What does it take to be heard?

The 2019-2020 legislative session ended this week with a hurried vote on a budget. Many bills of importance to the people of Pennsylvania never received a hearing in committee and never got a vote.

We’ve been asking for months: What does it take to be heard in Harrisburg? What avenues are available to ensure good bills receive a vote?

That work built on three decades of work by the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania and other partner organizations. Despite building a large grassroots movement and talking with legislators in every part of the state, we’ve learned that the people of Pennsylvania have no avenue at all to alter or reform even the smallest aspects of our state legislature.

Bills we’ve supported have had more cosponsors than any others in the past two sessions, at one point more than a majority of all legislators, with strong representation from both major parties. As we’ve been told repeatedly, cosponsorship does not matter. Leaders alone decide what bills will move.

We collected over 100,000 petitions signatures in support of a citizens redistricting commission and have encouraged passage of resolutions of support from 23 counties and 356 municipalities, representing over 70% of the state population. We pointed to major statewide surveys showing ⅔ of respondents support a citizens commission, while less than 1 in 5 believe the current system works. We were told repeatedly, sometimes by our own legislators, that local officials should leave state matters alone. Surveys and petitions are irrelevant.

In 2015, The Bipartisan Policy Center and Fair Vote, in collaboration with the National Council of State Legislatures, released a report on state legislative practices, Best Practices in Collaborative Policy-Making. The report highlights ways legislatures can provide accurate representation of constituent interests, avoid partisan gridlock and foster civility and collaboration. Along with the report, the organizations released an agenda-fairness score. The score is based on the number of procedural rules in place to ensure all legislators are able to represent their constituents’ interests and play a meaningful role in the legislative process. While a handful of states scored 100%, Pennsylvania, no surprise, was given a score of zero.

That impacts all of us, every day, in more ways than we realize. Bills to license nurse practitioners, bills to expand broadband access, bills to address toxic lead exposure, bills to privatize liquor stores, or recalibrate the school funding reliance on local property taxes: all have been introduced repeatedly across the past decade. None has ever been given a final vote.

Some committee chairs pride themselves on never considering a bill introduced by the opposing party. But even bills introduced by rank and file Republicans rarely receive a vote. A small handful of leaders control Pennsylvania’s legislative process, pursuing an agenda determined by themselves alone.

In some states, all bills introduced are considered in committee. In some, all legislators are guaranteed a number of bills to be given a vote. In some, all bills recommended favorably from committee are automatically scheduled a vote in the full chamber. In some, bills passed in one chamber are guaranteed a vote in the other. None of those provisions exist in Pennsylvania. There is no route forward for any bill not personally favored by a small handful of leaders.

On January 5, 2021, our legislators will be sworn in for the 2021-2022 session. Immediately after they will vote on rules that will take away their right to represent us, ceding all agenda power to that small handful of leaders. Learn more at the Reform the Rules Virtual Town Hall, December, 2, from 4 to 5:30 pm. Then join us in advocating for rules that ensure good bills with strong bipartisan support receive a vote.

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