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Difficulty to get bills passed in Pennsylvania a double-edged sword

| Monday, June 21, 2010

HARRISBURG — One of about every 20 bills introduced in the Legislature winds up as state law, according to state records.

Legislators introduced 4,461 bills in the 2007-08 session, and 213 became law.

The difficulty of getting a bill approved by both chambers is a double-edged sword, analysts say. While the low success rate might mean some good ideas never see the light of day, the process may ensure that enacted bills are comprehensive and fine-tuned, they say.

No matter how well-intentioned the campaign promises of a candidate might be, voters should remember the reality check waiting in Harrisburg, said Christopher Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown.

"For some of these (bills), it's an annual rite," Borick said.

Last session, Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery County, introduced the most legislation, with 168 bills and resolutions; Rep. Nick Kotik, D-Coraopolis, introduced the fewest.

"A lot of the things that I contemplate running will never get brought up for vote," said Kotik, who introduced only one piece of legislation during the last session, according to GovNetPA. "So I just view it as spinning wheels."

Kotik said that while sponsoring a popular bill may be "a one-day hit in the media," legislators have to ask what is the most productive use of their time.

Greenleaf said it is important to introduce bills to bring ideas to the forefront and stir dialogue.

"At least I've spoken out about it," Greenleaf said. "By bringing up a piece of legislation, I've brought attention to it."

It should be hard for a bill to become law because the proposals can affect so many people, he said.

"You have to be persistent about it and stay with it," said Greenleaf. "You have to continue to advocate the cause and build up coalitions."

Although Kotik doesn't introduce a lot of bills, in 2009 he played a key role in the state budget by forming the Blue Dog Caucus, a group of Democrats who helped block Gov. Ed Rendell's proposed income tax increase.

The Legislative Reference Bureau, which is responsible for drafting bills, tracking activity on them and publishing those that become law, has a $7.5 million annual budget. Bills introduced in 2007-08 ranged from renaming roads and bridges to setting the state's annual spending and tax regulations.

Borick said Pennsylvania's large Legislature makes it a "top-heavy" system that gives leaders more power. They often determine what gets heard and what doesn't.

Joseph Burke, a representative for the Pennsylvania Commissioned Officers Association, was in Harrisburg last week speaking to lawmakers about legislation to provide annual pay increases to corrections officers in management whose salaries have been frozen.

He was told it could take up to five years to pass the bill he was advocating, Burke said.

" 'It takes what it takes' is what they tell you," he said. "If they decided they wanted to fix our problem, it would be fixed immediately."

Burke believed he was at a disadvantage while soliciting support for the bill because he was not part of a special-interest group.

Groups such as labor unions and universities can have a lot of pull on legislation, Borick said. They can pressure lawmakers to support or not support a bill by threatening to withhold endorsements, funding or campaign workers, he said.

"It's more complex than 'have you given somebody a couple thousand dollars as part of the process?' " said Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster.

Pennsylvania's General Assembly, the largest full-time legislature in the nation, had the country's fourth-lowest percentage of bills that became law from 2005-08, according to statistics from the state's Legislative Data Processing Center and the Council of State Governments.

Harvey Tucker, a political science professor at Texas A&M University, used to publish the "batting average" for Texas legislators, showing how many bills actually passed. This figure made some lawmakers "livid," he said.

"Some members just submit tons and tons of bills, but they don't follow up on them," Tucker said, adding that some Texas lawmakers said they introduced bills simply to appease their base.

A bill's chance of passage often has nothing to do with why legislators introduce a proposal, Madonna said.

Evan Trowbridge is an intern with the Pennsylvania Legislative Correspondents Association.

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