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Patrick McDonnell, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, testifies Sept. 19, 2019, before the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee.

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U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaks Sept. 19, 2019, during an education roundtable event with Pennsylvania lawmakers at Harrisburg Catholic Elementary School.

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Pennsylvania House Speaker Mike Turzai speaks during a news conference Sept. 18, 2019, at the Statehouse in Harrisburg.

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Pennsylvania state Rep. Russ Diamond speaks Sept. 18, 2019, during a hearing of the House State Government Committee.

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Jen Smith, Pennsylvania secretary of Drug and Alcohol programs, speaks Sept. 18, 2019, at a news conference at the Statehouse in Harrisburg.

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Pennsylvania state Rep. Pam DeLissio speaks Sept. 16, 2019, during a joint hearing of the House and Senate State Government committees.

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Markida Ross, mother of a student at Mastery's Grover Cleveland Elementary School in Philadelphia, addresses a rally of school choice supporters Sept. 16, 2019, at the Capitol in Harrisburg.

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WEST CHESTER — Chester County Sheriff Carolyn “Bunny” Welsh has “grossly exceeded” her annual budget for overtime costs in each of the past three calendar years, according to a filing by the county controller in the continuing dispute over costs associated with the Sheriff’s Office’s K-9 Unit.

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John George, acting superintendent of the Harrisburg School District, speaks Sept. 13, 2019, during a news conference as Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale looks on.

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HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania has the largest full-time legislature in the nation and its lawmakers are among the highest-paid in the country, yet, increasingly, they’re doing less and less actual lawmaking.

The number of bills introduced in the legislature has fallen by more than 20% from its peak in the early 1990s, and the number of bills actually passed into law has fallen even more dramatically in the years since, according to an analysis of four decades of legislative data by The Inquirer and Spotlight PA.

Lawmakers are filling the gap by introducing far more resolutions, the analysis found, often purely ceremonial statements that create task forces, urge Congress to take action on an issue, honor notable Pennsylvanians or mark special occasions like Banana Split Day on Aug. 25 or Hot Dog Day on July 17.

The trends track with academic research showing Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature are more polarized and less willing to cross political lines to reach the compromise often needed to pass legislation.

“It’s not the way it used to be,” said former state Rep. Bob Godshall, a Republican from Montgomery County who retired last year after 36 years in office. When lawmakers went to Harrisburg for session in the beginning of his career “it was for a purpose,” Godshall said.

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Legislative leaders and some outside experts caution there is only so much information to be gleaned by analyzing the number of bills, which speaks only to the amount of legislation and not its contents. For example, lawmakers sometimes forgo individual bills and instead tuck them into larger, omnibus measures. Or they could be focusing on more complex or higher-quality legislation, or spending more time helping constituents.

“Just sheer volume of bills, whether introduced, voted, passed or signed does not tell the whole story,” said Mike Straub, a spokesman for House Republicans. “We believe the success of our chamber is not measured in bill volume, but in how our constituents respond to our members.”

His words were echoed by Republicans in Senate leadership and Democrats in both chambers. Many of them said the first six months of this year were particularly productive, perhaps a sign that things could be turning around. Lawmakers — who earn annual salaries ranging from $88,610 for freshmen to $138,327 for top leadership, plus other perks and benefits — have been on summer recess since June, and will return to the Capitol this month.

Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, a Democrat from Allegheny County, said he hopes to see more movement on legislation this fall. That hope, however, comes on the heels of an angry eruption earlier this year when debate over a cash-assistance program for the poor devolved into a shouting match.

“I think that we should consider having some policy that provides for members the opportunity, possibly, to vote on some measures that sometimes get stalled,” Costa said.

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As part of their analysis, The Inquirer and Spotlight PA examined legislative data tracking bills and their progress in each two-year session dating to 1975-76. The most activity came in the three sessions from 1991 to 1996, when lawmakers introduced an average of 5,081 bills per session. During that time, power in the legislature and governor’s office was sometimes held by one party and sometimes split between Democrats and Republicans.

The number of bills introduced hit new lows in the three most recently completed sessions, from 2013 through 2018, with an average of 3,903 bills each. In the 2013-14 session, Republicans controlled the legislature and governor’s office. In the years since, a Democrat has served as governor and the GOP has run the legislature.

In the last full session, 2017-18, half of all state representatives introduced 10 bills or fewer.

More than 600 bills were passed in each of the four consecutive sessions from 1975 through 1982, when power was sometimes held by one party and sometimes split. Last session, when Republicans controlled the Legislature and a Democrat held the governor’s office, that number was 286.

Those largely ceremonial resolutions, however, continued to see dramatic increases. Since the early 1970s, the number introduced has more than quadrupled to 1,670 last session. Godshall said the trend was “ridiculous,” adding that resolutions are primarily intended to generate publicity for lawmakers.

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“There are so many resolutions, there are so many days that are dedicated to this or that, that we have to run out of days,” he said.

Their use can be partly attributed to the difficulty finding compromise for meaningful legislation. Some veteran lawmakers said it has been harder to get work done as the legislature has become more polarized, especially when a wave of conservatives were elected in 2010 and, more recently, with a slew of new, progressive Democrats.

Researchers at Princeton University and the University of Houston examined legislators’ voting records in state capitols across the country to measure the growing divide between liberals and conservatives and its impact on a functioning government.

From 1996 to 2016, that divide got significantly worse in the Pennsylvania House, while in the Senate, the gap slightly improved. In the most recent election, which is not yet included in the data, a wave of more progressive Democrats joined the House and Senate, which could push the parties farther apart.

