Legislature exits 2017 with flurry of votes, defeats


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By MARC LEVY

The Pennsylvania Legislature finished for the year on Dec. 13 after passing veto-bound abortion restrictions, while anti-union legislation sought by top Republicans failed and legislation to tax Marcellus Shale natural gas production remained in limbo.

The GOP-controlled House and Senate each adjourned until January after a flurry of votes and a relatively spectacular showdown on the House floor between 25 rank-and-file Republicans and House GOP leaders over a Marcellus Shale bill that has been effectively filibustered for weeks by opponents.

It closed a year dominated by a budget deficit that took an extra four months to deal with.

“Anytime you're in October talking about the budget, that's not a good year," said Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre.

Pennsylvania's ugly budget process wrapped up with a Frankenstein-like assortment of legislation to bail out the state's finances, including an aggressive expansion of casino-style gambling and $1.5 billion in borrowing. Current and former state officials could not remember a time the state borrowed that much to underwrite operational expenses.

The year ended with the House's passage of Republican-penned legislation to limit abortions to the first 20 weeks of pregnancy, sending it to a certain veto by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, who supports abortion rights.

It did not pass with enough support to override a veto.

Meanwhile, a bloc of House Democrats and 25 eastern Pennsylvania Republicans almost mustered enough votes Tuesday night to force Republican leaders to allow more debate on legislation to impose a severance tax on Marcellus Shale production. They came within one vote of forcing debate through a little-used parliamentary maneuver that brought a warning from House Majority Leader Dave Reed, R-Indiana.

“We'll rue the day that this moved forward," Reed said during floor debate. “It will set an enormously bad precedent from a procedural perspective... It exists in the rules, (but) it doesn't mean it should be used on any particular issue on any random evening in the middle of December."

It left hard feelings over a divisive and politically charged issue that has divided the House's huge Republican majority. The chamber's House Republican leadership is “actively engaged in trying to sabotage any effort to get a severance tax bill to the floor," said Rep. Kate Harper, R-Montgomery.

A severance tax is a top priority for Wolf.

Republican leaders, however, did allow a vote on one of their top priorities: barring the state, school districts and local governments from deducting campaign contributions for labor unions from the paychecks of unionized employees. But a nearly identical bloc of Democrats and eastern Pennsylvania Republicans rejected it, 90-102.

Lawmakers head into the 2018 election year waiting to see whether it will be another in a long string of difficult post-recession budget years.

Senate Republicans will begin work on legislation to deal with municipal pension woes and good-government bills, including legislation to require lawmakers to show receipts for how they use per diems they get when they travel, Corman said.

“Public confidence obviously is not high if you look at general assemblies or Congress as a whole," Corman said. “So anything that we can do to sort of boost public confidence in what we're doing here is probably a wise thing for us to be doing right now."

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