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2014 – What’s in Store for the General Assembly?

Having held its first sessions of 2014 this week, the General Assembly is hoping to make headway in several major issue and policy areas this year. But one key reality is that from now until November 4, state government officials will have one eye on policies and the other on the impact of decisions on the state’s general election.  Governor Corbett is running for re-election, and at least eight Democrats are competing in the primary to oppose him this fall.  One half of all State Senate seats will be decided, and all 203 State House and 18 Congressional districts will be on the ballot.
Five State Senators, Mike Brubaker, Ted Erickson, Jim Ferlo, Bob Robbins and Mike Waugh, have announced they will not seek re-election. And as of today, ten state House members have announced the same, with more expected.  Three House members have said they will run for open State Senate seats, and at least eight House members find themselves pitted against colleagues as a result of legislative reapportionment.  In the state Congressional delegation, Congressman Jim Gerlach has announced his plans to retire.
The election calendar reflects the General Assembly Schedule.  Candidates can circulate nominating petitions between February 18 and March 11, while the legislature is in recess for Appropriations hearings on the budget.  The Primary Election is scheduled for May 20, and the legislature is in recess from May 7 through June 1.  
With Republicans controlling the Governor’s Office, House and Senate, the top 2014 priorities have been discussed for months.  The single largest issue is finding a way to fill the $1.4 billion budget gap in crafting a state budget.  The Governor will present his 2014-2015 state budget proposal on February 4, and getting an on-time balanced budget should dominate all other legislative activities through June. 
The difficulty of balancing the budget without tax increases or major program cuts in an election year cannot be understated.  Any general tax increases appear off the board, and consideration of any tax increases will almost certainly be targeted and impact small segments of the population or user groups.  One example is the General Assembly’s consideration of legalizing keno as a new source of revenue to help freeze senior citizens’ property taxes.
Other priorities already on the table include negotiating a solution to the impasse between House and Senate leaders on reforming and privatizing state liquor sales, working to fix the state pension fund deficit, and legislation that will be needed to react to the state level impacts of implementation of the Affordable Care Act.
House and Senate Democrats have identified increased education funding, closing business tax loopholes, Medicaid expansion, increasing minimum wage and a severance tax for natural gas as their priorities.  The recent Supreme Court decision on Act 13, and pending appeals could also generate much public discussion about the future of industry regulation and economic/environmental impacts.
The pension debt has a huge impact on the state’s budget, currently at $47 billion, and growing.  If not addressed, the cost of that liability would increase to $13,000 for each Pennsylvania family by 2019.  Without reforms, spending cuts, layoffs for public and school employees and increased taxes are virtually certain. 
The Governor has pushed for moving new state employees to a 401 (k) type of pension plan, and legislators have offered several other proposals, all of which will be considered in the next few months. 
Privatizing the state liquor system has been a major issue for several years, driven by desires to get the state out of the liquor sales business, increase state revenues and improve consumer options.  House and Senate leaders are working behind the scenes to negotiate an agreement on what those reforms and future of the PLCB will be, in the face of serious opposition from diverse groups ranging from Mothers Against Drunk Driving to the unions representing state store workers and managers. 
Issues of transparency, open meetings, open records and ethics will also find their way on the legislative agenda, as good government issues will be positives for members in the election year.