Wave of newcomers reshapes PA legislature

The Pennsylvania General Assembly underwent a major transformation Tuesday with twenty percent of its members taking office for the first time.Forty-three new representatives took the oath in the state House of Representatives and seven new senators took the oath in the Senate in the ornate legislative chambers of the Capitol.That’s 50 freshmen out of a legislative body with 253 members. This brings a partisan lineup of 110 Republicans and 91 Democrats in the House with two vacancies and 29 Republicans and 21 Democrats in the Senate with a pending vacancy.

The breakdown among freshmen is 24 Democrats and 19 Republicans in the House and five Democrats and two Republicans in the Senate. The arrival of this class of newcomers highlighted the start of the 2019-20 legislative session on New Year’s Day; the Pennsylvania Constitution mandates a new session start on the first Tuesday of the year.

The changes boost the number of women serving as state lawmakers to a new high of roughly one-quarter of legislative representation. Rep. Anita Kulik, D-Allegheny, noted in floor remarks that she is now one of seven women House members from western Pennsylvania, when she was one of two female representatives from that region last session.

The turnover in seats reflects both retirements of veteran lawmakers and defeats of incumbents in the Nov. 6 election. Freshmen Sen. Lindsey Williams, D-Allegheny, took her seat without incident as the certified election results in the 38th Senatorial District were read aloud in that chamber. Williams learned last Friday that Senate GOP leaders wouldn’t challenge her seating over state residency issues. Senate President Pro Tempore Joseph Scarnati, R-Jefferson, said he would recommend Williams’ seating, identifying the lack of a clear definition of “residency” with the courts not fully vetting the issue. During his analysis of the matter, Scarnati said he presumed truthful the materials Williams provided, upon his request, to support her claim she met the Pennsylvania Constitution’s residency requirement for legislators.

The day meant a leave taking for Sen. Guy Reschenthaler, R-Allegheny, who is scheduled to be sworn in Thursday as a member of Congress. In one of his likely last official actions, outgoing Lt. Gov. Mike Stack gets to set a special election date in the 37th Senatorial district to replace Reschenthaler.

The only open political debate during the day broke out over consideration of the House governing rules. Members of the Fair Districts PA advocacy group came to the Capitol urging legislative action on a series of proposed changes to House Resolution 1 – the chamber’s operational rules. Several Democrats, including Rep. Steve Samuelson, D-Northampton, were prepared to introduce the rules changes. But House Republican leaders won approval by a 109-91 vote for House Resolution 4 that allowed HR1 – which those leaders indicated was a collection of rules no different from the ones under which the House operated last session, and which were the result of bipartisan agreement with Democratic leadership – to be considered without amendment.

“It’s very undemocratic,” said Samuelson about that move. “I’m asking the 43 new members that were sworn in today to vote no.” The House then voted 142-58 to approve HR1. House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, said during floor remarks that nothing prevents changes to the House rules to be considered after Tuesday.

Meanwhile, House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, and Scarnati were reelected to new two-year terms in their respective posts without serious opposition. Both urged their colleagues to find ways to work together to represent the interests of a diverse state.

Observing that creating family-sustaining jobs and strengthening families are commonplace goals, Turzai said, “We may have different perspectives as to how to get to those objectives, but we will get there.”

Scarnati said passing a balanced state budget that protects taxpayers and steering business growth and investment are key goals. Republicans leaders a few weeks ago told Capitolwire improving Pennsylvania’s business climate and economy, in order to increase opportunity, would be top goals for them during the 2019-20 session. House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny, said the key challenge is finding a way to balance the state budget while helping education, protecting the environment and keeping the social safety net intact.