Bills, budgets, and the never-ending balancing act of being a state lawmaker
● By Steven Hoffman
At 12:12 p.m. on Monday, June 11, State Rep. John Lawrence entered room 60 in the east wing of the Pennsylvania State Capitol Building in Harrisburg. A House Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee meeting was set to begin at 12:15 p.m., and there was one topic on the agenda: HR 948 that requests that the state auditor general conduct a financial audit of the 118 nonpoint projects approved by PENNVEST, the Pennsylvania Infrastructure Investment Authority (See sidebar). The committee meeting was quick because it has to be: The 203 state representatives were due on the House Floor at 1 p.m. for the start of that day’s session. There, the lawmakers will debate and vote on a number of bills, dash off to more committee meetings, and then the lawmakers will have discussions about pending bills in caucus. It’s budget season, and the pace of activity for state lawmakers is at its peak.
Every day is different when your workplace is the State Capitol, but this is more or less a typical day in the life of Lawrence. It’s a day that began long before he stepped into the committee meeting to discuss HR 948. Lawrence commuted to the state capital from his home in the 13th District, and there were morning meetings in his Harrisburg office―office 211 in the Ryan Office Building.
Lawrence has been a state lawmaker since he was elected in 2010, and a visitor to his Harrisburg office would know right away that he represents the 13th Legislative District: There’s a potato chip box from Herr Foods, a pair of shoes from Dansko, a basket of mushrooms, and unopened bottles of wine from Paradocx Vineyard, among other items that illustrate life in the 13th District’s four boroughs and 13 townships.
Part of a state lawmaker’s job is sitting in on caucus sessions and committee meetings in Harrisburg, making a wide range of decisions related to the spending of $32 billion annually. Another part of the job is serving the constituents in the home district in a variety of ways, and it’s this part of the job that might give Lawrence, a native of Landenberg, the most satisfaction.
“I will listen to everyone, on all sides of the debate, but at the end of the day I listen to the people in the 13th District,” Lawrence explained on his way to the House Floor.
When the Pennsylvania House of Representatives meets in session, a center aisle divides the House into equal parts. Democrats sit to the left of the aisle and Republicans sit to the right of the aisle―just as it has been when the current State Capitol Building opened in 1906. The Speaker of the House, Mike Turzai, is the presiding officer and stands at the elevated rostrum which faces the center aisle. The speaker conducts each session. The speaker maintains the proper order of events on the floor, including the votes on every issue. The business in the House of Representatives is fast-paced and formal―although the House, unlike the State Senate, has long-since switched over to recording votes electronically instead of relying on voice votes. Members of the House vote at their desks by pressing green or red buttons which light the respective “yea” and “nay” votes on the electronic roll call boards.
At shortly after one o’clock, the June 11 session began with a few preliminary pieces of business, including voting on the uncontested calendar and Rule 35 resolutions, before the lawmakers start work on some bills that are up for second consideration.
During a typical week, state lawmakers will take up bills on a wide variety of items, ranging from the hazing of college students to crime victim protections to dense environmental policies to transportation regulations. On this day, the House was taking votes on the second consideration for bills that would address the sale or purchase of nicotine products by minors; add amendments to the Rape Shield Law; make updates to the Crimes Code; require the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services to establish a set of statewide protocols to provide specialized service for sexually exploited children; add several crimes to the existing provision which permits a court to admit an out-of-court statement of a child victim or child witness, among others.
After less than an hour, the House recessed briefly so that the Rules Committee and the Appropriations Committee could meet to look at the flow of bills and to evaluate the financial impact of the bills under consideration―that’s particularly important now, during budget season. The committees conducted the business in front of them quickly. Lawmakers hurriedly scanned through packets of papers, scrolled through mountains of information on their laptops, and then hustled through the hallways of the State Capitol building. By 2 o’clock, the House is once again back in session. This day, six bills were up for votes on third consideration―which, if approved, sends the bills to the State Senate for consideration. One of those bills, HB 85, is sponsored by Lawrence. HB 85 would allow public school entities to provide for a parent or guardian to opt-out of the Keystone Exams for philosophical reasons. Keystone Exams are a series of standardized tests administered to high school students across Pennsylvania. HB 85 would require school boards to meet within 180 days of the bill’s effective date to determine whether to adopt a policy to excuse a student from state assessments if the student’s parent or guardian submits a written objection to school officials. If a school board fails to act within 180 days, the school district would, by default, be required to excuse a student from state assessments upon written request by a student’s parent or guardian.
On the House Floor, Lawrence explained why he sponsored the proposed legislation, saying that many parents have spoken to him about their concerns regarding the Keystone Exams. While he is a supporter of accountability for schools, Lawrence has heard from administrators, teachers, and parents about some of the issues that arise with constant, high-stakes testing―particularly students suffering from test anxiety.
“This bill strengthens local control and parental control when it comes to a child’s education,” Lawrence said. “I strongly believe that parents and local school boards should have the ability to speak to this issue.”
While the House was able to approve a series of other bills with little or no debate, HB 85 sparked a lively discussion―as Lawrence had anticipated.
A few lawmakers posed questions to Lawrence seeking clarification on the bill. For example, Rep. Mike Sturla asked if it would be the charter school or the local school district that would decide whether parents had the option to opt their children out of the Keystone Exams. Lawrence explained that it would be the school entity that decides, so it would be the charter school board that would decide for the charter school, and the local school board would decide for the school district.
