Interviews & Profiles

A Q&A with PA House Speaker Joanna McClinton

McClinton talks her first year in office, opportunities and challenges in Philadelphia and her goals for 2024.

Speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives Joanna McClinton

Speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives Joanna McClinton Commonwealth Media Services

It was a history-making year for Joanna McClinton, who in February was elected by her colleagues to be the first Black female speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. 

With her first year as speaker now in the books, McClinton spoke with City & State about how her first year went, legislation passed by the House that could benefit Philadelphians, as well as how she hopes to collaborate with another Philadelphia history-maker, Mayor-elect Cherelle Parker, who voters chose to be the city’s chief executive in November, becoming the first woman of color elected mayor in the process.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for length and clarity. 

Given that you’ve almost wrapped up your first year as Speaker of the House, what has the year been like for you?

It has been a really incredible year for our chamber to have such a change in both political party control and, for the first time, to have an opportunity for a woman to lead the chamber. It’s been exciting, challenging, but also very tremendous. We’ve done a lot of good work all year getting good bills over to the Senate, some of which, of course, have made it across the finish line – and we’re still at it, trying to continue to really improve the lives of Pennsylvanians by fighting for better schools, safer communities and better jobs.

Shifting toward the city of Philadelphia, with a new mayoral administration on the horizon, along with a new-look City Council, how do you think state lawmakers and local officials can work together to address the bigger issues like poverty, crime, gun violence – all of which are a little bit intertwined?

You mentioned poverty and I was getting to raising the minimum wage – that’s a bill that we’ve already passed – that the Senate is able to amend to make it a number that’s acceptable for them. We recognize that the Pew Foundation says 9% of – according to their research – Philadelphians earn the minimum wage, and 57% of those minimum wage earners are women. The self-sufficiency calculator from Pathways PA says a single adult in Philly working 40 hours requires at least $11.38 to be self-sufficient. If you have one child, then you need to make $25.16 an hour. If you have two adults, one newborn and one preschooler you need to be making $17.97 an hour. According to SmartAsset, the minimum wage here in Philly, when adjusted for cost of living, comes to about $6.69 per hour. 

So we’re not even seeing folks take home the seven and a quarter. If we’re able to get the Senate partners to raise the minimum wage, that will provide a boost to our local economy. When people earn a living wage, of course, they’re able to shop at the local stores in the neighborhood, hire local businesses, purchase tickets to go to events – so we’re very excited.

I’m so glad you mentioned public safety – we’ve passed a Red Flag Law and universal background check and we believe that would save a lot of lives locally. In my neighborhood, we had one of the worst mass shootings right around the Fourth of July this summer. That really traumatized our community in southwest Philly. People who shared a house with the gunman saw what they said is “abnormal behavior.” But because we don’t have a Red Flag Law, they did not have a means to alert police and have the courts remove his weapons to prevent several people from being killed and several others from being shot down. 

The other thing is police recruitment. We just passed a bill that will reduce the minimum physical fitness requirement for the academy to start training. We’re responding to a letter from Philadelphia, law enforcement leaders and City Council members requesting that we provide this flexibility on benchmarks so that we can get more police. Part of reducing gun violence and solving crimes is making sure we have people that work as detectives. To make sure we have enough people to work as detectives, we need enough uniformed officers to be in the police academy getting trained constantly to start on the streets. 

I’m glad you brought up the economy because there’s a lot of talk about opportunities going on in the Philadelphia area, from the regional hydrogen hubs to the potential for a new arena in Center City. Are there other opportunities, from a legislative standpoint, that lawmakers can seize to help further kickstart Philly’s economy?

You mentioned the hydrogen, that for sure is going to open up opportunities for there to be skilled labor – both job training and opportunities for work. We anticipate neighbors in New Jersey, Delaware and southeastern Pennsylvania to benefit from that opening. That’s one thing that we voted for in Harrisburg last year, and we’re glad to see it's been awarded. 

