VIEWING HARRISBURG: A small Senate GOP may be stronger
HARRISBURG — A crush of high-profile issues that Republicans who control the Pennsylvania Capitol have pledged to tackle this summer will converge almost at once, but the path to accomplishing those goals faces the least certain landscape since Gov. Tom Corbett took office.
That’s because the June 30 end of the Legislature’s long spring session will be the first test of the Senate Republicans’ smallest majority in nearly two decades after losing three open seats to Democrats in the November election.
Still, that smaller majority may give Senate Republicans — who are generally viewed as less aligned with Corbett on the major issues than House Republicans — a stronger hand in driving final compromises.
Now, if just three members of the Senate GOP refuse their support for a bill favored by Corbett or House Republicans, it may become necessary to secure support from Democrats.
And Democrats hope they will benefit as a result.
“They have the opportunity, by working with us, maybe to shape the outcome of policy issues, and which ones we address and which ones we don’t,” said the Senate’s Democratic leader, Jay Costa of Allegheny County.
Corbett, in his third year, has tried to set up his latest priorities to win legislative approval before July 1. The last two weeks of June are traditionally a high-stakes deal-making period when the final state budget is negotiated and legislative leaders go in search of support for high-priority legislation, sometimes by tying the measures together to force compromises.
The governor’s leading priorities are privatizing the state-controlled wine and liquor store system, overhauling public employee pension systems, producing an on-time budget with his biggest business tax cut yet and, after two years of prodding by lawmakers, boosting funding for transportation systems.
In the next week, Republicans expect to begin meeting privately with top Corbett aides to start serious discussions about taking action on Corbett’s priorities.
For their part, leaders of the Senate’s Republicans’ 27-23 chamber majority challenge the notion that the next two months will test their ability to produce policies acceptable to Republicans.
“We’re not beginning the process by excluding Democrats and trying to run these bills without Democrats’ cooperation and support,” said Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware. “That’s our normal practice in the Senate.”
Besides, they said, so little consensus exists between lawmakers and the governor’s office on top GOP priorities that the most pressing matter is simply sitting down for serious talks to find common ground rather than trying to predict who will drive any compromise.
“It always comes together because, at the end of the day, the option of walking out of here June 30 without a budget done, without anything done on liquor, without anything done on transportation, without anything done on pensions, is far worse than compromising,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson. “People will start realizing that soon.”
The extent of Senate Democrats’ willingness to cooperate or ability to drive hard bargains remains to be seen. But they are working to insert one of their top priorities, a massive expansion of Medicaid under the 2010 federal health care law, into the conversation.
Democrats, Costa said, also want passage of a transportation funding plan that includes substantial funding for mass transit while scaling back the size of Corbett’s proposed business tax cut to ensure that there is more money for such things as public schools.
But, he said, Democrats are not willing to achieve those priorities by supporting Republican-penned changes to the pension system or the liquor stores system that they would otherwise oppose.
Governors and legislative leaders have methods of winning crossover votes and their end-of-June search to sway pliable rank-and-file lawmakers often involves promises such as support for a lawmaker’s pet piece of low-profile legislation.
Still, said Sen. John Wozniak, D-Cambria, it’s unlikely that any Democrat will support one of Corbett’s top priorities unless it already has been changed to reflect the wishes of Democratic leaders.
“Most people already made their alignments on these issues,” Wozniak said, “and it would be next to impossible to get them to strike a bargain that doesn’t have any compromise attached to it.”