Pennsylvania Legislature Finally Ends Losing Streak
By Bill White
April 14, 2016
|Gov. Tom Wolf meets with medical marijuana advocates in the state Capitol in Harrisburg March 15. Wolf has said he would sign into law a bill, which cleared the House Wednesday, to legalize medical marijuana in the state. (DAN GLEITER / AP FIle Photo)|
Polls have shown our state lawmakers are rated dismally by most Pennsylvanians, with good reason.
They have been on a terrible run of dysfunction and ineptitude for years, capped by last year's disgraceful budget impasse.
So when House lawmakers accomplished TWO really good things in recent weeks, back to back, it was a very pleasant surprise. On March 13, they passed a bill legalizing medical marijuana. They followed up this week by passing a bill that loosens the statutes of limitations in child sex abuse cases, eliminating them for criminal cases and raising the limit to 50 for civil suits, even for people who previously were blocked by the law.
Close to 90 percent of Pennsylvanians support legalizing medical marijuana, so that one seemed inevitable, if you took the long view. The shocker was the statute of limitations vote, driven by horrible grand jury revelations, an Oscar-winning movie and passionate advocates in and out of the House. What a turnabout for an issue that couldn't even emerge from committee for a decade and that has faced heavy opposition from powerful institutional lobbyists.
Both votes drew cheers, not just from the gallery upstairs, but from constituents and the media. Hey, who wants to be the politician who is indifferent to the plight of ill children and sexual abuse victims? The votes were 149-43 and 180-15, respectively.
But as so often happens in Harrisburg, the triumph of compassion and common sense proved short-lived.
I reported a couple of weeks ago that the state Senate didn't like some of the changes the House made in its medical marijuana Senate Bill 3 and was mulling amendments that would send it back to the House instead of straight to the governor's desk, where a quick signature has been promised.
Advocates for the legislation urged the Senate to concur with the bill and fine-tune it later rather than risk further delays in the House, where it languished so long the first time. But after considerable internal debate, the Senate amended S.B. 3 and returned it Tuesday to an uncertain fate in the House.
As for the statute of limitations changes, yes, the House voted overwhelmingly for an amendment proposed by Rep. Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, to let all child sex abuse victims have access to the civil courts until age 50, a giant step forward. It passed the entire bill the next day, sending it on to the Senate.
But for some reason, the House left intact a tacked-on provision that partially lifts sovereign immunity protection shielding public entities such as public schools. That's clearly a poison pill designed to kill the bill instead of allowing a clean vote.
I have no problem with exploring the sovereign immunity question, a focus of Catholic leaders who have vigorously opposed the statute changes. But it should be considered separately, not as part of this debate. At the very least, it's likely to delay and complicate the discussion, attracting a new collection of lobbying opponents, which I suspect was the whole point.
Past statute of limitations bills have been buried in the Senate Judiciary Committee chaired by Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery. So with the newly passed H.B. 1947 assigned once again to Greenleaf's committee, all eyes are on him.
Rozzi, whose own story of rape by a priest has been powerfully persuasive, told me he's spoken to Greenleaf. Rozzi said, "My message to him is: You're on deck. You need to do the right thing."
Speaking of pressure, Steve Hoenstine, spokesman for state Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery, one of medical marijuana S.B. 3's two co-sponsors, told me he thought the House would be under intense pressure to concur with what he says are strictly technical changes in the bill. If there's resistance, he's banking on the same people whose tireless advocacy is most responsible for making this happen — the parents of the grass-roots advocacy group Campaign for Compassion. They've been cited over and over by lawmakers who came around on this issue.
"One thing we've learned is that the advocates, especially Campaign for Compassion, are stunningly good at changing minds," Hoenstine said. "That's what they've done this whole time. I wouldn't want to be a representative on the fence about this bill having to explain to one of those mothers why they're not going to support this bill that will help their child get medicine."
Sure enough, by Tuesday afternoon, I was beginning to hear encouraging predictions that the House would concur with the changes in its session Wednesday, its last until after the primary election. Campaign for Compassion held a press conference Wednesday morning, and one of the moms, Cara Salemme of York County, told me, "Many of us will be there all day to hold the House to task and encourage timely concurrence."
So I dutifully turned on my streaming video of the House floor Wednesday afternoon … and waited.
At 4:52 p.m., the House voted 149-46 to concur, sending S.B. 3 to Gov. Wolf. I guarantee you that will be a joyous, if long overdue, signing ceremony.
Legislators: You done good. Sen. Greenleaf: Your turn.