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The Pa. House is coming back with a Democratic majority. Will it finally be able to move forward?

The chamber will return this week to focus on providing legal relief to sexual abuse survivors, but leaders are still debating what permanent rules to govern the chamber should look like.

Feb 23, 2023
Tom Gralish / Philadelphia Inquirer

IMAGE: The PA House has been at a standstill for more than a month with Democrats and Republicans unable to agree on basic operational rules.

Stephen Caruso of Spotlight PA

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HARRISBURG — The speaker of the Pennsylvania House is calling lawmakers back this week to address one topic and one topic only: giving childhood survivors of sexual abuse a chance to sue their perpetrators in court.

The closely divided chamber has been at a standstill for more than a month with Democrats and Republicans unable to agree on basic operational rules.

With the swearing-in of three special election winners scheduled for Tuesday, Democrats will have a 102-member majority — enough votes to pass temporary rules needed to move forward with a special session on abuse relief.

But state House lawmakers aren’t expected to immediately address much thornier questions like how to handle sexual harassment complaints, how much control to give the new Republican minority over the chamber’s agenda, and who should be in charge for the rest of the two-year session.

It’s not surprising that Speaker Mark Rozzi (D., Berks) has called this special session.

Rozzi was abused by a priest as a child and has made justice for survivors a centerpiece of his legislative career. Since his surprise election to speaker in January, Rozzi has said that passing a measure allowing abuse survivors to sue in old cases is a top priority.

Even more importantly, he said, he wants to pass it without any unrelated measures, like stricter voter ID rules, attached. That’s the path the GOP-controlled state Senate is pursuing.

“It became apparent that if we ran the victims’ bills in regular session that members would try to tie them to voter ID and regulatory reform measures,” Rozzi told Spotlight PA in a text message Monday. “I will not allow victims to be used for political gain.”

Rozzi last month formed a group of Democrats and Republicans to work on rules for the chamber. Rules drafted to govern the special session would restrict debate to the topic of child sexual abuse, raise the bar to change a bill, and concentrate power in the hands of top lawmakers.

According to a draft viewed by Spotlight PA, the proposed rules would create a single committee made up of both parties’ leaders and Appropriations Committee chairs. Rozzi would pick a fifth member to helm the committee.

The rules would also require support from two-thirds of the chamber to amend a bill, rather than a simple majority.

The proposal largely mirrors one floated by Democrats last month when former Gov. Tom Wolf proposed a similar special session, which foundered without GOP support.

Should the special session move forward, Rozzi said he hopes to hold votes on two measures this week, including on a proposed constitutional amendment to enact the two-year window for abuse survivors to file lawsuits. Rozzi also wants to advance a regular bill with the same aim.

“I think it’s time that we put our victims, these children who have been sexually assaulted, who have been raped, and put them on the forefront and get them the justice that they deserve,” Rozzi told Spotlight PA earlier this month. “We hope that the Senate acts on it right away.”

In the past, measures to open a temporary window for abuse survivors to file civil lawsuits have stirred little controversy in the state House, which passed these civil windows in varying forms in 2018, 2019, and 2021.

State Senate GOP leaders have consistently argued that creating a window through regular legislation signed by the governor is unconstitutional. Instead, they have argued it must be accomplished through the longer path of sending a constitutional amendment to voters for their approval, which requires passing the same language two sessions in a row.

The civil window amendment nearly finished traversing that long winding road in 2021, before a procedural error by former Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration crashed the effort.

While the state House was in disarray, the state Senate in January promptly passed a civil window amendment but joined it with two Republican priorities — expanded voter ID and a greater ability to override regulations.

Rozzi decried rolling the proposals together and said the state Senate should run the statutory window as a regular bill.

“If they think it’s unconstitutional, I dare them to run the statutory bill and let the Supreme Court decide whether it’s constitutional or not,” Rozzi said. “There’s not one black robe that sits in that Senate … That’s why we have Supreme Court justices.”

Kate Flessner, spokesperson for state Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman (R., Indiana), said it is Rozzi, not Republicans, who are playing politics with victims by blocking the omnibus amendment and refusing to engage in “meaningful dialogue with the Senate.”

“We have fulfilled and completed our commitment to address this issue. The Speaker should have given voters a voice by passing Senate Bill 1 as presented,” Flessner said. “Instead the Speaker blocked the issue he claims to be his number one priority from consideration by the voters, in favor of partisan political considerations.”

On the to-do list: permanent rules

Even if the state House moves forward with the special session, lawmakers will still need to decide on permanent rules before they can address other issues and move forward.

Operating rules dictate the partisan composition of committees, and the processes for introducing, amending, and passing bills. Without rules, none of these things can happen and the chamber can’t function.

Normally, lawmakers approve these rules on the first day of a new two-year session.

But instead of calling a vote on the rules, Rozzi recessed the chamber. He then convened a six-person group to develop compromise rules and to “hear directly from our citizenry on how they think the House can best move forward and heal the divides that exist due to the hyper-partisan politics of Harrisburg.”

In January, the state House’s GOP caucus released proposed rules that would give the minority party more power over chamber operations. The party blocked similar changes during its 12 years in power.

Democrats have yet to release a proposal to the public. The caucus had a closed-door meeting last week to go over last session’s rules, which gave the Republican majority near total control of which legislation advanced.

Going forward, the biggest question for Democrats is how generous they will be to the minority party now that they can call the shots.

“I can feel their pain, because being in the minority for so long, and how the Republicans handled things … how they just kind of push that crazy agenda down your throat,” Rozzi said. “But at some point, somebody has to be the adult in the room, and try to just give a new perspective of how the government should be run.”

Rozzi said he and other chamber leaders are still negotiating permanent rules. He added that he’s taking into account testimony he heard during a listening tour from people who want a more open legislative process.

“We are making great progress on historic regular session rules that will put the democratic process over partisan politics and encompass much of what we heard on our speaker’s listening tour,” Rozzi said.

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