,HARRISBURG -- Pennsylvania lawmakers will face a lengthy to-do list when they return to Harrisburg next month, presumably tanned and rested from their annual two-month summer break.

If they are feeling ambitious, they could get back to work on expanding health coverage to the uninsured, encouraging energy conservation or lessening the looming impact that will be felt by consumers when electricity rate caps expire in a few years.

They might decide to pass tougher regulations for dog kennels, relieve state prison crowding or take up some of the many reforms on the table to increase integrity in state government.

But they will have to overcome the Capitol's chronic partisanship, avoid the distraction of the House Democrats' internal power struggle and hope more charges do not result from Attorney General Tom Corbett's investigation into the alleged illegal use of government money and resources for political campaigns.

With an election ahead, many representatives and senators are eager to burnish their image.

So far in the current two-year session, the General Assembly has a decidedly mixed record.

Lawmakers have drafted a new open-records law, banned smoking in most public places, approved more than $1 billion in borrowing for water and sewer projects, updated mine safety regulations and passed a transportation bill to pour billions into roads, bridges and mass transit.

On health care and energy, legislators have moved to reduce hospital acquired infections and encourage the use of alternative fuels. They also have passed laws to help the autistic, prevent seniors from losing prescription benefits and lower the rate of housing foreclosure.

If they want more ammunition for the campaign trail, though, time is not on their side. The House has scheduled just nine voting days before Election Day, while the Senate has only eight voting days remaining.

"If I was a member of the House or Senate in a district that was competitive, I'd have both feet on the throat of my leaders saying I want to go home with health care and energy," said Steve Crawford, legislative affairs secretary for Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell.

In March, the Democrat-controlled House passed a bill to provide health coverage to about 270,000 uninsured Pennsylvanians, with an estimated price tag of $1.1 billion annually by 2012-13. But Senate Republicans balked, citing concerns about the size of the program, and passed their own $100-million-a-year plan to expand free health clinics for the poor and provide insurance coverage for people who cannot get it because of pre-existing health conditions.

House Republicans, most of whom cast futile votes against the House Democrats' bill, want health-care legislation "that actually tackles the problem with a real solution, not just a new government agency," said caucus spokesman Steve Miskin.

The House GOP's fall wish list also includes better oversight of slot machine gambling as well as amending and reauthorizing the state's wiretapping law.

Senate Republicans want the House to consider seven reform-related bills that have already passed the Senate, including tougher penalties for government officials who violate the Sunshine Law's rules that keep meetings open to the public.

A Rendell-backed push to rewrite Pennsylvania's dog law may have new momentum after Kutztown kennel operators shot 80 dogs after officials ordered some of them to be examined by veterinarians. The legislation passed a House committee in July with only a single Republican voting with the unanimous Democrats in favor of it.

As for this fall's sleeper issues, reform legislation, property taxes and an attempt to override Rendell's veto of the "spot reassessment" legislation are considered possibilities.

Finally, if the federal government rejects the state's plan to add tolls to Interstate 80, there will be renewed interest in Rendell's proposal to generate transportation money by leasing the Pennsylvania Turnpike to a private group.

After all that, lawmakers will need a break. The Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays are just around the corner.

Mark Scolforo covers the Legislature for The Associated Press in Harrisburg. He can be reached at mscolforo(at)ap.org.

comments powered by Disqus