Hello, goodbye: PA House returns, starts farewells with plenty of work left

By Andrew Staub | PA Independent

So long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, goodbye.

No, it’s not the Sound of Music. It’s the sound of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives during the fall session.

Departing state representatives have already begun to bid farewell even with five session days left in October and one session day scheduled after the November election. The goodbye speeches began the same week lawmakers returned from their summer break, and at least five members have already taken to the podium to recall key legislation, offer soaring words about the General Assembly and thank their families, office staff and constituents.

“They’re basically saying goodbye to a chamber which means a lot to them,” said Steve Miskin, a spokesman for the House Republicans.

That’s one way to look at it. Of course, there’s the more cynical viewpoint, too.

TIME FOR FAREWELLS: State Rep. Gordon Denlinger gives his farewell speech on Wednesday, even though the state House will return in October.

“They always have time to pat themselves on the back. They never seem to have time to get the people’s work done,” said Eric Epstein, the founder of the reform group Rock the Capital.

The farewell speeches are a normal occurrence, but it might seem strange to those outside the Capitol to tune into the Pennsylvania Cable Network and see state representatives bidding adieu the same week they returned to work. At the least, it raises the question of where the lawmakers’ focus lies when big-ticket legislation, such as a much-discussed public pension overhaul, is still pending.

Barry Kauffman, executive director of the good-government group Common Cause Pennsylvania, also believes allowing online voter registration, mandating the electronic filing of campaign finance reports and a gift ban for legislators need attention before any goodbyes are given.

Kauffman isn’t saying legislators shouldn’t have a chance to give a farewell speech. He just thinks there might be a better time than now, when lawmakers need to focus their attention on an “enormous” amount of work.

“You have to get back to the basics,” Kauffman said. “They still need to get the people’s work done, and it’s a higher priority.”

The House has already completed its scheduled session days in September, and returns Oct. 6 for the first of five scheduled days that month. It doesn’t leave much time — unless, of course, lawmakers decide to host a lame-duck session after the election. For now, they’re scheduled to meet only Nov. 12 to take care of leadership votes and other house-cleaning items.

The legislative time crunch was perhaps most notable in the House on Wednesday, when lawmakers raced to finish early so Jewish lawmakers and staff could prepare for Rosh Hashanah. The holiday began at sundown, making a late legislative night a no-go.

Still, the House found time for state Rep. Gordon Denlinger, R-Lancaster, to give his farewell speech before beginning debate on a debt-reducing bill, arguably a more important topic than Denlinger’s news he plans to buy a car dealership after his bid for state Senate fell short.

Democratic lawmakers lined up to challenge the bill — a move that Miskin saw as tantamount to a filibuster to run out the clock before another controversial bill came up for a vote. Before the debate ended, state Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Allegheny, requested the House adjourn because of the approaching holiday.

The House stayed in session long enough to pass the legislation, which reduces the Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program’s debt ceiling, but adjourned shortly after. That left another bill addressing state borrowing for another day.

“Pennsylvania is sinking under the weight of the Legislature’s ineptitude, and these guys are running around giving farewell speeches,” Epstein said.

Miskin, though, painted Epstein as a contrarian who would argue the sky isn’t blue if there were clouds, and said the farewells started in September for logistical reasons. There are more than 20 that need to happen, Miskin estimated, and lawmakers often invite family and friends to the Capitol for their farewells. That takes planning.

Plus, the goodbye speeches allow legislative veterans to share their experiences with newer representatives, Miskin said.

“I really can’t imagine anybody truly believes they’re not a good thing,” Miskin said. “You’re letting members honor the institution and the people they represent.”

Tom Baldino, a professor of political science at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, shares the viewpoint. The speeches give lawmakers a valuable “anchor” to understand how the institution works and helps members identify with the General Assembly.

That said, Baldino agreed with others there could be a better time for the farewells.

The House could schedule extra session days or host them after the election, Baldino said. That’s when outgoing members of the much smaller state Senate will give their goodbyes, said Erik Arneson, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Chester.

“The speeches are easy and everybody feels good,” Baldino said, “but that doesn’t help the state. It doesn’t help the people of the state. It helps the institution. That’s important, too.”

Staub can be reached at Andrew@PAIndependent.com. Follow @PAIndependent on Twitter for more.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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