By: Todd Brysiak
Who remembers the old Schoolhouse Rock segment, “How a bill becomes a law?” For those who don’t, do yourself a favor and take a little stroll through YouTube to find this fun little snippet.
From a civics perspective, the Schoolhouse crew nailed it. It was simple yet savvy, and that “Bill” fella’s little ditty was more assured to get stuck in your head than an Ed Sheeran song – like it or not.
But let’s be honest, we all know there’s a lot more to making public policy than a catchy jingle and a vintage 70’s cartoon. In fact, these days, it’s safer to assume that simplicity and lawmaking are more akin to antonyms than related themes.
I’ve spent the last 17 years working in Pennsylvania’s legislative arena, and I don’t know that I’ve seen the landscape as uncertain as it is today.
We’re facing the ugliest presidential election in modern history, trying to manage a global pandemic, working to address historic social justice challenges, facing another multi-billion-dollar budget deficit and seeing political ideologies that are as entrenched as ever.
Things are about as sideways as they can get. But where does this uncertainty lead our state?
Similar questions were asked back in 2015, when Pennsylvania ran head-on into the longest, most contentious budget impasse in its history. I remember it well.
Gov. Tom Wolf had just taken office, and I was in my first few months as chief of staff to then-House Majority Leader Dave Reed. Pennsylvania was staring down a multi-billion-dollar deficit, and the policy agendas between the two political parties were separated by a canyon-like divide. It was the perfect formula for legislative chaos.
Lobbyists were constantly chasing down endless rumors, staff members were negotiating the umpteenth iteration of a half-dozen tier-one policy changes, and lawmakers were practically living in caucus when not debating in the chambers.
It was brutal.
A former colleague recently asked me if I thought the current environment was shaping up to be “another 2015.” My immediate answer was, “yes.” But, as I thought about it more, I now think there are just too many variables to really get a sense of what’s to come.
Lawmakers and the Wolf administration agreed to a partial, five-month budget in late May. To their credit, it was a wise move given the uncertainty of the COVID-19-impacted economy. But with Nov. 30 fast approaching, something now needs to be done to close the remaining funding gap.
It’s all but certain the legislature will convene in a post-election – sine die – voting session to address the budget. Most believe this will entail modest tweaks to the plan approved in May. I tend to agree.
But what matters here is how the next steps will impact the 2021-22 fiscal year. Anytime there’s a mid-year revenue shortfall, the greatest effect is always realized in the following year.
Until we see exactly how the legislature and the administration move to close-out the current budget, it’s going to be impossible to tell just how much 2021-22 will be affected. Nonetheless, this scenario carries a host of the 2015 traits.
The Return of Sine Die
The idea of a sine die voting session hasn’t been broached in well over a decade. But with the pandemic turning the legislative world on its axis, it sure looks like we have one coming.
Along with the budget, we’ll probably see some other legislative measures added to the mix – more likely modest issues that didn’t close out before the election. Big changes are doubtful.
However, it will be very interesting to see what big ideas do get floated in the rumor mill. There will almost certainly be chatter on taxes and new revenues, but the likelihood of them coming to fruition is slim. These rumors, however, might be a sneak peak into what issues could be presented as part of the 2021-22 budget solution. That alone should keep everyone in lobby-land on their toes.
Elections and Retirements
There will be a lot of new faces in Harrisburg next session. Some will fill the seats of retiring members and others will be those who flipped seats at the ballot box. These changes will have an immediate effect, but the scope of that effect will be contingent on who wins and in which seats.
Chalk this up as another unknown – at least for now.
But let’s talk about what we do know. This session prompted the legislative and political world to say goodbye to two of the most influential members of the last decade-plus.
With both House Speaker Mike Turzai and Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati retiring, the inner workings of every major negotiation are going to change. Their departures will create a major shift in influence, and everyone should be watching to see how it impacts next session.
What Lies Ahead
I often joke the only certainty in Harrisburg is that things will be uncertain. Today, I’m confident this statement carries more weight now.
And while the mere thought of another 2015 gives me heartburn, the reality is the challenges of that year led to some of the most impactful policy changes this state has seen in decades: historic pension reforms, wine and beer in grocery and convenience stores and the legalization of medical marijuana, to name a few.
The coming months are going to anything but easy. A lot of tough decisions will need to be made, and it’s going to take a lot more than a Schoolhouse Rock ditty to get them done. But using a little personal and historical perspective, there’s reason to believe they could leave our state a better place.