A few lawmakers expressed concerns that allowing students to opt out of Keystone Exams would lead to the state’s overall participation rate to fall below the 95 percent level that is required by federal law.
Lawrence noted that school district officials would not be permitted to approach parents about having their children opt out, but rather it would only be those parents that, philosophically, did not want their children to take the Keystone Exams who would be seeking the opt-out. He also pointed out that parents already had the option of opting out their children from the Keystone Exams for religious reasons. But that puts parents in a position where they may have to stretch the truth in order to opt out since it’s unclear what the “religious objection” would be to taking the Keystone Exam.
“That’s never good policy,” Lawrence said.
Rep. Kathy Rapp agreed with Lawrence’s assessment that the legislation is long overdue. She also said that she hears from parents who are concerned that their children have test anxiety.
At 2:40 p.m., the House of Representatives voted on HB 85. There were 154 yeas and 39 nays. The bill was approved and now it goes to the State Senate for consideration.
Shortly thereafter, the lawmakers went to caucus and when the session resumed at 5:20 p.m., Turzai announced some committee changes, and then the lawmakers ran through the second consideration of five additional bills.
It’s not unusual for state lawmakers to be considering 20 different bills on 20 different topics simultaneously. Amendments are also added that could significantly impact how a lawmaker votes. Lawrence said that part of the challenge is to understand the underlying goal of each bill when so many different things are being addressed simultaneously. Each lawmaker must also handle committee assignments on a wide range of areas. Lawrence currently serves on five House committees―Finance, Agriculture and Rural Affairs, Health, Transportation, and Rules.
It’s a constant balancing act for lawmakers to try to collaborate on legislation that serves the state’s residents―what benefits one segment of the population might not help another group. What helps one industry important to Pennsylvania could hurt another. Deciding how tax dollars are allocated is a constant challenge.
“Every issue that we vote on is important to somebody,” Lawrence said. “Pennsylvania is a diverse state and we need to make good policy that works across the whole state.”
Lawrence has been working on a number of bills this session. One would help certain victims of domestic violence who are going through a divorce. A constituent in the 13th District brought it to Lawrence’s attention that, right now, Pennsylvania law would allow a person who has confessed to or has been convicted of domestic violence to receive temporary alimony from the victim if that victim were the highest wage-earner between the two. The temporary alimony is paid until a divorce settlement is reached. The constituent who brought this to Lawrence’s attention was willing to testify in front of the committee to explain how the current law is unfair to victims of domestic abuse.
“The constituent was very eloquent about the need to address the issue,” Lawrence explained. His bill would correct this injustice.
“The system is working the way it is supposed to so that we change the law,” he explained.
The bill pertaining to temporary alimony might not affect a lot of people, but it is important to those it does. Other bills will have a widespread impact on millions of Pa. residents, even though most of those residents will be unaware of the efforts that it took to make a change in a law or state policy.
Another bill sponsored by Lawrence, currently working its way through the Pennsylvania Senate, would change how the state pays its debt―the goal of the legislation is to save taxpayers money. Lawrence is a strong advocate for the state to reduce needless spending and to avoid debt.
Another piece of legislation backed by Lawrence would reform how Pennsylvanians can obtain birth certificates. There are only three places across the state that can issue copies of birth certificates in person, and the state’s Division of Vital Records currently has such a backlog that it could take as long as six months for someone in the department to even open an envelope from someone requesting a copy of a birth certificate. With the full implementation of REAL ID approaching, many more Pennsylvania citizens might be filing requests to obtain new birth certificates, Lawrence explained. The older versions of the birth certificates are generally not sufficient to obtain a passport or a driver's license that is REAL ID-compliant.
“I believe there are going to be hundreds of thousands of people, maybe millions of people, needing their new birth certificates,” he said.
Lawrence’s bill would allow the Division of Vital Records to partner with counties and city agencies to expand the number of places where people could obtain copies of their birth certificates. The legislation would also take a portion of the revenues generated by sales of birth certificates and direct those funds back to the Division of Vital Records so that there could be staffing or technology improvements to reduce the amount of time that people must wait to receive their birth certificates.
Creating legislation and getting it approved is a challenging process. Lawrence pointed out that a large percentage of bills―perhaps as high as 85 percent―are passed unanimously, which might come as a surprise to residents because so much attention gets paid to legislative gridlock. On some issues, certainly, Republicans and Democrats are divided. But, in a state as diverse as Pennsylvania is, other issues divide lawmakers based on whether they represent urban or more rural areas. Lawrence said that he tries to look past any Republican vs. Democrat or urban vs. rural differences, focusing instead on whether the legislation under consideration would benefit the citizens of Pennsylvania.
Hanging on the wall in Lawrence’s Harrisburg office is a picture of Harrisburg lawmakers from 1877. It’s a reminder, Lawrence said, that no one remembers any of those lawmakers, but people are still living with the benefits and consequences of the work that they did. It’s the laws and policies that make a difference in people’s lives, not the lawmakers themselves. Taken individually, many of the pieces of legislation taken up by the House might not have a dramatic impact, but they all aim to improve the lives of the citizens of Pennsylvania.