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'Too many bills are garbage;' Top Pa. Republicans silent as 85% of all bills await movement in Pennsylvania legislature | Price of Politics 2022

Through the first year of the current two-year legislative session, Governor Tom Wolf signed 100 bills into law, including 17 bridge namings.

HARRISBURG, Pa. — State Representative Carol Hill-Evans starts the day inside her York City district office doing what she does better than anyone else in the Pennsylvania General Assembly: co-sponsoring bills.

Hill-Evans, a third-term Democrat, opens her email inbox to find the latest memo from Allegheny County colleague State Rep. Summer Lee. She is asking representatives to sign on in support of her legislation centered around helping incarcerated women, and it's caught Hill-Evans' attention.

"This needs to have more conversation," she says "Why are we introducing this?"

Some legislators will see co-sponsorship memos in their inbox and if they don't agree with the premise of the bill immediately, they'll cast it aside or delete the email entirely. Hill-Evans prefers a different approach; even if her opinion on the legislation isn't entirely formed, she'll sign on in the hopes of hearing more about it.

Hill-Evans says she looks for keywords in co-sponsorship memos like "education," "civics," "minimum wage," and "healthcare"; issues which are important to her constituents in York, who may not get their voices heard in Harrisburg. 

"If my signing onto a bill gives it any more push in terms of going through the process and getting introduced and going into a committee and coming to the floor for a vote in order to positively affect the residents and I'm all for it," Hill-Evans said.

She does this more than anyone else in the commonwealth. Through the first 14 months of the 2021-22 legislative session, State Rep. Carol Hill Evans signed her name in support of 1,019 different bills. 

"If it has a keyword in there, then yes let’s give it a go," she says. "All that means is we want to hear more about it. We want to give that bill a conversation."

The issue in Pennsylvania, at least, is those conversations are happening far less than some would like.

In 2021, the first of the current two-year legislative session in Pennsylvania, Governor Tom Wolf signed bills to increase access to broadband internet, and to make it easier for schools and hospitals to hire teachers and nurses as the COVID-19 pandemic stretches into its third year. 

Of the 100 pieces of legislation he signed into law though, nearly a fifth of them, 17 in all, was renaming a road or bridge. 

The lack of legislative action is an ongoing trend in Pennsylvania, which stretches back through multiple governors. Introducing bills isn't the issue; Pa. legislators write thousands of bills every two years. However, taking action on legislation takes considerable time, and often times, doesn't happen at all.

A FOX43 Capitol Beat investigation of the 2019-20 legislative session reviewed the nearly 4,200 pieces of legislation brought forward by lawmakers, and found 3,428 bills -- more than 81.5 percent between the House and Senate chamber -- never left the initial committees of which they were introduced.

Through the first 14 months of the 2021-22 session, Pennsylvania is on pace for less action. There have been 3,260 bills introduced in the General Assembly, and 2,769 -- 84.9 percent -- continue to sit in committee.

"The inaction is extremely frustrating. There are too many bills being introduced that are garbage," said Nathan Benefield, vice president of the Commonwealth Foundation, a conservative-leaning Pennsylvania policy group. "They either have no intention of moving, are bad ideas, or 'I'm going to make one person happy by naming a bridge after their grandpa.'"

Eric Epstein, a Democratic government activist in Harrisburg, agrees. He believes most legislation is introduced under ulterior motives.

"I think a lot of bills now are used as weapons for political elections; I introduced Bill A, Bill B, but most people know their bills aren’t going anywhere," Epstein said. "Good legislation goes to committee mostly to die."

In Pennsylvania, the majority party carries the power, and for 23 of the last 27 years, commonwealth voters have chosen Republicans to wield it. Any action on legislation starts in one of the 50 committees in the General Assembly -- 28 in the House, 22 in the Senate. Republican chairpersons have total control over which bills come up for votes and which topics get hearings, regardless of how many co-sponsors listed on a bill. 

State Rep. Joanna McClinton, the House's Democratic leader, says her hands are tied when it comes to what legislation moves forward.

"That's a question for them," she said. "I don't get to run the calendar. I don't get to puil up bills."

FOX43 requested interviews with both House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff and Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, over the course of a month-long period. They were offered both in-person and remote alternatives. Neither accepted the invitation to comment.

"We don't anticipate all these bills becoming law. The trouble that we have is at the bills that have consensus don't get a hearing, and don't get an opportunity to come up for a vote because of partisan politics," McClinton said. 

"It's not really about quantity, it should be about quality," Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman (R-Mifflin) said when FOX43 spoke to him in May 2021. "That's what people in Pennsylvania care about. They don't care about if I pass 500 bills with my name on it. They could care less about that."

There are numerous proposals by members to change the rules to ensure more legislation gets to have those conversations, or at the very least, a vote. State Rep. Melissa Shusterman (D-Chester, Montgomery) introduced a House Resolution which would give all representatives the ability to designate one "priority bill" per session. This bill would be guaranteed an up-or-down vote in committee with the chance of sending it to the House floor.

It has not been brought up for discussion in the House Rules committee.

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