Can Pa. House Democrats get their bills out of the State Government committee?

A package of voting reform bills are again stuck in the committee. Another lawmaker is trying to avoid that fate.

The state capitol building in Harrisburg

The state capitol building in Harrisburg

Ken Marshall / Flickr
Sarah Anne Hughes

Rep. Tony DeLuca knew from the start that his package of voting reform bills had little chance of getting out of the House State Government committee.

Similar bills seeking early voting and same-day registration had gone nowhere in the past, and even with renewed interest in politics after Donald Trump’s election, it’s still hard to get your average Pennsylvanian riled up about legislature disputes. Still, the Penn Hills Democrat had a message for the State Government committee’s chairman, Butler Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, and other House Republicans.

They should have enough guts to put it out on the floor and let members vote on it,” DeLuca told The Incline in January.

On April 11, with the bill still sitting in committee, DeLuca sent a letter to Metcalfe asking the Republican to bring the bills up for a vote. More than a month later, on Thursday, DeLuca told The Incline his office hasn’t “received anything back” from Metcalfe regarding his letter.

“The only thing we can do is put public pressure on him,” DeLuca said of his next steps.

DeLuca’s not alone in his frustration. Rep. Dan Frankel, a Democrat from Pittsburgh, this week introduced a version of his Fairness Act, which would provide housing, employment and education discrimination protections to LGBTQ people statewide.

He’s introduced similar legislation for seven cycles, he told The Incline.

Frankel is calling on House Speaker Mike Turzai, a Republican from Allegheny County, to send the bill to a committee that isn’t State Government. Judiciary or Labor are also appropriate committees, Frankel said, and at least the bill would have a chance to get a hearing or a vote.

“What we need is clearly a chance to get it referred where you don’t have a committee chairman who is an ardent anti-LGBT person,” Frankel said of Metcalfe.

Metcalfe, who did not respond to request for comment, has called Frankel’s bill “very dangerous” because it allows trans people to use the bathroom of their choosing. He opposes same-sex marriage, going so far as to propose a ban in 2011, and stopped an openly gay lawmaker from talking about the subject on the House floor because it “would have been an open rebellion against Almighty God and God’s word, against God’s law.”

Frankel plans to send a letter to Turzai about his request and said he has spoken to the speaker in the past about the bill. A spokesman for Turzai said Thursday the office hadn’t reviewed Frankel’s legislation yet and couldn’t say to which committee it would be referred.

“I’m not optimistic,” Frankel said of the bill’s chances.

There’s a “very cohesive, extreme right-wing caucus within the [Republican] caucus,” he said, and party leaders essentially hand legislation on social issues to these members.

“Daryl Metcalfe is empowered by the speaker to basically keep [the bill] bottled up,” Frankel said.

You’re in — or you’re out

So what actually gets a vote in the State Government committee?

House Bill 14, which would strip state funding from colleges and universities that declare themselves sanctuary campuses, did earlier this month.

Before that vote, introducer Rep. Jerry Knowles, a Republican of Tamaqua, defined a sanctuary campus as one “that is basically going to thumb their noses at the taxpayers of Pennsylvania and do what they damn well please.” Schools like the University of Pennsylvania and Swarthmore have “publicly declared themselves” sanctuary campuses, Knowles said, but could avoid a loss of funding if they “adhere to federal law.”

Rep. Matthew Bradford, minority chair of the committee, was the only Democrat who spoke against the bill, saying it looked like legislation “in search of a headline.” Metcalfe, a co-sponsor of the bill, did not speak before he and 15 of his Republican colleagues voted in favor of it. The bill was approved on party lines, 16-11.

That bill is one of just 13 pieces of legislation and resolutions that have been reported out of the State Government committee so far this session. That’s out of 152 total bills and resolutions.

Bills reported out of State Government committee

Rep. Jerry Knowles, RepublicanHouse Bill 14Defund "sanctuary campuses"16-11
Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, RepublicanHouse Bill 157Modernize history code26-0
Rep. Rick Saccone, RepublicanHouse Bill 171Allow "election watchers" to work outside their own county16-9
Rep. Kristin Hill, RepublicanHouse Bill 205Remove Pennsylvania School Boards Association workers from pension program22-2
Rep. Ryan Warner, RepublicanHouse Bill 410
Additional requirements for budget requests16-11
Rep. Francis X. Ryan, RepublicanHouse Bill 453
Provides recourse when those audited do not correct issues23-0
Rep. Will Tallman, RepublicanHouse Bill 922Excluding future Susquehanna River Basin Commission workers from state retirement plan16-11
Rep. Bryan Cutler, RepublicanHouse Bill 1175
Enhances penalties in Lobbyist Disclosure Law 27-0
Rep. Ryan Warner, RepublicanHouse Bill 110
Caps Commonwealth spending16-11
Rep. Aaron D. Kaufer, RepublicanHouse Resolution 43
Condemning U.N. resolution against Israeli settlements26-0
Rep. Brad Roae, RepublicanHouse Resolution 83
To study replacement of House voting system 19-6
Rep. Aaron Bernstine, RepublicanHouse Resolution 287
Encouraging use of military force in Syria23-0
Rep. Kim L. Ward, RepublicanSenate Bill 133Allows compliance with REAL ID Act27-0

Next week, the committee will host an “informational meeting” on gun-free zones with speaker John Lott, an academic with a questionable past who posed as a fan online to defend himself against criticism. Members will also vote on a bill that would require adults to submit an affidavit stating they are U.S. citizens in order to receive most public benefits.

Even though he doesn’t have much hope, Frankel said people in favor of the Fairness Act should contact Turzai to request the bill be placed in a different committee. DeLuca, too, said those who support his voting reform bills should contact their legislators.

House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, a Democrat from Allegheny County, said in a statement that it’s “been troubling over the years to see the House Speaker send many good bills to the State Government committee to die.”

That includes a campaign finance reform bill Dermody introduced last year that was sent to State Government.

“Tony DeLuca is offering important legislation that deserves to be fairly considered by all the lawmakers and not just rejected by a single person,” Dermody continued. “I sincerely hope that Chairman Metcalfe will do the right thing.”

A spokesperson for Bradford said the minority chair spoke to Metcalfe about DeLuca’s bill in late April. Bradford could not be reached for additional comment.

Frankel said he plans to “take a look at some other strategies” to get a vote on his LGBTQ protections bill, including filing a discharge petition as he did last session with Rep. Brian Sims, a Democrat. However, that kind of petition requires support from a majority of House members to bring the bill up for a full vote.

“Hopefully, we’ll get some better cooperation,” Frankel said.