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How Harrisburg Works: Higher bar, guns in the Capitol, and why the Pa. legislature is full-time

by Stephen Caruso of Spotlight PA |

Inside the Pennsylvania Capitol building in Harrisburg.
Jose F. Moreno / Philadelphia Inquirer

This story first appeared in The Investigator, a weekly newsletter by Spotlight PA featuring the best investigative and accountability journalism from across Pennsylvania. Sign up for free here.

HARRISBURG — Recently, bills to provide taxpayer funding to four Pennsylvania universities failed repeatedly in the state House despite having approval from a majority of lawmakers.

That’s because such legislation must clear a higher bar — approval from two-thirds of lawmakers — in order to pass.

In this edition of How Harrisburg Works, Spotlight PA’s Stephen Caruso details the colorful history that led to that requirement. He also explains why the legislature is full-time and why some people carry guns in the state Capitol.

Have a question? Email him at scaruso@spotlightpa.org with the subject line “How Harrisburg Works.”

Why is there a higher bar for some bills?

Every year, Pennsylvania lawmakers pass a bill (or bills) alongside the budget that routes money to the commonwealth's four state-related universities: Lincoln, Penn State, Pitt, and Temple.

These schools are not fully controlled by the commonwealth: They are run by boards of trustees with members selected by internal elections and state appointments, and they offer a tuition discount for in-state students funded with state dollars.

Recently, a majority of lawmakers in the state House voted to approve funding for the schools — but that wasn’t enough for the legislation to pass. These bills require approval from two-thirds of lawmakers in both chambers.

This higher-than-usual bar for final passage was first approved at an 1873 constitutional convention.

The convention, according to a 1967 paper by historian Mahlon Hellerich, was the product of a multiyear grassroots campaign, championed by newspapers, that argued lawmaking in Pennsylvania had become sloppy, opaque, and corrupt.

Bills sometimes appeared on the floor without being voted on in committee, and amendments were adopted before language was available to the public. Legislation even passed the state House and state Senate by voice votes without recording who voted for what.

A particular concern for the campaigners was so-called “special legislation,” or bills that provided an advantage to a single person, company, or local government.

“This argument was to be repeated frequently in the next two years; that corporations were responsible for much of the corruption in the legislature as they bribed legislators to secure the grant of special privileges; that legislators had blackmailed businessmen by threatening to enact laws injurious to their interests; [and] that public offices under the control of the legislature were to the highest bidder,” Hellerich wrote.

In this context, safeguards against corruption were at the top of the delegates' minds when they met to discuss the new constitution.

At first, the convention suggested requiring a three-fourths vote to give money to private charitable or educational institutions.

Some delegates protested including the requirement at all, arguing that the state should “guard the treasury against plunderers, but give freely to charity and with a liberal hand.”

But supporters of the higher bar cited stories of lobbyists for questionable charities bribing lawmakers into allocating state dollars for their employers. That was enough, amid the widespread outrage over corruption and influence peddling, to instead approve a two-thirds vote for such allocations.

“The two-thirds ought to remain to protect the treasury, and protect the people from these organizations that without merit in themselves always have received public appropriations and probably always will,” a delegate said.

Why does Pa. have a full-time legislature?

Pennsylvania is one of only four states that has a legislature that is “full-time” and “well paid” with a “large staff,” according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

That wasn’t always true. And once again, the 1873 constitutional convention plays a central role.

Before 1873, the General Assembly was supposed to meet at least once a year, but in practice it was in session far more often.

But during the convention that year, lawmakers cracked down on special legislation, which then made up the vast majority of passed laws.

After banning eight types of bills, including ones singling out a municipality by name or bills chartering a corporation, convention delegates decided to cut down on legislating, period. They settled on allowing the General Assembly to meet once every two years.

“The elimination of special legislation would make it possible for the legislature to consider and pass all the general legislation necessary in a session of three months, once every two years,” wrote historian Rosalind Branning in her 1960 book Pennsylvania Constitutional Development.

But the legislature soon chafed at that strict limit.. As the reach of government grew in the early 1900s, policymakers began to desire more session time to properly oversee the executive branch and pass new legislation regulating modern society.

A constitutional amendment adopted in 1959 allowed the legislature to meet and pass general statute changes in odd years and adopt a two-year budget plan in even years.

But Branning called the language of that amendment “unfortunate,” as it made the session on general law “so limited, forcing the consideration of the budget in a policy vacuum rather than in the context of the policy program in which it is a part.”

