This story originally appeared on Spotlight PA.
Pennsylvania’s divided legislature is reflecting on a 2023 dominated by deadlock and hoping the dynamic turns around when the second half of the two-year session begins in January.
The full-time General Assembly sent Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro just under 80 bills as of Dec. 14 — roughly half of the annual output of recent years — with dozens of measures advanced by each chamber languishing without consideration in the other.
An effort to update Pennsylvania’s badly antiquated Election Code ahead of the 2024 presidential contest was sunk when lawmakers couldn’t agree on the right policies to embrace. A long-awaited constitutional amendment to benefit survivors of childhood sexual abuse has stalled for similar reasons. And key budget legislation was bogged down for months, forcing community colleges and libraries to make tough financial decisions.
That budget deadlock finally broke in mid-December, unleashing a torrent of stalled bills along with more than $1 billion in state dollars that couldn’t previously be spent. Lawmakers said they saw the deal as a victory for bipartisanship and struck a positive tone.
“We’re just getting started,” state House Speaker Joanna McClinton (D., Philadelphia) said.
But it was a slow start, and deep divisions remain.
For the first time in more than a decade, Democrats controlled the state House and had the power to decide which bills to advance and which to disregard. Republican critics of the new majority said the caucus eschews compromise to play politically driven games with key legislation that appeals to its base to ensure Democrats maintain their slim majority next year.
“The House has sent us a lot of things, a lot of issues. Many of them, we have strong philosophical disagreements on,” state Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman (R., Indiana) told Spotlight PA in December, ahead of the budget deal. “Even the ones where we have expressed a willingness to come to the table, we still can’t seem to get any clear indication what their willingness may be to actually bring the issue to resolution.”
Democrats countered that their entrenched GOP counterparts in the state Senate are intransigent and have refused to work with them.
“Obviously, there’s going to be a learning curve,” state House Majority Leader Matt Bradford (D., Montgomery) told Spotlight PA in late November. “The Senate has been in the majority for 30 years with a House Republican majority that largely went along with their priorities.”
There were still breakthroughs. Lawmakers passed a bill that increased the number of elderly people eligible for a property tax rent rebate program for the first time in over a decade, rewrote the state law regulating dog ownership to fully fund kennel inspections, and expanded insurance coverage for preventative breast cancer screenings.
And after months of impasse, the legislature’s final budget deal more than tripled the size of the state’s child care tax credit and funded the state’s first public legal defense program, colleges and libraries, and a student teacher stipend.
In addition to finishing the budget, the state legislature recently passed a host of bills — many addressing criminal justice — that ranged from lowering fitness standards for police officers to join academies to increasing and standardizing the rights of incarcerated women.
Legislative leaders hope that a year’s worth of frustrations lays the groundwork for a more productive future.
“We’re not going to get any kind of ideological issues through the legislature,” state Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward, (R., Westmoreland) said in an interview in December. “We have a Republican Senate and Democratic House. We need to work together to find consensus on middle-of-the-road legislation that helps the commonwealth.”