Election preoccupation to dominate Pennsylvania Legislature

| Monday, Sept. 24, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

HARRISBURG — The House and Senate return to work on Monday to consider a range of bills, from charter school reform to placing Penn State University under the open-records law.

Big-ticket items such as transportation funding and reducing public pension costs likely will wait until 2013.

Political analysts say the eight session days through October carry an underlying theme: the November election, in which all state House seats and half the Senate seats are in play. The short time and concern about campaigning suggest lawmakers will take little action, said Christopher Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown.

“If you look historically at periods leading up to elections in other legislatures, including this one, they've never been productive. Precedent says a lot won't be done,” Borick said.

“They don't want controversy,” said G. Terry Madonna, political science professor at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster. “They want a predictable environment.”

Making it easier to open alternative schools is a priority of Republican Gov. Tom Corbett. Lawmakers appeared close to agreement before recessing at the end of June.

Corbett wants to reduce public pension costs on taxpayers but realizes “it's something that may take us into the next session,” spokesman Kevin Harley said.

The governor is pushing to include state-related universities such as Penn State and the University of Pittsburgh under the Right to Know Law. The Jerry Sandusky child abuse scandal at Penn State pushed the issue to the forefront.

Among lawmakers, that issue is “still not agreed to, but it's been part of the discussion,” said Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware County.

Some realize the universities are “hybrids,” unlike state-owned universities such as Slippery Rock and Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and are not “state agencies,” Pileggi said. The hundreds of millions of tax dollars that go to state-related universities prompt others to argue they should be included under the law, he said.

“We're working through that. It's an important issue we should resolve,” Pileggi said.

Auditor General Jack Wagner has urged lawmakers and the governor to make repairing structurally deficient bridges the top priority, saying 6,000 such bridges give Pennsylvania the dubious distinction of being worst in the nation.

But PennDOT Press Secretary Steve Chizmar said the number of bridges considered structurally deficient has fallen to 4,741. In 2011, the state spent $665 million to repair or replace 947 bridges; through August this year, it spent $446 million to improve 473.

A transportation funding package for roads, bridges and transit would require billions in revenue and won't be considered until next year, said Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson County. Scarnati characterized this fall's work as “cleanup” on bills that might not be top tier but are important to members. He wants action on a bill by Sen. Don White, R-Indiana County, that would prevent tax-funded abortions under Obamacare.

House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods, said final passage of his debt reform bill “is critical.” His House-passed bill would significantly reduce the amount of money the state can borrow for development projects, which ballooned to an average of $547 million a year under former Gov. Ed Rendell.

Turzai wants progress on pension reform, which is projected to cost taxpayers $4 billion a year by 2016.

The session doesn't end until Nov. 30, but Pileggi said the Senate remains committed to not holding a post-election session.

The House has four session days planned after the election, but anything it would approve then could not become law unless the Senate had previously approved it and the House made no changes.

Brad Bumsted is state Capitol reporter for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 717-787-1405 and bbumsted@tribweb.com.

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