State Rep. Thomas Caltagirone, a Democrat from Berks County who has been in office for 43 years, said shifts are palpable. He blamed “young firebrands in both parties” in the House.

“Years ago, you could negotiate and compromise on various issues, but now it’s like a line in the sand — don’t you dare cross it,” Caltagirone said.

But he also suggested there’s just not as much for the Legislature to fix these days.

“Part of it is that maybe we’ve addressed most of the issues that needed to be addressed,” Caltagirone said. “I mean, the problems, some of them are getting solved. Some of the issues have gone away. That’s not to say there’s not areas that need to be addressed.”

State Rep. Jordan Harris, a Democrat from Philadelphia and the party’s whip in the House, suggested some lawmakers are trying to be more deliberate about which bills they introduce. He brought forth a total of eight bills (and 15 resolutions) in his first six years in Harrisburg, and this year introduced two so far, the data shows.

“It takes a lot of effort to actually focus on different pieces of legislation and shepherd them through the process to get to the governor’s desk,” Harris said. “I don’t introduce 40, 50 pieces of legislation a session. I introduce a few … that I can focus on.”

To become law, a bill must survive committee votes and multiple floor votes in both chambers before going to the governor for approval.

Harris said passing bills is particularly difficult for the minority party. Of the 87 that became law so far this session, only one had a Democratic prime sponsor.

In recent years, some lawmakers have floated the idea trimming their own ranks and cutting the size of the 253-member state legislature. That would require an amendment to the state constitution. In order to do so, a bill must pass in identical form in two consecutive legislative sessions, and then get approval from voters.

Those efforts have failed.

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Spotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and PennLive/Patriot-News. 

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RADNOR — The Radnor Board of Commissioners waded into the contentious national gun control debate this week, voting 5-1 to approve sending a letter to the state Legislature asking it to act on pending legislation.

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(Harrisburg) — Two Republican state senators are resuscitating a plan to require many able-bodied Medicaid recipients to prove they’re working, volunteering, or looking for jobs to qualify for healthcare coverage.

Democratic Governor Tom Wolf has already vetoed two similar bills.

GOP Senator Scott Martin of Lancaster County, one of the measure’s two sponsors, said this time around he and Senator David Argall of Schuylkill County have tweaked things to appease Democrats.

They added a few new ways for people to be exempt — like being designated “medically frail.”

The requirement itself is more flexible, too. A person could qualify for Medicaid by volunteering or going to college, along with working or looking for jobs. They’d be able to mix and match to reach the necessary hours.

Martin and other Republicans who are bullish on work requirements say they’re a way to keep Medicaid spending in check.

“This program, last year, grew by over one billion dollars,” Martin said. “If it keeps growing at the pace it’s growing, the program is not going to be sustainable.”

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, Pennsylvania has been ranked fourth in the nation for overall Medicaid spending. In the 2017 fiscal year—the most recent one tracked by the foundation—the commonwealth put more than $28 billion toward Medicaid.

Citing Department of Human Services data, Martin noted 495,719 non-disabled state residents between the ages of 19 and 64—the group that was able to get Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act—report no income.

“We owe it to the taxpayers in this commonwealth. We owe it to the people who truly need this program,” Martin said. “For its sustainability, we have to put [work requirements] in place.”

Ali Fogarty, a spokeswoman for DHS, disputed the senators’ conclusion that requiring work will slow rising costs.

Most of commonwealth’s Medicaid dollars, she said, go to seniors and disabled people, who wouldn’t be subject to work requirements anyway. Though they make up about 29 percent of the population receiving Medicaid in Pennsylvania, they have driven 69 percent of total costs this fiscal year.

“Work requirements do nothing more than create an administrative burden that costs the commonwealth money to implement and operate and prevents low-income people from accessing the health care they need to stay healthy and succeed in the workforce,” Fogarty said in a statement.

She said the department is still reviewing the bill, but generally opposes legislation it deems likely to reduce access to healthcare.

Fogarty added, DHS is “not opposed to work” but would rather put money toward voluntary employment and job-training programs.

J.J. Abbott, a spokesman for Governor Tom Wolf, also decried the bill, saying Wolf’s position hasn’t changed.

“In other states, these requirements are resulting in less people having access to health care and are not helping improve health outcomes, which is the purpose of the Medicaid program,” he said.

As an alternative to work requirements, Abbott pointed to a plan the governor announced in January, aimed at redesigning existing job training programs to boost participation.

Martin and Argall’s bill is already assigned to the Senate’s Health and Human Services Committee.

Martin said he expects it will be considered by the GOP-controlled chambers soon after session resumes later this month.

In order to create Medicaid work requirements, states have to apply to the federal government—a process enabled by the Trump administration last year.

Sixteen states have so far applied, and nine have been approved.

The U.S. Supreme Court has allowed the Trump administration to deny asylum requests from migrants at the southern border who have traveled through Mexico or another country without seeking protection there. Under a new asylum rule that the US Government announced in July, migrants who entered the United States crossing the southern border are not eligible to seek asylum in the United States if they did not apply first in one of the countries they have traveled through.

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Pennsylvania state Rep. Chris Sainato speaks during a hearing of the House Veterans Affairs & Emergency Preparedness Committee on Sept. 5, 2019.

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Pennsylvania state Sen. Mike Folmer addresses a hearing of the Senate State Government Committee on April 30, 2019.

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NORRISTOWN — As a Montgomery County judge sent Bill Cosby to prison for up to 10 years, several women who accused the actor of uncharged sexual misconduct and who attended his trial and sentencing hearing uttered “Yes!” and raised their fists in approval.

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Pennsylvania state Sen. Mike Folmer, R-Lebanon, speaks at a Senate committee hearing, Wednesday, March 28, 2018.