As Harrisburg Republicans craft fall agenda, their allies are asking for more

Abortion opponents, gun rights advocates, and spending hawks all are pushing for their proposals to be front-and-center

By: - September 23, 2021 12:28 pm

House Speaker Bryan Cutler speaks at a evening press conference after the House voted to end Gov. Tom Wolf’s disaster emergency on June 7, 2021 (Capital-Star photo).

Pennsylvania Republicans revealed a narrow fall agenda this week focused on overturning Gov. Tom Wolf’s school mask mandate, improving the state’s addiction treatment, and taking a closer look at long-suspended state regulations.

The topics showcase the party’s “thoughtful approach” to policy, House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, said during a press conference on Monday morning.

But that same day, a few dozen gun rights advocates, deputized by a hard-line gun rights group, prowled the Capitol looking for a legislative commitment to pass permitless concealed carry into law.

This dynamic, between legislative Republican leadership hoping to craft its own agenda, versus pressure from advocates and interest groups to hold votes on their more hardline conservative priorities, could frequently come up throughout the weeks of fall session.

Among the other proposals that conservative activists want the General Assembly to advance this fall are a bill banning abortion at six weeks, a bill preventing employers from mandating vaccines for workers, and a constitutional amendment to limit state spending.

It’s not clear which, if any, of these bills will get a vote. 

Republican legislative leaders have been non-committal, and will have to navigate internal divisions carefully. For instance, a potential vote to address Gov. Tom Wolf’s school mask order was called off this week.

“We look at all initiatives,” Benninghoff told the Capital-Star on Monday. “We have 203 House members. They bring lots of ideas before [us]. If they bubble up out of a committee, then we have a responsibility to look at those.”

Most of the proposals also have zero chance of becoming law with Democrat Wolf holding the veto pen. While Republicans have controlled the General Assembly for his entire time in office, he has never had a veto overridden.

But combined, restricting abortion, expanding gun rights, and controlling state spending are all still priorities for influential interest groups within the conservative coalition, who want to know how committed Harrisburg Republicans are to their causes.

“The best thing for Republicans is to support gun legislation,” said Val Finnell, head of the Pennsylvania chapter of Gun Owners of America, which organized Monday’s lobbying day.

His group was pushing the state Senate to get moving on three separate bills to expand gun rights in Pennsylvania, including the concealed carry expansion.

Finnell’s organization  also backs a proposal by Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Franklin, to strip government officials of liability protections if they try to enforce federal gun laws. Similar laws have been introduced in 23 other states, according to Gun Owners of America’s website.

To Finnell, half of the point of having a floor vote is to get every lawmaker, from those in safe seats to swing district representatives, on record to know who their friends and enemies are.

As for an eventual veto, he welcomes Wolf’s opposition as a chance to corner Democrats on the issue.

 “Let the governor veto it,” Finnell said of the proposals. “We put the blame squarely at his feet for not supporting gun rights in Pennsylvania.”

‘We have an obligation’: House Republicans advance bills to restrict reproductive health, expand gun rights

In a press call Monday, Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, said she had discussed  “constitutional carry,”as gun rights advocates’ describe permitless concealed carry, but “it’s nothing that we put out there on the calendar yet.”

After seeing gun rights advocates this week, both chambers will return Monday and be greeted by the first Pennsylvania-focused March for Life, an annual national rally of abortion opponents, since the 1980s.

While Wolf frequently wields his veto pen, bills restricting abortion access have received special attention. He’s already vetoed a 20-week abortion ban in 2017 and a bill banning abortion in case of an in-utero Down Syndrome diagnosis in 2019.

“I stand firm in my conviction that so called ‘pro-life’ policies are actually anti-choice and counter the notion of individual freedom and lack a sound scientific basis,” Wolf said in a statement earlier this month.

This opposition is what drew the March for Life to Harrisburg, national president Jeanne Mancini, said in a statement this week. The event “exists to unite, equip and mobilize pro-life people where it is needed most.”

