With Democratic House majority, advocates hopeful progressive policy goals will become law
In the month after securing their 101-vote majority, Pennsylvania House Democrats have held hearings on gun safety, raising the minimum wage, and expanding access to reproductive health care.
While they might at first appear to be the routine work of a state legislative chamber, hearings on Democratic policy priorities are a source of optimism for advocates across the state.
Under Republican control of the House in the last six sessions, committee chairs have not given Democratic goals space on an agenda. But with control of the committees, Democratic leaders are giving airtime to advocates for long awaited reform.
And those advocates say that with Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro in office there’s a better chance than any time in the last 12 years of those reforms becoming law. With Republicans in control of the state Senate, however, accomplishing those goals will be an exercise in bipartisanship.
“I think there will be a very real political process and at the end of the day there will be real choices that legislators and the governor will have to make,” Stephen Herzenberg, executive director of the labor-friendly Keystone Research Center, said.
Richard Edley, lead executive of the Rehab Community Providers Association, said it’s not that Republicans have opposed many of the initiatives House Democrats now hope to advance.
Rather, the temperature of politics nationally has radiated down to the state level causing partisan paralysis.
“When you can align the parties you have a little less of a log jam,” Edley, whose organization supports social service providers, said. “Where we sit we’re looking for champions on both sides of the aisle.”
At a Democratic Policy Committee hearing Monday on state Rep. Roni Green’s, D-Philadelphia, proposal to increase the minimum wage in Pennsylvania to $18 an hour, lawmakers heard from a home health care worker and a Harrisburg coffee shop owner about the need for and benefits of paying a livable minimum wage.
“I am a skilled, responsible, and trained care worker and I make less than $15 an hour,” Genale Rambler, a member of Service Employees International Union who cares for dementia patients in their homes, told the committee. “This has got to change. The General Assembly is responsible for ensuring that workers like me and hundreds of thousands of others earn a living wage.”
Herzenberg said that while conservatives have typically opposed minimum wage hikes as bad for business, it is an issue that is driven by economic realities. Each of Pennsylvania’s neighboring states have a higher minimum wage than the federally required $7.25 an hour Pennsylvania employers must pay untipped workers.
That creates pressure for employers in areas close to the border to compete in the labor market. And many chain restaurants and retailers across the country, such as Starbucks and Target, have increased their minimum wages to $15 an hour or higher, regardless of the state minimum.
“There has been a big movement across the country where employers have found they can accommodate $15 an hour and the sky doesn’t fall,” Herzenberg said.
There are areas where Democrats and Republicans are more aligned than many people realize, Patrick Keenan, policy director for the Pennsylvania Health Access Network, said.
Making health care accessible for low income people is an issue that cuts across the entire state in urban and rural communities. More than half of Pennsylvania adults struggle to pay for health care and as a result either put off seeking care or are forced to use savings to pay for care, Keenan said.
In a first-ever survey by Keenan’s organization and Altarum Healthcare Value Hub, a nonprofit healthcare research and consulting group, on health care experiences in 2020, nearly 70% of of Pennsylvania residents identified health care as the top issue for the government to address in the next year and 90% expressed support for a broad array of government led solutions.
“I don’t know of many issues in Pennsylvania where so many people are in agreement,” Keenan said.
Last year, in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision overturning its own Roe v. Wade decision, which established a constitutional right to abortion, voters in six states elected to preserve abortion access in referendums.
“Everywhere that abortion was on the ballot it won,” Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania Advocates Executive Director Signe Espinoza said. “Right now is certainly not the time [for lawmakers] to be lukewarm. We know that voters showed up and what they showed up for.”
Espinoza said she’s hopeful that message from voters, especially those in conservative Kansas, Kentucky and Montana, was heard by Pennsylvania lawmakers, and that it will create a path to passing legislation that eases restrictions on abortion in Pennsylvania.
Goals include ending the requirement for abortion-seekers to wait 24 hours before undergoing the procedure, and lifting the restriction on midwives and advanced practice clinicians providing abortion care, she said.
Planned Parenthood has also pushed to end the diversion of federal welfare money to crisis pregnancy centers, where pregnant women are dissuaded from seeking abortion care.
“I would hope that the Republicans could really come around and confront the fact that TANF dollars should not be going to crisis pregnancy centers,” Espinoza said.
Ultimately, elected officials answer to voters, Espinoza said, and she believes that people will make themselves heard at the ballot box.
“If we can’t push them to address the needs of their constituents their constituents will vote them out,” she said.
With education funding certain to be a major part of this year’s budget negotiations after the historic Commonwealth Court ruling declaring Pennsylvania’s reliance on property taxes to be unconstitutional. Republicans appear ready to confront the consequences of inaction on the state’s prosperity, Herzenberg said.
Career and technical education is one area that is crucial to the economy where Shapiro’s proposal comes up short, he said.
The Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education receives one-third of the funding it did in the early 1980s.
In a House Appropriations Committee budget hearing, PASSHE Chancellor Daniel Greenstein pitched the system as a key to developing Pennsylvania’s workforce in high demand areas such as nursing, teaching and computer science.
In that hearing, Republican lawmakers expressed concern about Greenstein’s warning that Shapiro’s 2% funding increase was only a third of what the system would need to avoid a tuition hike.
“My weather forecast is cloudy with occasional patches of blue,” Herzenberg said, adding that workforce development is one of the blue patches. “In the end there has to be some overlap in the Venn diagrams of what the Legislature and governor will accept.”
Originally published at www.penncapital-star.com,by Peter Hall
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