Earlier this week, state Rep. Leanne Krueger-Braneky and other House legislators received late amendments to PA’s sprawling Health and Human Services code. Buried in the changes was a new work requirement for 1.6 million Medicaid recipients in the commonwealth – a change long on the GOP’s wish list – and anathema for just as long to Democrats, like Krueger-Braneky, and health care advocates.
Legislators were briefed on the changes during a 6 p.m. Monday evening committee hearing. The final vote was scheduled for the next day.
“We had less than 24 hours to review a bill that completely rewrote our Medicaid system,” Krueger-Braneky said, during a Wednesday interview.
When the final vote occurred Tuesday afternoon, the work requirement and other tweaks would pass the House by a single vote.
While last-minute amendments during budget season are nothing new, Krueger-Braneky and other House Democrats blame a January rules change for casting a chill on the review and debate of this and other sweeping changes being hurried through the Legislature.
Per those changes, House bills that are amended concurrently with the similarly Republican-dominated Senate need just six hours of review before a final vote – down 75 percent from the previously mandated 24 hours of deliberation.
“It feels, as a rank-and-file member, that the process is designed to reduce transparency and input from constituents.” Krueger-Braneky said. “On Monday, we sat in the Capitol all day and we didn’t get called to caucus until that evening meeting. We were handed two code bills as we walked in...Both were 40 pages long – and we were asked to vote on them within 20 minutes.”
Stephen Miskin, a spokesperson for House GOP leadership, characterized House Democrats, greatly reduced in number by years of electoral losses, as obstructionists. He scoffed at the assertion that amendments, like the oft-debated Medicaid work requirement, needed further debate.
“Was there deliberation on all of these things together as one package? Maybe not. But all these things have had hearings in different bills over the past several years. They’ve been vetted,” he said. “When issues have been discussed for years, at some point, it’s time to vote.”
Nonpartisan observers also criticized Republican efforts to sweep through major legislative changes in less than 24 hours – at the same time that the budget process was dominating headlines.
“I think the concern is entirely appropriate. These are extremely significant changes to be made in the context of a state budget without appropriate review by legislators or the public,” said Bob Warner, from government watchdog Common Cause.
“For it to happen in the state budget, after months of hearings and plenty of time for the Legislature to get its act together, is contrary to the transparency that both parties say they want to be a goal,” he said.
Other junior Democrats, like Rep. Joanna McClinton, joined Krueger Braneky in criticizing the expedited process.
“We have so many new people on both sides of the aisle. I’m looking at things I have never seen prior,” said McClinton, who took office in 2015. “The budget process is the time when the most sausage is made, so to speak. So, the amendments are not unusual. What is unusual is that a lot of the things being added to the code are not things we previously saw.”
McClinton said that even amendments not subject to concurrency rules seemed to get lost in the budget shuffle. An amendment to PA’s education code, introduced this week, gutted a long-running effort, which McClinton supported to rein in the state’s ailing cyber charter school system.
“When they sent the new language over, it was all gone,” she said. “It was totally new.”
Rep. Chris Rabb was similarly incensed. He is a co-sponsor of House Resolution 47, which seeks to roll back the January rule changes.
"As a freshman lawmaker in the minority party, in a chamber where there is a near-supermajority, I find it deeply disturbing how little cross-party deliberation, collaboration and transparency there is in the budget negotiation process,” he said. “In a matter of hours, I may be asked to vote on major legislation that I may have only a moment's notice to review.”
Rabb’s bill, according to most capital sources, is a longshot, at best.
Miskin reiterated that the expedited review process allowed Harrisburg to operate more efficiently. He said information on legislation was easily accessible.
“I’m not sure what world they're living in. Whether things are introduced at nighttime or during the day, just look at Twitter or Facebook. Or other media and blogs,” he said. “The entire capital knew there was a welfare code that was being discussed.”
But Krueger-Braneky said that legislators – and their constituents – were not being kept up to speed.
“There are something like 3,000 bills introduced every session and not all make it to committee or the floor for consideration. A lot of those bad ideas end up as amendments to code,” she said. “When you have 3,000 bad ideas poured into a 300-page bill and we have six hours to read them, that's a bad process.”