Amid a flurry of legislation, PA Senate Republicans wasted no time capitalizing on its supermajority status, passing a raft of conservative bills through legislative committees. Issues included the automatic deduction of union dues by government employees, public benefits by undocumented immigrants, civil asset forfeiture reform and sanctuary cities.

The committee votes primed several pieces of legislation for final passage as early as next Monday. Staffers credited the swift pace to the fact votes were around bills that had timed out in 2016.

“These are things that we had passed in the last session,” said Jennifer Kocher, a spokesperson for Majority Leader Jake Corman. “These are bills that have been fully vetted.”

The Committee on State Government voted out SB-9, a bill requiring immigrants collecting government benefits to present a form of government identification and an affidavit affirming legal residency. Republican sponsors call the legislation the “Proof of Citizenship for Receipt of Public Benefits Act,” describing it as a cost-saving measure.

Republicans pitched the measure as a way of preventing the fraudulent collection of welfare benefits.

“The federal government estimates that it spends billions on benefits for people residing illegally in the US. This is just making sure illegal immigrants aren't receiving those benefits,” said Kocher, noting that the bill won bipartisan support last year.

Gov. Tom Wolf’s office reportedly circulated a fiscal analysis to Senate members earlier in the day, asserting that the bill would cost millions to effectively enforce. The Philadelphia Bar Association and immigrants rights groups have long decried the bill, ever since its introduction over a decade ago.

The true public burden of undocumented immigrants is hard to quantify, according to the federal government’s General Accounting Office reports. The GAO estimates total government costs of anywhere from $2 to $19 billion, but noted that taxes paid by immigrants may more than offset these costs.

“It’s not clear if what we spend to enforce this comes close to saving the money they say we’re wasting on illegal immigrants,” one Democratic senate staffer said, speaking under the condition of confidentiality. “It’s going to cost tens of millions of dollars to enforce.”

SB-166 and 167 address the so-called issue of “paycheck protection” – ensuring that the state government has no hand in automatically deducting union dues that could later be used for government lobbying efforts.

The first bill originally sought to suspend government employees’ option of having union dues withheld from their paychecks altogether. But a revision in the day's committee session softened that language – the bill now would only bar the automatic witholding of the portion of dues used for political lobbying.

A second bill would move to enshrine these policies in the state Constitution. It was not immediately clear from the legislative text exactly how the portion of dues reserved for political lobbying, and therefore barred from automatic deduction, would be determined.

The conservative Commonwealth Foundation, which supports the legislation, released estimates stating that $54 million in state government employees’ union dues went towards political activities over the last decade, based on union financial discloure forms. Kocher pointed out that state employees could still opt to pay their dues through other methods.

“This is not about curbing anyone’s ability to do anything. There is just a certain group of people who don’t want the government collecting these dues for unions,” Kocher said. “The school districts are doing it now and the school districts are paying for it. Taxpayer-funded systems are collecting the money that is used for politics.”

Labor groups assailed the move as a thinly veiled roadblock aimed to reduce the influence of unions, which typically back Democratic candidates.

“The so-called ‘paycheck protection’ legislation passed out of the State Government Committee is a partisan arrow directed not only at organized labor in this state but at working people generally,” wrote Marc Stier, director of the PA Budget and Policy Center, a progressive think tank. “Payroll deduction costs the state nothing.”

Both bills received first consideration and are moved onto approval by the appropriations committee; however, SB-167 would require approval in two legislative sessions and a public referendum in order to alter the state constitution.

This article has been updated to reflect recent amendments to SB-166 and 167.


In other highlights from Senate committee votes: