Pennsylvania lawmakers start settling in

Legislature convenes new session facing unresolved issues


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HARRISBURG -- Hal English had been a Pennsylvania state representative for about two hours when he paused in his new office -- decorated with a poster of his North Hills district, flags left by the previous occupant and a small Ronald Reagan bust on otherwise empty shelves -- to reflect on the task at hand.

Mr. English, the Hampton Republican replacing now-Sen. Randy Vulakovich, R-Shaler, had spent the day asking people their names. Already, he supposed that getting the House to agree on budgetary policy, an interest of his, would be "like getting 203 people to decide where we're going to go eat tonight."

But now that he had been sworn in -- along with 28 other freshmen House members and four new senators -- he was ready to get to work.

"I found the bathroom, I found the coffeepot and I'm ready to go," he said.

The Capitol bustled on the first morning of the new year Tuesday as lawmakers, their families and assorted well-wishers filled the rotundas and explored the hallways before the Pennsylvania Legislature convened for another two-year session. Spectators from the Pittsburgh region saw Rep. Ed Gainey, D-Lincoln-Lemington, Rep. Erin Molchany, D-Mount Washington, and Rep. Pam Snyder, D-Jefferson, take their first legislative oaths of office, while Sen. Matt Smith, D-Mt. Lebanon, joined the upper chamber for the first time.

The spirit was celebratory, but members acknowledged it would not be long before they returned to unresolved and contentious issues. Rep. Brian Ellis, R-Butler, said as much as he nominated Speaker Sam Smith, R-Punxsutawney, for another term as the House's highest-ranking officer.

"Soon these flowers will be replaced with laptops and papers and notes and letters from constituents, and we'll be busy debating many topics this year that we're going to face," Mr. Ellis said. "And it's going to be a tough time because we have to tackle such issues as transportation, pension reform, short-term borrowing, liquor privatization -- issues that are really going to try the patience of everybody in this chamber."

House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods, echoed the mentions of the retirement system and the state liquor stores, while Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Oakmont, said Democrats would have liked to see more investment in education, transportation, health care and the environment.

Gov. Tom Corbett has named as top goals reforming the state's public pension systems -- which will cost Pennsylvania an additional $500 million next fiscal year -- and finding new dollars for road and bridge repairs. Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware, noted both issues on the floor Tuesday, while his minority counterpart, Sen. Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, added goals of continuing to promote job creation and boosting the social safety net for the state's poor and disabled.

"There's no question that we have a rocky road ahead," Mr. Costa said as he ticked off the agenda items.

Both men pointed to updating state laws regarding child abuse as another top priority. A state task force, created in response to the Jerry Sandusky scandal involving Penn State University, in November recommended changes to how abuse is defined, expanded requirements for reporting abuse and a variety of other policy updates.

Swearing-in day left a vacancy in the House, as Mr. Smith officially left his House post. State Rep. Eugene DePasquale, D-York, was sworn into another term but will soon resign as he takes office as auditor general.

Mr. Smith, who served three terms in the House, carried out one of his first senatorial duties by returning to his former chamber with two colleagues to give word that the Senate was in session.

Later, in his office, Mr. Smith said he had gotten to greet some fellow senators, who were already acquaintances from his days in the House.

"They sort of knew the name, and I knew their names but wasn't able to put a name with a face or didn't really know them well," he said as his wife and three children played nearby. "I got the feeling that everyone is looking forward to working in a bipartisan way to try and solve some of these problems."

Before the ceremonies, Mr. Gainey stood surrounded by family in his new office, tucked away in a quieter corner of the Capitol. As his 3-year-old son, Darius, bounced, dress shirt untucked, out to the hallway to see his grandfather, Mr. Gainey spent a moment describing what his constituents expect of him.

"They sent me here to make sure our district is heard, to be a voice for our district," he said. "To make sure that we're fighting for things that make sense, not only in my district but statewide."

state

Karen Langley: klangley@post-gazette.com or 717-787-2141. Bureau chief Laura Olson: lolson@post-gazette.com or 717-787-4254.


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