“Because of the pro-abortion policies of Gov. Wolf, vetoing even legislation that protects children diagnosed with Downs Syndrome, there is no other place we would rather be next week,” the statement added.

Two proposals, including a third Down Syndrome abortion ban, and a bill regulating the disposal of fetal remains, are currently in the Senate, and could be sent to Wolf’s desk at any time. 

During Monday’s press call, Ward, whose office controls the Senate’s voting calendar, said she hasn’t talked about “any of those [abortion] bills being on the agenda.”

Meanwhile, House Republicans have begun to offer up new restrictions on abortion providers, such as a bill to require that fetuses receive pain medication before an abortion. A similar law in Utah has stumped doctors, who say it is confusing to implement and isn’t backed by science.

But perhaps most concerning for abortion rights advocates, a six-week abortion ban, known among anti-abortion advocates as a “heartbeat bill,” could be called up for a floor vote in the House at any time. 

Passing such bills are a long time goal of abortion opponents. They’ve been signed into law in more than a dozen states, and the U.S. Supreme Court recently declined to block Texas’ statute.

​​“2021 is officially the most hostile legislative year for sexual and reproductive health and rights since Roe v. Wade was decided nearly 50 years ago,” Signe Espinoza, interim executive director of Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania Advocates, said in a statement this week. “We will continue to work to ensure that every person, no matter their zip code, has access to the health care they need and deserve.”

Both Ward and House Speaker Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, are listed as attendees of Monday’s rally. Cutler may speak, according to his spokesperson Mike Straub.

Straub referred questions on the fall agenda to Benninghoff, whose office, like Ward’s, controls  the House’s voting calendar.

In the past, these emotionally charged culture war issues have not mapped neatly onto partisan divides in Harrisburg.

As abortion debate rages, some Pa. lawmakers challenge their party — or themselves

The Legislature has historically had anti-gun and pro-abortion Republicans, and anti-abortion and pro-gun Democrats. 

Their ranks have shrunk as national political narratives have influenced state-level races, but some representatives who break the mold, such as Rep. Todd Stephens, R-Montgomery, still hold office.

“I’ve always been an independent voice. It’s one of the reasons I’ve remained in my seat,” Stephens told the Capital-Star earlier this year. Planned Parenthood has endorsed Stephens in the past. And he has sponsored measures aimed at reducing gun violence.

He added that his colleagues’ bills on culture war issues were a “bit more conservative” than usual, but “they reflect the diversity of Pennsylvania.”

But the pressure on leadership isn’t just over social issues. Benninghoff is facing pressure from the Pennsylvania chapter of Americans for Prosperity, a Koch-backed free market advocacy group, to hold a vote on the “Taxpayer Protection Act.” 

The constitutional amendment would limit state spending increases to the rate of inflation or personal income growth, whichever is smaller. Only a two-thirds vote of the General Assembly could override the restriction.

The group announced it was buying digital and radio ads in Benninghoff’s central Pennsylvania district this month to push for the amendment’s passage. 

Approval of the amendment would protect taxpayers from “footing an ever-increasing bill, and making Harrisburg prioritize what they’re spending our money on,” the radio ad claims.

If both chambers approve it before 2022, the amendment could be passed again next session, and be put before the voters in a statewide referendum as early as 2023.

The measure is opposed by unions, particular public sector workers who have a staunch ally in Wolf. But because Wolf cannot veto proposed amendments, they’ve become increasingly popular with Republicans as a way to bypass him.

“It’s time for us to put up the necessary guardrails on spending in Harrisburg after years of wasteful government spending and tax increases at the expense of taxpayers,” AFP’s state director Ashley Klingensmith said in a statement.

Benninghoff said Monday that Republicans were focused on restricting spending regardless of the amendment, and that he hadn’t noticed the ads.

“I don’t watch a lot of television because I’m busy working,” Benninghoff said.

As for the Senate, Ward said that her office hasn’t been talking about the amendment at all.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.