This story first appeared in The Investigator, a weekly newsletter by Spotlight PA featuring the best investigative and accountability journalism from across Pennsylvania. Sign up for free here.
By Stephen Caruso | Spotlight PA
The election of Pennsylvania’s first female House speaker in late February resolved three months of uncertainty around chamber leadership. Still, Harrisburg remains a convoluted place.
As lawmakers begin considering bills and big funding questions, Spotlight PA’s Stephen Caruso wants to help you understand how the sausage really gets made, how your tax dollars are spent, and how Harrisburg works (or doesn’t).
In this edition of his recurring feature, Caruso has answered three more questions from readers and Spotlight PA staff.
Have a question of your own? Email him at email@example.com with the subject line “How Harrisburg Works.”
What will impending special elections mean for state House control?
To paraphrase Democratic political operative Ben Forstate, with a one-seat margin in the state House, every special election is also an existential crisis.
There are two state House special elections scheduled for primary day, May 16. One is in the Philadelphia suburbs to replace former state Rep. Mike Zabel (D., Delaware), who resigned after several people accused him of sexual harassment. The other is in the upper Susquehanna Valley to replace Lynda Schlegel Culver (R., Northumberland), who won a state Senate seat.
Both state House seats are likely safe holds for the respective parties (The Inquirer’s Gillian McGoldrick has an in-depth look at the Delaware County race).
But May 16 likely won’t be the end of special elections. At least three state representatives are running for local office and will have to give up their seats if they win in November.
None of these seats are likely to flip parties if they become vacant. President Joe Biden won all three by at least 10 percentage points in 2020.
Still, even a temporary vacancy or two could see the Democratic caucus dip below the mathematical definition of majority. But the math doesn’t matter.
That’s due to a new definition of “majority party” in the state House rules Democrats introduced and passed last month without any Republican support
While the term was undefined in past sessions’ rules, the state House’s operating rules now say that the majority party is the one that “won the greater number of elections for the 203 seats in the House of Representatives in the general election preceding the term of service that began on the first day of December next after the general election.”
Should a vacancy occur during the term, the definition continues, “the political party that won that seat at the last election shall remain the party that won that seat until any subsequent special election is held to fill that seat.”
Control would only be reshuffled if a seat flips, the definition concludes.
Holding the majority matters for a number of reasons. It allows Democrats to control both the committees and the chamber’s floor agenda.
The new definition of “majority,” said state House Republican spokesperson Jason Gottesman, is an admission by Democrats that “they might need to cling to power at some point in session through artificial means.”
In response, state House Democratic spokesperson Beth Rementer said the majority language was similar to a definition proposed by Republicans in earlier rules drafts, and was included to ensure “that House operations can continue without potential disruption.”
What is the difference between a rule change and a law?
It’s well known that many good government reforms have stalled in Harrisburg over the years, leading one Twitter user to ask if something like a legislative gift ban could be implemented through a change in a chamber’s operating rules rather than through a change to state law.
The short answer is yes, but advocates who want action on the issue think that tackling it through that avenue won’t have the intended effect.
While a bill requires a majority vote in both chambers and the governor’s signature to become law, a rule change is more easily adopted, only requiring a majority vote in one chamber to become policy.
However, a legislative rule would only apply to that chamber, be harder to enforce, and be easier to amend or remove, said Michael Pollack, executive director of good government group March on Harrisburg.
“We have no interest in pursuing a rule change regarding a gift ban — zero — because it’s so temporary, ephemeral,” Pollack told Spotlight PA.
That’s why the group’s efforts have focused on enacting a statutory gift ban, which would apply evenly to all public officials in the state with no exception, Pollack said.
A rule change, he said, is “a good way for the House to make it look like they’re doing something serious, and quietly undo something later.”
Will lawmakers pay for Twitter Blue?
Twitter claimed in March that it would begin removing free blue verification check marks from accounts starting April 1.
Implementation has so far been very limited. Still, Spotlight PA wanted to know if Pennsylvania lawmakers plan to use taxpayer money to secure new check marks.
The state House will not reimburse lawmakers for a Twitter Blue subscription as it does for office supplies or mileage, the chamber’s Chief Clerk Brooke Wheeler said. However, the partisan caucuses, which have access to their own funds, could pay for subscriptions if desired.
Gottesman, the state House GOP spokesperson, said the caucus won’t pay for a subscription for any members, but it did buy Twitter Blue for its official account because it comes with perks like the ability to post longer videos.
Rementer, the state House Democratic spokesperson, said in an email that she was unaware of any discussions about Twitter Blue. (The caucus’ Twitter account was verified pre-Twitter Blue.)
In the upper chamber, a Democratic spokesperson told Spotlight PA that the caucus is waiting for an opinion from the chief clerk on whether lawmakers can be reimbursed for a subscription. “We haven’t had to make that case yet,” the spokesperson, who asked not to be identified, said.
State Senate Republican spokesperson Kate Flessner said the caucus did not have a policy on Twitter Blue.
Both accounts were also verified pre-Twitter Blue.
As for the executive branch, a spokesperson for Gov. Josh Shapiro did not say if the office would spend money on Twitter, but noted that Shapiro was interested in engaging people “where they are.”
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