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Pennsylvania House ready to take on business with new operating rules

Shown the is Pennsylvania House of Representatives in session at the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Matt Rourke/AP
Shown the is Pennsylvania House of Representatives in session at the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

The state House is now ready to govern for the next two years.

The chamber approved its long-awaited operating rules for regular session Wednesday by a vote of 102-100.

The usually-arcane rules procedure captured the spotlight these past two months because Democrats have taken control of the House after special elections last month. That means for the first time in a decade, they have a chance to spell out how, when and where bills can be debated and voted on.

Government watchdog groups have said the state legislature hasn’t always been responsive to what constituents ask for, and see a rules change as a crucial step in fixing that.

“Better rules means better lawmaking,” said Rep. Mark Rozzi (D-Berks), the former speaker who stepped down this week. “These reforms will restore fairness that has been missing for many years and make Pennsylvania’s government more responsive to all of its people.”

Rozzi formed a workgroup with six other lawmakers of both parties to draft changes to House procedures. The group hosted a listening tour in four cities across the state earlier this year to gather public feedback.

The lower chamber will now do business a little differently than before: For the next two years, the party split on most committees, where bills are first considered, will be narrower than before: 12 to 9 instead of 15 to 10. That is likely necessary, since the House is split almost evenly between Republicans and Democrats.

Republicans sometimes used their dominance over committees and the House floor to box out Democrats, which Majority Leader Matt Bradford condemned in a floor speech.

“What we propose[d] may not be perfect, and it may not be the reform that some want, but it is a far cry from the abuses of the former majority party,” Bradford said.

A key change: as long as 25 lawmakers from each party support a bill, they can force a vote on it in committee. Good government groups and voters across the state pushed lawmakers to include a change like that.

Lobbyists, advocates, and anyone else who comes in contact with a House lawmaker can now report that lawmaker for sexual harassment. The rules previously only allowed House lawmakers themselves and staffers to make reports to the chamber’s internal ethics committee.

That change came at the behest of SEIU lobbyist Andi Perez, who told Spotlight PA Wednesday that Rep. Mike Zabel (D-Delaware) harassed her when they discussed a bill at the Capitol. She’s calling on Zabel to resign. The Delaware County lawmaker has so far not responded.

Ultimately, new rules mean the legislature is now ready to negotiate and vote on bills, including the state budget. Gov. Josh Shapiro is set to unveil his proposal for the state’s next year of spending on Tuesday.