“An unlimited continuing session would have been wiser,” she argued.

Eight years later, the language was rewritten to mandate that the General Assembly “shall be a continuing body during the term for which its Representatives are elected,” leading to the full-time legislature the commonwealth has today.

Fast forward 60 years and reasonable minds differ on whether the General Assembly has made good use of its full-time status.

A 2022 report by Fair Districts PA, a group that advocates for more transparency in government, found that Pennsylvania had the third highest-paid lawmakers in the country.

Meanwhile, in the 2021-22 session, Pennsylvania only enacted into law 4% of bills that state lawmakers introduced. Among those that did pass were proposals establishing a broadband internet authority, a long-sought insurance law rewrite, and a number that renamed roads and bridges.

(Unlike in other states, there are no limits on when or how many bills a lawmaker can introduce.)

Inside the Capitol, there isn't much of an appetite to make the full-time legislature a part-time one. Insiders also argue that it’s not the quantity of legislation that passes that matters, but the quality.

But some critics want to shrink the size of the 253-member legislature.

Lawmakers often propose constitutional amendments to cut down the state House from 203 members to 151, but such a proposal hasn’t received a vote since 2016, after which the measure stalled.

State Rep. Paul Schemel (R., Franklin) has introduced legislation that would reduce lawmaker salaries — which are currently at least $100,000 annually and increase yearly with inflation — to $25,000 a year, while axing their health care and retirement benefits.

Reducing legislative salaries, Schemel wrote in a memo to his colleagues, would limit “the time which legislators will tolerate being in session.”

But Schemel’s proposal isn’t popular. The bill has just eight co-sponsors, all Republicans.

The 1873 delegates worried that paying lawmakers too little would result in only those of means or willing to accept bribes standing for election.

“Let it be understood; the duty of the Legislature is to make laws for a vast Commonwealth, not for wards, townships and boroughs. Destroy the corrupt outside influence, take away temptation, punish fraud, increase the character and responsibility of the body by decreasing its numbers and increasing its salary — in this direction true reform lies,” said one delegate.

Guns on the Pa. House and Senate floors

During a May floor debate on stricter gun laws, state House Majority Leader Matt Bradford (D., Montgomery) declared that “even a good man with a gun is no answer.”

But markedly more guns are now present in the state House after the chamber implemented a policy change in the wake of the Jan. 6, 2021 storming of the U.S. Capitol by supporters of former President Donald Trump.

Since May 30, following a memo from the state House chief clerk, the chamber's 18 sergeants-at-arms have carried guns, according to a spokesperson for state House Democrats.

The Department of General Services, which oversees the Pennsylvania Capitol, enforces a ban on guns within the building for visitors, citing a state law that prohibits firearms in buildings with courtrooms. The state Supreme Court sometimes use a chamber on the building's fourth floor.

(It’s worth noting, however, that lawmakers have been alleged to break this policy and carry firearms within the building.)

A sergeant-at-arms’ main duty is “to police the Hall of the House and those areas used and maintained by the House and its Members,” according to the state House archives. “When the House is in session, they maintain order and decorum on the House floor.”

Separate from the Capitol Police, an accredited law enforcement organization that protects state government buildings and properties, sergeants-at-arms guard lawmakers' closed-door meetings and let visitors into the chamber’s gallery to watch voting sessions.

In her memo to the state House, Chief Clerk Brooke Wheeler said the sergeants had each completed 100 hours of training to handle firearms, and also were trained in first aid, defensive tactics, handcuffing, and deescalation. Wheeler referred further questions from Spotlight PA to elected officials.

The state House’s sergeants-at-arms previously carried handguns from 2006 until 2011, according to the Inquirer. However, House officials took them away after they discovered that one sergeant had a criminal record.

In an email, Nicole Reigelman, spokesperson for state House Speaker Joanna McClinton (D., Philadelphia), said that the chamber’s Bipartisan Management Committee unanimously agreed to arm the sergeants “following the deadly insurrection on the U.S. Capitol.” The panel is made up of top leaders from both major parties.

“This is just another tool available for keeping the Capitol safe for legislators, staff, and visitors,” she added.

The 17 sergeants-at-arms who serve in the state Senate also began carrying guns as of July 3, according to a spokesperson for the chamber’s President Pro Tempore Kim Ward (R., Westmoreland).

The sergeants-at-arms weren’t the only law enforcement affected by the Jan. 6 insurrection. Capitol Police, who report to the governor, began patrolling the building armed with long guns soon after.

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