The most expensive, least respected state legislature in the country is back in session. Hold on to your wallets.
The Pennsylvania Legislature returns from its summer recess to plenty of unfinished business and historically low job approval numbers.
The state Senate begins the fall session today. The House of Representatives returns Sept. 24.
Legislators expect to deal with many issues left unresolved in the first half of the year, including energy and health initiatives proposed by the governor, open government and campaign finance reform, a smoking ban, transportation funding and the conundrum of property tax relief.
If these issues sound familiar, that's because they were debated for months without resolution before the House and Senate adjourned for summer breaks after a 16-day budget impasse that damaged the already battered reputation of the most expensive state legislature in the nation.
Only 30 percent of Pennsylvania residents approve of the way the state Legislature is doing its job, according to a recent Quinnipiac University poll.
The poll also found that 47 percent of residents blame the Legislature for the budget impasse that brought a one-day furlough of 24,000 state workers and delayed approval of a state budget for the fifth consecutive year under Gov. Ed Rendell. Only 21 percent of those interviewed for the Quinnipiac poll blamed the governor and 20 percent blamed both parties equally for the partisan bickering.
Area lawmakers say the lack of achievement in 2007 was due partly to new leadership in both the House and Senate and an over-ambitious agenda proposed by Rendell.
State Sen. John C. Rafferty Jr., R-44th Dist., who is emerging as an influential member of several key Senate committees, expects the Legislature will rebound from its slow start and approve significant measures during the fall session.
Hazardous site cleanup
One of the first things Rafferty will push in Harrisburg is money for hazardous sites cleanup, a major concern for his constituents in Berks, Chester and Montgomery counties.
Funding for the Hazardous Sites Cleanup Act was left out of the 2007-08 state budget, much to the dismay of Southeastern Pennsylvania lawmakers.
Rafferty has been talking to Senate colleagues throughout the summer and anticipates that at least $30 million from the existing state surplus of $300 million can be diverted to fund HSCA projects for the rest of the year. A long-range solution to funding cleanup of hazardous waste sites could come from legislation Rafferty has proposed to impose a 5-cent deposit fee on all bottles sold in Pennsylvania.
A similar law in Massachusetts generated annual revenues of $32 million last year, Rafferty said.
"This is something that would benefit both the state's recycling efforts and cleanup of hazardous waste sites," Rafferty said.
Rafferty is also working with a coalition that includes Sens. Jane Orie, R-40th Dist., John Eichelberger, R-30th Dist., and Mike Folmer, R-48th Dist., to introduce a Senate bill to eliminate property taxes.
The group plans to hold a press conference this month to announce the tax relief measure, which is similar to the Property Tax Relief Act of 2007 that is working its way through the House.
State. Rep. Tom Quigley, R-146th Dist., said he has been working closely with Rep. Sam Rohrer, R-128th Dist., to bring House Democrats on board with the tax relief measure, formerly known as the Commonwealth Caucus Plan.
While some House Democrats have been pushing House Bill 1600 this summer, the bill has received sparse support during several public hearings held across the state. More than 200 people attended an Aug. 29 hearing in Berks County and nearly all panned the tax-shift proposal, calling it a rehash of the Act 1 referendums soundly defeated by voters in the May primary.
"I am hopeful that at the end of the day, the Democrat leaders with see that HB 1600 is another Band-Aid solution and realize that the School Property Tax Elimination Act of 2007 is the way to go," Quigley said.
Rohrer's plan has been endorsed by the Pennsylvania Coalition of Taxpayer Associations, which represents 21 groups across the state.
House Majority Leader Bill DeWeese and Majority Whip Keith McCall have hinted they are willing to support the Property Tax Relief Act of 2007, which would eliminate property taxes and replace them with an expanded sales tax.
While Rohrer and other Republicans have been meeting behind the scenes to drum up support for the tax elimination plan from Democrats, a public pronouncement of support for the plan by the House Democratic leadership is what is needed to get things moving, Quigley said.
In addition to the property tax measure he plans to introduce, Rafferty said the Senate wants to reform school funding. The formula the state uses to provide funding to schools has not been reviewed since the mid-1990s and has led to widespread discrepancies across the state, with some districts receiving 18 percent of their funding from the state while other districts receive as much as 70 percent from the state.
"We have to look at that formula and restructure it to make it fair to some of the districts that are only getting 18 or 19 percent from the state," Rafferty said.
Rafferty said he is part of a group with Sens. Steward Greenleaf, R-12th Dist., and Robert Tomlinson, R-6th Dist., that is working on legislation to address the inequity in state funding of schools.
Energy is another topic that will occupy much of the Legislature's upcoming session. As part of the budget compromise reached in July, the House and Senate agreed to convene in special session this month to deal with Gov. Rendell's "Energy Independence Strategy" first outlined in February. Rendell wants to create an $850 million Energy Independence Fund that he says would reduce Pennsylvania’s reliance on foreign fuels, increase the state's clean energy production capacity and expand in-state energy production.
Just because the Legislature agreed to talk about Rendell's proposals for such things as wind power and other alternative energy sources and a tax on electricity use to fund the projects doesn't mean Rendell's agenda will get very far, Rafferty and Quigley predicted.
House Democrats have already announced a 16-bill package they plan to introduce during the Special Session on Energy. Republicans are planning to unveil their own comprehensive state energy plan Monday morning in Harrisburg. The GOP plan will emphasize lower energy costs for consumers, create new jobs and protect the state’s environment, according to backers.
A look at more issues the Legislature is expected to take up this fall tomorrow ... If you can't wait until tomorrow, you can read more at The Mercury Web site.