Breaking rules. Breaking a simple bipartisan solution

Try to imagine for a moment what mileage reimbursement for ambulance services has to do with school choice vouchers for students in the bottom 15% of Pennsylvania schools.

Having trouble? Let’s look at how these two unrelated items ended up together on HB 479 breaking popular support for reimbursing Emergency Medical Services for travel expenses and placing passage of the state budget in jeopardy.

The Path of HB 479

HB 479 (Mileage Reimbursement for Ambulance Service) began as a one-page bill drafted by Representative Lisa Borowski (D, District 168). The bill’s purpose was to help EMS with their struggles to recruit and retain staff and volunteers by providing better mileage reimbursement terms. It received unanimous support from the PA House Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee on its way to passing in the House, also unanimously.

HB 479 moved to the Senate where it received unanimous Yeas in the Health and Human Services Committee. Sounds like a popular bill on its way into law, yes?

No. After second consideration on the Senate floor, HB 479 was sent to the Senate Appropriations Committee. There, in a late, unscheduled meeting, a 20-page amendment was added to provide school vouchers to a small percentage of students attending PA’s poorest-performing public schools.

Amendments are useful under the right intentions… not the wrong ones

Amendments are part of law making. The purpose of adding them to new bills is to work out compromises, adjust language or make needed corrections. However, according to the Pennsylvania Constitution, Art. III, Sec. 1: No law shall be passed except by bill, and no bill shall be so altered or amended, on its passage through either House, as to change its original purpose.

The PA Constitution also says: No bill shall be passed containing more than one subject, which shall be clearly expressed in its title, except a general appropriation bill or a bill codifying or compiling the law or a part thereof (Art. III, Sec. 3).

Thanks to a quick, unscheduled vote, a single-page bill on mileage reimbursement for EMS was now a 21-page bill with the purpose of “establishing the Pennsylvania Award for Student Success Scholarship Program and the Pennsylvania Award for Student Success Scholarship Fund; and providing for 2023-2024 budget implementation.” That looks like two subjects and a hefty violation of HB 479’s original purpose.

Rules are made to be brok… suspended

The Senate, in pursuit of a fast floor vote on massively amended HB 479, bypassed required legislative steps defined in the Senate rules by favoring a motion to suspend those rules.

The reason to temporarily suspend rules is to avoid breaking rules. Technically speaking.

A broken outcome

After passing the Senate, amended HB 479 returned to the House, where the House Rules Committee voted not to concur with Senate changes.

A simple, popular bill called Mileage Reimbursement for Ambulance Service was irreparably broken. EMS will not get their mileage reimbursement without a new bill.

HB 479 became part of the PA budget drama and current budget impasse. Given the House’s refusal to affirm the proposed voucher program, Governor Shapiro withdrew support for that line in the Senate amended budget, pledging a line-item veto of the plan to use public money to fund vouchers for private schools.

Senate Republicans say he broke their trust. Governor Shapiro counters that Senate leadership failed to invite or win support from House leadership.

Voters have no way of knowing the inside discussions between the Governor’s office and legislative leaders.

We do know that trust is broken when the legislative process is abused and PA Constitutional provisions are ignored. If vouchers were a top priority of Senate GOP leaders, as Senator Kim Ward has said repeatedly, the proper avenue to address that priority would be very different than a secretive misuse of rules and a late night vote the day before a budget deadline.

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