Pennsylvania GOP lawmakers eye window for action before Wolf takes over as governor



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HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania — The Pennsylvania Legislature will be led by massive Republican majorities — including the biggest House GOP majority in more than 50 years — when Democratic Gov.-elect Tom Wolf takes office on Jan. 20.

But for two weeks before he takes office, those majorities will be sworn in and intact under outgoing Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, a fact that has not been lost on Republican Party backers.

That means it is still legal and possible — albeit technically challenging — to enact far-reaching legislation favored by many Republicans that Corbett might sign, but that Wolf had said during the campaign that he would oppose.

People who have looked into it could not find a precedent for such a move in modern Pennsylvania political history, but that does not mean it cannot be done.

"I'm sure people would say, 'Gee, we haven't done that before,'" said Gene Barr, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry. "From what I can see, there's nothing that prevents them legally from doing that."

There are still raw feelings among numerous conservatives over Republicans' failure under Corbett to advance major legislation to scale back public pension benefits, privatize the sale of liquor and wine or limit the ability of labor unions to collect member dues or political action committee contributions.

Democratic lawmakers opposed the measures, and conservative GOP lawmakers clashed with their more moderate colleagues, ultimately stalling their passage this year.

The Legislature has adjourned for the year, but those issues aren't going away quietly.

On Wednesday, those clashes fed into the Senate Republicans' ejection of their majority leader for the past eight years, Dominic Pileggi of Delaware County, in what many viewed as the culmination of a long-building struggle between conservatives and moderates, largely from southeastern Pennsylvania. Conservatives claimed victory.

Come January, the GOP majorities will be much bigger — 30-20 in the Senate and 119-84 in the House — after a banner legislative election for Republicans. And conservatives say their ranks will be bigger, big enough to pass the key bills over the opposition of Democrats and Republican holdouts.

Asked about getting bills passed before Jan. 20, the man who will become House speaker, Rep. Mike Turzai of Allegheny County, would not directly address it.

"Look, we just got our leadership team together here today. We have much to discuss, although we will hit the ground running," Turzai said Wednesday at a news conference where he was flanked by the rest of the House GOP's newly elected leaders.

Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, said there have been no discussions about it between House and Senate GOP leaders, or, for that matter, with Corbett. But, he said, he has been approached by Republican senators and issue lobbyists about the possibility, and he expects it to come up when top Republican lawmakers meet in the coming weeks to discuss strategy in the next legislative session.

"In the coming days and weeks, I think we'll get more clarity," Scarnati said.

A spokesman for Corbett was non-committal, saying only that the governor would do his job.

It would not be a simple thing to accomplish: A bill would have to be introduced, assigned to a committee, passed there and on the floor of each chamber after spending three days on the session calendar.

Still, backers of such legislation are asking, "Why not?"

"Now there exist the majorities that should allow this type of legislation to pass," said Matthew Brouillette, president and CEO of the Commonwealth Foundation, a Harrisburg-based advocacy group for libertarian and free market ideas.

Tom Smith, a western Pennsylvania coal magnate and one-time U.S. Senate candidate who is a generous donor to conservative causes and candidates, said he supports such a move and has had conversations with lawmakers about it.

"I have talked to people about it and I've been called about it by people who will have a vote on it," Smith said. "Whether that happens or not, I don't know."


Marc Levy covers politics and government for The Associated Press in Pennsylvania. He can be reached at mlevy@ap.org. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/timelywriter.

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