Bulging budget bill could end up in court
HARRISBURG — Key budget-related legislation on tap for consideration today by the Pennsylvania Senate covers topics from how oil and gas drilling should be regulated to how billions of dollars for public schools should be spent, despite complaints that it trips over constitutional guidelines that bills be limited to a single subject.
Aides to top Republicans say courts have allowed the Legislature’s practice of creating a wide-ranging “fiscal code” bill that guides how money from a general appropriations bill is to be spent, as long as each subject is linked by clear wording to how the money is spent.
“An omnibus fiscal code bill is not something that is, per se, unconstitutional,” said Drew Crompton, the chief counsel for Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson. “In fact, (the state Supreme Court) said just the opposite.”
Still, some Democratic lawmakers contend the bill is unconstitutional.
“Ultimately, it will be up to a court to decide, if someone wants to press the issue,” said Bill Patton, a spokesman for House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny.
The bill began Jan. 23, 2013, as four pages that set guidelines for reimbursing rural hospitals that treat the poor or uninsured.
That is largely how it passed the House last September before a Senate committee overhauled it on June 30. After closed-door negotiations between leaders of the House and Senate Republican majorities, gone was the rural-hospital wording and replacing it was 110 new pages.
Those pages guide the distribution of billions of dollars for public schools and hospitals, change how oil and gas drilling is regulated in the state, establish a new community college in northwestern Pennsylvania and allow another $10 fee on certain state court filings.
Other provisions reduce the license fee that bar owners must pay to operate forms of gambling and cement the case for a new round of leasing publicly owned lands for natural gas drilling.
Last week, the Republican-controlled House Rules Committee restored the rural hospitals wording and rejected an amendment to allow Philadelphia to impose a cigarette sales tax to generate money for the city’s public schools.
During the committee meeting, House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, said a House GOP lawyer had cautioned that adding the cigarette tax provision would legally “endanger” the rest of the bill. Rep. Deberah Kula, D-Fayette, questioned how it could endanger a bill that itself was probably “already endangered.”
The House later rejected a challenge by Democrats to the bill’s constitutionality, 117 to 83, before passing it.
The single-subject rule was added to the Pennsylvania Constitution in 1874 as one of several changes designed to make it harder for lawmakers to slip into law the wants of special interests.
The bill may soon become an exhibit in a Commonwealth Court lawsuit. In the case in question, the Pennsylvania Environmental Defense Foundation is trying to stop the state government from allowing more gas drilling on publicly owned lands and then diverting the drilling proceeds away from a land conservation fund.
The foundation’s lawyer, John E. Childe, said Monday that the bill dramatically dilutes protections against more drilling on state lands and requirements that the drilling proceeds be used for conservation efforts.
“It will definitely be an exhibit,” Childe said. “I’m in the printer shop printing it out right now.”