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HARRISBURG — A surprising pick for speaker of the Pennsylvania House has some lawmakers and good-government groups hopeful the chamber might finally adopt less partisan rules.
At the beginning of each two-year session, lawmakers pass rules that govern the state House and Senate. Those rules can dictate how committees are organized, who can call a vote on bills, and even mandate lawmakers to publicly share expenses.
The rules rarely change, and when they do, the edits are written in private by the majority party, sometimes with input from the minority party and sometimes without it. Then rank-and-file lawmakers are given the rules hours before a vote takes place, leaving little time to read them, let alone understand their impact.
The state Senate passed its rules on Tuesday, maintaining a status quo that gives the majority party — in this case, Republicans — much of the power.
But in the state House, where the partisan split is razor-thin, there’s hope that new Speaker Mark Rozzi of Berks County will be open to adopting meaningful change.
At the top of the wishlist for a coalition of good-government groups is a mechanism that would force committee and floor votes on legislation with bipartisan support. Because committee chairs and floor leaders in the majority party decide which legislation is voted on, popular bills can — and often do — languish and die without consideration.
“[Rozzi] has historically been very open to working across the aisle,” said Carol Kuniholm, chair of Fair Districts PA, an organization formed to advocate for an independent redistricting process that now pushes for broader good-government policies.
But much remains unknown about how Rozzi will approach the rules, as he’s declined to answer questions from reporters since becoming speaker.
“I look forward to talking to you more about my plans as a speaker, but such a heavy discussion deserves considered forethought,” Rozzi said at a brief news conference Tuesday night, flanked by Democratic leadership. “As this was unexpected, I will be making no further comments tonight.”
Rozzi, a registered Democrat, was nominated for the speakership by state Rep. Jim Gregory (R., Blair) and his bid was backed by 16 members of the GOP — including the entire leadership team.
After winning the speakership Tuesday, Rozzi announced he would no longer caucus with the Democrats and would operate as an independent speaker.
He has not clarified if that means he will change his voter registration, and Democrats and Republicans have offered competing versions of what the new speaker has promised them.
Democratic House Appropriations Committee Chair Matt Bradford (D., Montgomery) said Rozzi privately told the caucus he would remain a Democrat, while Republican leader Bryan Cutler said the speaker will formally drop his affiliation.
That matters because of how close the partisan margin is in the chamber and what having the majority has traditionally meant.
Democrats won 102 seats in November, gaining a one-seat majority. But because three of those seats are currently vacant, Republicans have 101 lawmakers while Democrats only have 99 including Rozzi.
Democrats are expected to win back those three vacant seats when special elections are held in the coming weeks. But if Rozzi does leave the Democratic party, Democrats and Republicans will have 101 lawmakers each — giving neither a majority.
Usually, the rules dictate that committees are weighted to the majority — with chairs picked by the speaker from a seniority list — and the majority leader picks which bills can be voted on any given day. But without a majority, it’s unclear how Rozzi will dole out chairmanships and which party will set the daily voting calendar.
In an interview with WJAC, Gregory said Rozzi was approached by GOP leadership about running for speaker. Gregory also claimed that, because Rozzi is speaker, “we control the calendar [as Republicans], which also means we control what bills run and when they run.”
Gregory told Spotlight PA that he meant that Republicans will have the same level of “control” as Democrats should a 101-101-1 split come to pass.
One Republican source said Tuesday morning that the caucus will pitch rules that would give the minority party more power over the agenda. While the GOP has held a commanding majority in past years, a new state House map has weakened their position and made a transition to the minority party a real possibility.
Those proposed changes included a closer split between Democrats and Republicans on committees. Under previous rules, the majority party got 15 seats on each committee while the minority party got only 10.
Democratic leaders offered such a change to GOP leaders as they attempted (and failed) to work out a power-sharing agreement ahead of Tuesday’s speaker vote.
The Republican caucus will also likely try to change the process of kicking a bill out of committee that a recalcitrant chair has refused to advance. Democrats have criticized that practice during their decade-plus in the minority.
“I believe that the rules in the past have become anti-democratic and draconian, and I say that regardless of whether I’m in the majority or the minority,” Bradford said Tuesday.
Spokespersons for both Democratic and Republican leaders declined to comment, beyond saying the rules are a work in progress.
State Rep. Jared Solomon (D., Philadelphia) co-chairs the PA One Caucus, a bipartisan group of representatives who lobby for structural changes in the state House. Its positions last year included advocating for increased transparency measures such as publicly posting lawmaker expenses, and preventing legislation from being blocked by a committee chair.
Solomon said he’s seen very few changes in the rules since joining the General Assembly in 2017, and noted it was still too early to tell whether anything meaningful will come to pass.
“It took a global pandemic for us to make some big rules changes,” he said. “The only way forward is to find the sweet spot of issues where we can work together.”
Status quo in the state Senate
In the state Senate, attempts to make significant rule changes fell flat.
State Sens. Katie Muth (D., Montgomery) and Lindsey Williams (D., Allegheny) proposed, among other changes,that all bills and resolutions receive a vote in committee and that minority chairs be given the power to add legislation to a committee agenda.
None were adopted Tuesday.
“You’ve heard all these people stand up here and say, ‘We all came in here, ran because there was an injustice,’” Muth told Spotlight PA. “Here’s the biggest one [that] you could all fix in this moment to restore people’s faith in government.”
Williams added that she and Muth proposed “obvious” changes, such as requiring all members’ expenses and per diem payments to be publicly posted. The chamber already does this, but the senators’ proposal would have codified the requirement and mandated that the expenses be searchable.
They also proposed expanding workplace protections on sexual harassment to include all individuals working with the state Senate, extending the statute of limitations for filing a complaint from one to five years, and clarifying provisions on confidentiality and transparency.
The resolutions containing their proposed changes failed along party lines.
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