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Pa. Speaker Rozzi pledges to ready House rules by month’s end

Pennsylvania House Speaker Mark Rozzi, a Berks County Democrat, listens to public comment during a field hearing in Philadelphia, Friday, Jan. 27.
Matt Rourke
Pennsylvania House Speaker Mark Rozzi, a Berks County Democrat, listens to public comment during a field hearing in Philadelphia, Friday, Jan. 27.

Pennsylvania’s Speaker of the House is outlining what’s next in the effort to put new procedural rules in place.

The state House has been deadlocked over how it should conduct business for the first time in at least a decade. Without rules, no legislation can get done – which is why the chamber has been at a standstill for weeks.

But in messages shared with WITF Monday, Speaker Mark Rozzi (D-Berks) said he and six other lawmakers tasked with drafting new rules are sifting through the ideas the public gave them about where, when and how bills should be voted on, among other things.

Rozzi’s “Workgroup to Move Pennsylvania Forward” fielded those ideas at a series of listening sessions across the state in the last two weeks.

“The next steps…are to create an executive summary of the listening tour stops. We plan for new rules to be introduced when the House returns to session,” Rozzi wrote.

When asked, Rozzi said lawmakers will vote on the operating rules by no later than Feb. 27, the next time the legislature is scheduled to meet in Harrisburg. He added that rules could be proposed and voted on the same day. Normal bills typically take at least a few days to work their way through the legislative process before they receive a vote.

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The newly-minted Speaker said he heard “tons of great suggestions” from the public during the listening tour, and plans to “incorporate many of them” in the slate of new rules that will be put before the House.

Many in the listening session crowds, including Carol Kuniholm of advocacy group Fair Districts PA, want the House to make popular bills easier to vote on. She argues power was concentrated in too few hands under the old House rules.

“We can’t afford that. Pennsylvania has been harmed by an ineffective legislature even when the same party controlled both chambers,” she said.

“We really have to have a legislature that works for the people of Pennsylvania, because the problems we have are not going away. They’re just getting worse,” Kuniholm added.

Kuniholm pointed to a refusal by the House Health Committee to take up a proposal to mandate carbon monoxide detectors in Allentown last year. State senators unanimously approved the bill, after the noxious gas leaked into a daycare center in Allentown.

Others have expressed frustration that the House Judiciary Committee did not take up a series of Democratic-sponsored gun restrictions for a vote last summer. Both panels were controlled by Republicans at the time.

Kuniholm argued the stakes are now much higher for House lawmakers. The GOP had controlled the House chamber with comfortable majorities in the last decade, but elections held under newly-redistricted political maps last year split the chamber between the two major parties nearly evenly.

“There is the possibility now, for the first time in a long time, to vote people out – and I think that pressure should encourage them to put better rules in place,” she said.

Among the most important changes the House should make, Kuniholm said, is one that would let individual lawmakers force a vote on popular bills if a committee chairperson refuses to call one. House members technically have had that power, but the procedure is rarely used and even more rarely effective.