There are other things that we know will bring more business to Philly. We sent some good incentives in the Tax Code over to the Senate about a month ago. One of them is a childcare tax credit for people who are working and need to be able to get some money back in their state tax refund for paying for childcare. Every employer says that they have a hard time retaining employees with the rising cost of childcare. We also want to make Pennsylvania a more business-friendly environment that will, in turn, help bring more jobs to the region and especially to the city … 

Not only did we send over legislation to continue to reduce the Corporate Net Income Tax rate, but to also make sure that any losses that happen in that type of scientific research industry – that they can carry over until they become fiscally viable.

Shifting to education, the Commonwealth Court ruling is looming over everything. Philadelphia schools have concerns about infrastructure, there's concerns about funding. Given the complexities of this conversation, could you speak to what this ongoing debate over education funding could ultimately mean for students in Philadelphia and their schools?

The Commonwealth Court confirmed what so many of us already knew in Harrisburg and in our neighborhoods for, sadly, decades: and that is that Pennsylvania's education funding system – it's not just flawed, but it is unconstitutional.

Philly is one of the districts that's been underfunded for an entire generation. We have larger class sizes, fewer learning opportunities, leaking roofs, libraries without books or librarians, schools without nurses, schools without a sufficient number of counselors – whether that's helping middle school students get into great high schools, or helping our high school students really plan for their future in their life that awaits them after graduation. So we look forward to increased funding and programs like Level Up that would be significant. We would look forward to changing the way our cyber charter schools are funded, that would also help us if we could do that reform, to modernize the charter law, as well. We want to help the students; we want to help their parents who are taxpayers. 

We know that on infrastructure we also gotta seize opportunities for districts with aging infrastructure, to be able to make the wise decisions to consolidate buildings, to tear them down because some of them keep facing asbestos and other challenges. They really just need to be rebuilt. Some of them are so dated that there's not enough for mediation every time one thing is fixed, the next year they find something else. We have to be able to support a plan, not only for Philly, but to modernize our school districts in a way that's giving them our students a safe and healthy environment in which to learn.

As we look toward a new administration in City Hall. What should voters expect in terms of collaboration between state lawmakers and city officials? What would you characterize House Democrats and their relationship with City Hall?

I think that we should expect a very collaborative relationship. The Pennsylvania House Democratic Caucus is so excited and proud to have one of our caucus alumna be the next mayor of Philadelphia. Cherelle Parker, our mayor-elect, was a member of the General Assembly; she has a complete inside understanding of how the legislature works and operates, and she has strong, healthy, robust relationships. I'm happy to be one of them. 

I do believe Cherelle will work with the General Assembly, the Senate Republicans and Senate Dems, the House Republicans and the House Dems to find a way to win for Philadelphia. I mean, that's what it's about because when Philadelphia wins, Pennsylvania wins. The more jobs created here, the more opportunities created here, the safer our communities are. That means more tourists are coming to the commonwealth. It's not tough to leave Philadelphia and go to the Brandywine or go to Valley Forge, so we all win when Philadelphia wins, and I know that the mayor will be working very hard to keep communications open, and most importantly, I look forward to being receptive to all of the concerns she has responding to the city's needs and finding a way forward for Pennsylvanians to benefit from Philadelphia’s success.

Do you have any legislative goals for next year that, maybe you didn't get accomplished this year, but you definitely want to hit the ground running with in 2024?

Absolutely. We have sent 175-plus bills to the Senate. I was reading a report by Fair Districts this morning. They said only 40 bills have become law in Pennsylvania all year. We've got to get minimum wage done. We have to get justice for survivors done.

I'm happy that one of my bills, for the first time this session, came through the House Judiciary Committee, which is pardon reform so that more people who are dying in prison – and no longer a threat at all to our society – can simply be able to submit their pardon application and get a 3/5 majority vote from that board. 

We have a lot of work to do. We've got to figure out education, how we're going to fairly fund the schools now that the court has issued this opinion and there has been no appeal. We've also got to respond to other needs – affordable childcare. There are so many priorities that we look forward to getting across the finish line and I look forward to being able to celebrate these successes as they come.