Tuesday marked the constitutionally required first day of session for the 2017-2018 General Assembly, and, as is custom, members were officially sworn into office and the Speaker of the House and President Pro Tempore of the Senate were elected by their chambers.
In the House, on the occasion of the swearing-in of members and upon his unanimous re-election for a second term as House Speaker, Rep. Mike Turzai (R-Allegheny) joined Majority Leader Dave Reed (R-Indiana) in noting members will be tasked with working together to solve the issues with which they are confronted.
In so doing, both top-ranking House Republicans pointed to the recent initiative to restructure state government in order to make state government more fiscally responsible.
“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 Democratic leaders also noted the urgency in getting to work on fixing Pennsylvania’s fiscal issues.
“We are quickly running out of the one-time revenues, fund transfers and other accounting gimmicks used in previous budget years,” said House Appropriations Committee Minority Chairman Joe Markosek (D-Allegheny) in a statement.
“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."
In the Senate, members were similarly sworn in and Sen. Joe Scarnati (R-Jefferson) was again unanimously reelected to serve as President Pro Tempore.
“We are all friends in spite of the aisle that goes down the middle of this building,” he said after his election. “Let us resolve to work together for a Commonwealth for all of us.”
While normally a day of ceremony, the sole piece of legislation voted on by the House during Tuesday’s swearing-in session day – two resolutions that provide for the implementation of the internal operating rules of the House of Representatives for the two-year session – raised eyebrows among some lawmakers.
The resolutions – House Resolution 1, which includes the provisions for the carrying-over and amending of existing House Rules; and House Resolution 2, which made House Resolution 1 unamendable – did pass by wide margins, though not without debate.
Namely, Rep. Greg Vitali (D-Delaware) stood on the House floor arguing members had not had time to review changes to the rules, offer amendments or discuss issues they find with their various caucus leaders.
In substance, House Resolution 1 carries over the rules of the House of Representatives from the previous session, but with a number of changes. Heavily overhauled were portions governing the makeup and operations of the House Ethics Committee, with changes developed by the committee and prepared in a recommendation made by the group at the end of the 2015-2016 session.
In addition, the rules changes altered the way bills are considered by shortening the time by which bills on concurrence can be considered by the House after amendment in the Senate, down from 24 hours to just six hours.
Changes also include who can be recognized during debate on the General Appropriations Bill and non-preferred appropriations legislation, limiting debate for most members to just being recognized one time for five minutes.
The rules also make changes to the committee structure in the Pennsylvania House, adding two subcommittees: one to the House Appropriations Committee – the Subcommittee on Government and Financial Oversight, and one to the House Education Committee – the Subcommittee on Career and Technical Education.
Other changes in the House Rules include disallowing the use of campaign funds for events in House offices except for swearing-in celebrations; removing the 60-day blackout on mass mailers from members standing for election as a candidate and changes it merely to a “restricted period” of 60 days prior to an election; stopping the ability of the Ethics Committee from investigating a members in the 60-day period prior to an election for which they stand as a candidate; and removing the ability of members to form legislative nonprofits.
After attempts to delay the vote on the new House Rules, they were eventually approved by a vote of 167-32.
The General Assembly is not expected to reconvene in voting session again until Jan. 23. Shortly thereafter, Gov. Tom Wolf will give his FY 2017-2018 budget address on Feb. 7.
Jason Gottesman is the Harrisburg bureau chief for The PLS Reporter, a non-partisan, online news site devoted to covering Pennsylvania government.