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Reforms fail as Legislature opens session

Advocates of change lose by wide majorities

Wednesday, January 06, 1999

By Frank Reeves, Post-Gazette Harrisburg Correspondent

HARRISBURG - House leaders of both parties yesterday beat back a bipartisan attempt to revamp the chamber's rules.

Supporters of the proposed changes said they would have given rank-and-file lawmakers greater influence over the flow of legislation and made procedures more democratic and open.

But House Majority Leader John Perzel, R-Philadelphia, said the existing rules give members ample opportunity to discuss and debate key legislation, particularly the state's annual budget. He called on lawmakers to rebuff efforts to overhaul the process.

One proposed change, sponsored by Rep. Gregory Vitali, D-Delaware, would have required negotiations about the state budget among House and Senate leaders and the governor's office to be held in public. Traditionally, these talks are private. Only after an accord has been worked out are rank-and-file lawmakers and the public presented with the results.

Vitali said he was also set to offer a change that would bar House members from serving as paid board members of any financial institution, corporation or business regulated by the state.

Rep. Sara Steelman, D-Indiana, proposed a requirement that all bills approved by a House committee be brought up for full House consideration.

A companion proposal from Rep. Michael Hanna, D-Clinton, would have ordered a committee vote on every bill introduced in the House. In each session, lawmakers offer 3,000 to 4,000 bills.

But in a series of procedural votes, the self-styled reformers were defeated by wide majorities. Indeed, the reformers failed to muster enough votes to suspend current House rules to allow their changes to be brought to a vote.

In the end, the House adopted its existing rules, with minor changes, by a vote of 151-35.

The rules battle was a somewhat discordant note for the first day of the 1999-2000 session. Opening days are traditionally marked by high-sounding rhetoric from legislative leaders as well as parties for lawmakers' families and friends.

Yesterday, the new Legislature was sworn in with 18 new faces in the 50-member Senate and 203-member House. There is one House vacancy. As in the 1997-1998 legislative session, which ended Nov. 30, Republicans control both chambers.

Barry Kauffman, executive director of Common Cause/Pennsylvania, said, "It is disappointing the Legislature didn't take this opportunity to clean up the legislative process. There are two critical votes a lawmaker makes. One is on the budget, because it affects the viability of everything in government. The other is on the rules.

"The rules determine who has control and how legislation is likely to turn out. It is like a factory: If you have good machinery, the probability of turning out a good product is better. ... The rules are the machinery of the House."

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