Central Pa. lawmakers hoping for more bipartisan deals
Central Pennsylvania lawmakers are touting a message of hope that more bipartisan deals can be struck during the new legislative session beginning to take shape in Harrisburg.
Speaking at a legislative forum for Harrisburg-area business leaders on Wednesday morning, a panel of nine state House representatives — eight Republicans and one Democrat — laid out their top priorities in 2019.
As they did so, many were quick to point out compromises achieved over the last two years, including pension reforms for new state and public school district hires and a recent measure to allow Harrisburg to leave the state program for distressed municipalities while preserving higher earned-income and local services taxes for the next five years.
Midstate Republicans on the panel said they were "encouraged" by Gov. Tom Wolf's inauguration speech Tuesday, where the Democrat highlighted several bipartisan accomplishments over his first term. He also expressed a willingness to find more areas of compromise in his second four-term term.
With the Republican majority losing at least 14 seats in the General Assembly — three seats are currently unfilled — working across the aisle is expected to be an even bigger focus this year for Republicans hoping to advance their agenda.
Rep. Mike Tobash (R-Schuylkill/Dauphin) said he was inspired by Wolf's speech and is open to striking deals with his Democratic colleagues in the House. He was joined on the panel by Tom Mehaffie (R-Dauphin), Greg Rothman (R-Cumberland), Sheryl Delozier (R-Cumberland), Dawn Keefer (R-York/Cumberland), Mark Keller (R-Perry/Cumberland), Andrew Lewis (R-Dauphin), Barbara Gleim (R-Cumberland) and Patty Kim (D-Dauphin).
Lewis and Gleim are first-time representatives.
Focus for the new year
In an hour of answering questions posed by the host of the forum — Dave Black, president and CEO of the Harrisburg Regional Chamber and Capital Region Economic Development Corp. — the Republican lawmakers focused mainly on government and business reforms that they believe could boost Pennsylvania's economy.
Those reforms centered on easing business regulations and looking at tax policies, including lowering corporate taxes.
"Pennsylvania is closed for business," Keefer said, hoping to change that this session.
Last session, she joined a group of Republican lawmakers that pushed a package of bills designed to give the legislature more control over government regulations.
Specifically, she wants the General Assembly to vote on any regulation that would have a fiscal impact of $1 million or more. If a vote is not taken, or the regulation is voted down in either chamber, it would not be implemented.
Lewis said state government needs to do a better job of changing the culture so more businesses want to invest in Pennsylvania. In addition to the state's high regulatory burden on businesses, he mentioned Pennsylvania's 9.99 percent corporate net income tax.
Business groups, including the chamber, have been pushing for a lower rate as a way to attract more business investment. Gov. Wolf, too, has said cutting the corporate tax rate is a priority, but he wants it linked to what is known as combined reporting. Combined reporting would require multistate corporations to add together into one tax report the profits of all of their subsidiaries, regardless of their locations.
Businesses argue that combined reporting is burdensome and hard to administer.
The Republicans also highlighted workforce development and the need to try to steer more high school students into skilled trades and apprenticeship programs.
Delozier said she plans to reintroduce legislation that would create a training program for building inspectors in Pennsylvania. The number of certified inspectors and plan examiners has been shrinking due to retirements and a dearth of construction professionals moving into careers as code officials.
The decline has hurt local governments and third-party agencies, and can delay building-plan approvals.
Delozier also noted a desire to expand on Pennsylvania's "clean slate" bill from last session, which Wolf signed last year, and lto look at occupational licensing reforms.
The clean slate legislation, which drew bipartisan support, gives people with low-level, non-violent offenses from at least 10 years ago a mechanism allowing their criminal records to be sealed from public view so they can pursue better career, housing and education options.
Also in the area of workforce, Kim said her top priority remains increasing Pennsylvania's minimum wage. The minimum is currently $7.25 per hour, but Kim would like to see it raised to $15 per hour by 2024.
Democrats believe a higher minimum wage would save the state hundreds of millions of dollars in public assistance benefits, including costs associated with food stamps, subsidized day care and housing assistance.
But Republicans and business groups typically oppose minimum-wage hikes, arguing that market forces can boost pay without government intervention.
As lawmakers look for bipartisan deals, minimum wage hikes and tax cuts could prove to be the biggest hurdles. The two sides also are expected to remain at odds over a severance tax on natural gas, a staple of Wolf's budget proposals over the last four years.
Elected officials also could be wrestling with a budget shortfall in the next fiscal year as the governor prepares to unveil his 2019-20 budget proposal in February.
Pennsylvania’s Independent Fiscal Office has been forecasting a potential $1.7 billion budget deficit, though that is assuming a big increase in government spending that may not occur. State tax collections also have been running ahead of budget estimates, which helps counter a shortfall.
The state Department of Revenue said general fund collections for the current fiscal year were $403.7 million ahead of estimates as of December.
Republicans on the panel believe Pennsylvania can grow its way out of future financial problems, but said lawmakers and the governor need to focus on regulatory reforms and improving government efficiencies. Keefer mentioned moving to a part-time legislature, rather than cutting the size of the General Assembly, as one way to save money.