Legislature has much to do in little time

Weighty issues still unresolved

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NEW YORK -- As various Pennsylvania politicos schmoozed with business leaders, lobbyists and campaign strategists in the Big Apple last weekend, their unfinished work in Harrisburg stalked them along the cocktail circuit.

The agenda for the General Assembly's remaining session days this week and next was a prominent conversation topic at the dozens of swanky receptions that bookended the annual Pennsylvania Society dinner.

The traditional New York gathering of political movers-and-shakers came as the fate of several policy proposals that Gov. Tom Corbett had hoped to sign by the end of his first year remained uncertain: Negotiations over a Marcellus Shale regulatory measure have yet to yield a compromise; his school reform plan has stalled; and some enthusiasm for privatizing state-run liquor sales has faded.

But during the three voting days left for the Senate and the House's half-dozen, lawmakers say they'll be pushing forward on a new congressional district map, a pared-down school voucher pilot program and a measure to require photo identification at the polls.

A Marcellus Shale impact fee and regulatory bill still appears to be a wild card, with those close to the private talks describing them as productive but far from complete. The measures passed by each chamber vary in the size of the drilling fee they would impose, as well as the oversight standards they would strengthen.

The Corbett administration remains hopeful about completing a shale measure, with Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley, who chaired the Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission, saying Friday that he's "very optimistic."

"The talks have been going very well between the staffs, and we're narrowing down the issues to one or two," Mr. Corbett said after his Saturday morning remarks at the Pennsylvania Manufacturers' Association forum.

One energy lobbyist offered a much-less-bullish prognostication, suggesting that he is more likely to fly to the moon than a shale measure is to land on the governor's desk this month.

Legislative negotiators said weighty issues remain unresolved, including whether counties should decide whether to assess a fee or if the state should charge all drillers collectively.

"It's certainly possible," said House Speaker Sam Smith, R-Jefferson. "But I wouldn't promise that it's getting done."

Mr. Smith cautioned that dragging an agreement on regulating the booming drilling industry into 2012 could complicate the process, with attention to shift back to the state budget after the governor outlines his spending plan in early February.

There's also some pressure to finish the bill by the year's end in order to portray a consistent regulatory environment to industry giant Royal Dutch Shell, which plans to announce the location for its upcoming ethane cracker facility in January. The company has considered Pennsylvania, along with West Virginia and Ohio, as a potential location for that plant and the thousands of jobs with it.

As those negotiations continue, Republican lawmakers will be unveiling revisions to the state's congressional map on Monday.

Those changes, the result of the once-a-decade redistricting process that follows each census, will shrink the number of districts by one. That's due to the commonwealth not gaining residents as robustly as other states have.

The pending reduction has been anticipated to pit Democrats Jason Altmire of McCandless and Mark Critz of Johnstown in a primary battle next year. However, the exact locations of the congressional boundary lines remained a mystery to several GOP congressmen as of Saturday.

"I hope that I get to keep representing a lot of the constituents that I do now," said U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, whose district has been rumored to be losing some Republican residents in an effort to make a combined Altmire-Critz district winnable for the GOP.

New state House and Senate boundaries will be finalized this week as well, with the Legislative Reapportionment Commission to vote on those maps this afternoon. Those adjustments will shrink the Allegheny-area delegation by two House seats and one Senate seat.

House GOP leaders also said they'll be taking action this week on a school voucher measure that would be available to a smaller number of students than previous proposals.

Senators previously approved a voucher bill that would allow for students who live in the attendance areas of the state's 143 worst-performing schools. Mr. Smith said the lower chamber will reduce that by about half, making it a pilot program to be reviewed in several years.

The voucher discussion, however, is likely to carry over into next year, because there are few session days to compare and contrast House and Senate proposals.

One measure that potentially could reach the governor's desk is a controversial bill to require all voters to present a photo identification card. That bill, sponsored by Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Cranberry, passed the House in June and has strong support from the Corbett administration.

Mr. Corbett predicted Saturday that, with a few tweaks, the voter ID measure will be signed before Christmas. A Senate committee is scheduled to consider that bill this afternoon.

Laura Olson: lolson@post-gazette.com or 1-717-787-4254.


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