the budget. We as a Republican Caucus plan to hit the ground running in order to pass a balanced, on-time budget that is fiscally responsible and respectful of the taxpayer. He also emphasized the importance of trying new approaches to solve the budget problem.
“This past election showed us the people of Pennsylvania are tired of the status quo. They are looking to us as leaders to be innovative with the way state government runs,” added Rep. Saylor. “I am committed to examining each and every part of state government to get a better understanding of what we can change to provide a more efficient and affordable product to the taxpayers of Pennsylvania. Raising taxes, especially the personal income tax and sales tax, should be an option of last resort, and that is something that I am not interested in pursuing.”
Rep. Reed further spoke of an initiative embraced by the House Republican Caucus, but appealed to all of official Harrisburg to join in the effort to restructure government.
“While difficulties exist, we have a tremendous opportunity to move Pennsylvania forward together. Just reshuffling the deck to hold on to the status quo of the past won’t bring us a 21st century Pennsylvania. Now is the time to re-imagine and redesign government, our state and our future,” he said.
In his remarks, Speaker Turzai reminded members of the overriding message of the voters last year was to be mindful that they represent the 64,000 people of their districts, that they are their voice in Harrisburg.
“Our mandate comes from the people and the very residents of our communities,” Speaker Turzai said. “That mandate is to move Pennsylvania forward without taking more money from the already overburdened taxpayers.”
Following the oaths of office and remarks, the House voted to adopt the rules which govern how the body will operate. Some modifications of last session’s rules were made to clarify issues raised by members and leaders to help make the body more effective and efficient.
Two new subcommittees will be created, bringing the total number of House subcommittees to 48:
— Government and Financial Oversight in the Appropriations Committee.
— Career and Technical Education in the Education Committee.
A notable rules change includes clarifying and strengthening the House Ethical Conduct Rules and the rights and responsibilities of the House Ethics Committee. The Ethics Committee is charged with addressing matters involving conflicts of interest or job-related misconduct by House members, staff and officers.
The rule changes clarify and improve the Ethics Committee’s role and processes. While preserving and reinforcing due process rights for anyone under investigation, the new rules will also clarify the burden of proof necessary at each stage of the process.
The changes protect the committee from being used to target political challengers prior to an election by prohibiting the initiation of complaints against any member within 60 days of an election in which the member is a candidate; however, those complaints would be taken up as soon as the election is over.
The new rules provide the committee with clarification on when it is permitted or required to hire independent counsel; when it is authorized to issue and enforce subpoenas; the timeframe in which the committee is required to act; and the committee’s authority to define potential sanctions.
Another change in the rules specifically authorizes the chairman and vice chairman of the Ethics Committee to request preparation of a resolution of expulsion if a member pleads guilty, pleads nolo contendere or is found guilty of an offense which “relates to the member’s conduct as a representative or which would render the member ineligible to the General Assembly under section 7 of Article II of the Constitution of Pennsylvania.”
The resolution would then automatically be placed on the next session day’s voting calendar. A resolution would, as under the current rule, automatically be prepared in the name of the chairman and vice chairman of the Ethics Committee upon imposition of sentence for such an offense.
In another rules change, the House will have to wait at least six hours before it can vote on concurrence in Senate amendments, rather than 24 hours, giving members time to review the changes.
House Democrat Priorities
House lawmakers took office Tuesday facing a state budget deficit that could exceed $1.7 billion by the beginning of the next fiscal year, and unsure of how the decisions of a new administration and Congress in Washington will impact Pennsylvania.
"There are many things that could happen to affect our state's budget and our state's people in big ways," said House Democratic Leader Frank Dermody (D-Allegheny) in remarks welcoming legislators back to Harrisburg. "But whatever this year may bring, the House Democratic Caucus that I am honored to lead will continue to speak out and stand up for working men and women, seniors and children."
Rep. Dermody, who returns for his fourth term as House Democratic leader, said his caucus will continue working to improve Pennsylvania's school classrooms and access to health care so that all kids get the start in life that prepares them to succeed.
While noting that Democrats and Republicans worked together in a bipartisan way to accomplish several important goals last year, such as beginning to address Pennsylvania's opioid and heroin addiction crisis, boosting education funding, passing a medical marijuana law, and improving convenience for beer and wine customers, Democratic Whip Mike Hanna (D-Centre) said many priorities important to working men and women in Pennsylvania were not addressed in 2016.
"There are still tens of thousands of families in Pennsylvania trapped in poverty because they do not earn enough working full time to afford their rent, food and other living expenses," Rep. Hanna said. "A million Pennsylvanians would see a critical income boost if Pennsylvania follows what every state around us did and increases its minimum wage. This would also relieve some of the burden on middle-income taxpayers, who are paying for the services many of these families must use because they cannot earn enough working full time to maintain economic security."
Rep. Hanna said House Democrats will also make other family-friendly policies a priority this year, including retirement security for private-sector workers; paid leave so parents don't have to choose between their family's health and their paycheck; expanded access to quality, affordable early education and child care; and equal pay and workplace fairness for women, those with disabilities and others.
"No one is calling for special privileges for certain groups of people," Rep. Hanna said, "but every person who works hard and plays by the rules should be able to pursue the same individual, family and economic opportunities as everyone else. Each person in Pennsylvania has the right to expect that protection at a minimum."
Democratic Appropriations Chairman Joe Markosek (D-Allegheny) said the legislature must make addressing the state's growing structural budget deficit priority No. 1.
"We are quickly running out of the one-time revenues, fund transfers and other accounting gimmicks used in previous budget years," Rep. Markosek said. "The state has a constitutional obligation to deliver public education for our children, protect the environment, and provide for public health and safety. If we want to pay our bills and meet our obligations -- if we want to fix the problems we face and make the investments we need for a state and an economy that works for everyone -- we must tackle our budget crisis in an honest and responsible way."
"We've shown that we can do good things in the legislature when we put aside partisan rancor and work together honestly," Rep. Dermody said. "The people of Pennsylvania all have common goals and common needs. What they are counting on us to do, what they expect us to do, is work together to find common solutions."
Twenty-two members of the House were sworn in today for the first time. Eight others who arrived part way through the previous session via special election also participated in their first full-scale swearing-in day today.
The House begins the 2017-18 session with 40 women, the highest number ever.(Photo: House Speaker Mike Turzai, House Majority Leader David Reed, House Minority Leader Frank Dermody.)