Legislators at work? One in 5 laws enacted in Pa. this year renamed a bridge (or road)

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by Stephen Caruso, Pennsylvania Capital-Star
November 10, 2021

Much like legislation naming post offices to members of Congress, bills to name bridges and roads are a staple of slow legislative days in Harrisburg.

The honorees range from military members and first responders who have died in the line of service to deceased lawmakers and local historical figures.

But such legislation has made up a growing share of Harrisburg’s legislative output in the past year.

A Capital-Star analysis has found that in 2021, renaming laws make up one in five of the 83 bills passed by both chambers of the Republican-controlled General Assembly that Gov. Tom Wolf has signed into law. That’s the highest percentage of naming legislation of any year in the past decade.

In fact, the 253-member General Assembly, who serve full time, already has sent to Wolf’s desk almost double the number of naming bills this year as it did in the entire last two-year session. 

Wolf has signed 17 of those bills into law this year, compared to the nine during the 2019-20 session, the Capital-Star’s analysis showed. The total number of such laws, however, still lags the total number enacted earlier in the decade, when the legislature sometimes passed 200 plus laws.

The percentage could change before the end of the year. The House has two more weeks of session planned, the Senate has one. 

The analysis also does not include naming bills that may have passed one chamber and are waiting for a vote in the other. At least 13 such bills have passed just one of the chambers this fall.

To be sure, the laws passed this year include some meaningful changes. The Legislature has laid out rules for 5G internet in the state, extended some COVID-19-related regulatory waivers, and allowed college athletes to pursue endorsement deals.

But lawmakers haven’t taken any action on perennial sore spots such as the state’s high property taxes or its low minimum wage or moved to solve such structural issues as budget deficits or transportation funding.

Eric Epstein, a longtime Capitol watchdog, said in an email that the “sudden surge in renaming public works projects while ignoring collapsing bridges and deteriorating roads” showed that the Legislature needs a realignment of priorities.

“Seriously, at a time when the cost of living is skyrocketing, gas prices are increasing, and the supply chain is in short supply, the best legislators can do is go on a naming spree?” Epstein added.

In statements, legislative leaders defended naming legislation as a good use of lawmakers’  time, or pointed fingers at their partisan opposites for why more hadn’t been done — and sometimes both.

Republicans, who have controlled both chambers of the General Assembly for the past decade, blamed Wolf, who they claim has not worked with the Legislature, making it impossible to gather support for farther reaching legislative action.

“In order to get a bill enacted into law, it takes 102, 26, and 1 — that includes engagement from the governor,” House Republican spokesperson Jason Gottesman said in an email.

Gottesman added that the House alone had passed nearly 300 pieces of legislation this year, on topics ranging from human trafficking and opioid addiction to regulatory issues — a majority of which still require action in the upper chamber to become law. 

A spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, did not respond to a request for comment.

In 2020, Wolf frequently reached for his veto pen, rejecting 19 bills — including broad liability protection for businesses and nonprofits over COVID-19 policies, a telemedicine bill that restricted access to abortion-inducing drugs, and a number of bills challenging his pandemic response.

This year, Wolf has vetoed just three bills — including a bill restricting the powers of the  Secretary of Health and an omnibus election reform bill authored by House Republicans.

“The lack of engagement from the administration — which seems more concerned with cementing its own legacy rather than the future stability of Pennsylvania — has been frustrating in our attempts to do real work for the people of Pennsylvania,” Gottesman said.

In an email, Wolf spokesperson Beth Rementer countered that the General Assembly “has the power to bring up any bill at any time,” as they set the agenda, and decide what bills are voted on and what are not.

“There are many bills that they could move today which would, for example, protect and support workers, increase equitable access to education, and implement common sense gun laws,” she added.

Democratic legislative leaders largely agreed.

“Like many Pennsylvanians, I’m disappointed to see it filled with ceremonial gestures instead of substantive policy week after week,” Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, said in an email.

He pointed to Democratic priorities, from a minimum wage increase to tighter restrictions on gun owners or a plan to spend  the $5 billion in remaining federal stimulus dollars which all “wither in committee, and the Republicans name, rename and re-rename bridges.”

“Folks are right to be angry about that,” Costa added.

In an email, House Democratic spokesperson Nicole Reigelman argued that “naming roadways, bridges and other pieces of infrastructure recognizes the important contributions of Pennsylvanians and is a way to commemorate our state’s heritage.”

House Democrats, she added, would be happy to vote on “meaningful legislation” that improves the lives of working-class Pennsylvanians if they were brought up in the House.

To become law, bills must pass at least four times — once in committee and once on the chamber floor, for both the House and Senate. Along the way, bills can become trapped in legislative limbo, held up before any one of those votes due to pressure from lobbyists and the public, the whims of a single powerful committee chair or leader, or political calculations.

In this light, bills naming bridges and roads are sometimes viewed as a small but uncontroversial way for a legislator to claim a win for their community.

But those claims join bipartisan grumbles that naming an overpass or thoroughfare are a distraction from more serious legislative business.

The recent spike in naming laws, combined with the overall decrease in laws passed over the past decades, led state Rep. Anthony DeLuca, D-Allegheny, to decry the current state of the Legislature.

First elected in 1982, DeLuca blamed increased partisanship in both parties, the power of committee chairs, and Republicans strict interpretation of state Supreme Court precedent on what can fit into a single bill for the lack of concrete achievements.

“I think it’s terrible,” DeLuca told the Capital-Star. “It’s not good government.”

He called for citizens to pay more attention to legislation, and to put pressure on lawmakers to advance things that actually help them and their families.

At least one lawmaker has proposed a solution to free up lawmakers time. 

While not opposed to holding an occasional vote, state Rep. John Lawrence, R-Chester, , argued that bridges could be renamed without requiring the attention of the state’s 253 lawmakers and the governor. 

Instead, he proposed legislation, shared with colleagues in an Oct. 25 memo, to allow citizens to apply to the state Department of Transportation to rename a road if they collect signatures, raise funds to replace the needed road signs, and get their local representative and senator to sign off.

Such a process, Lawrence said, would allow for constituents to honor those who deserve to be remembered without taking up “undue time here in the Capitol.”

“I don’t think anyone would describe the current process as smooth, as efficient. We can do this outside the legislative process,” Lawrence told the Capital-Star. “I think it’s certainly more efficient. It’s probably more likely, frankly, to get done for the folks who want to honor somebody, and there’s time here in the legislature to deal with some of the other issues facing us.”

This is not the first time that Lawrence has introduced the bill, he said. He proposed similar legislation in 2016. The reintroduction, he added, was not commentary on the legislature’s current productivity.

Pennsylvania Capital-Star is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Pennsylvania Capital-Star maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor John Micek for questions: [email protected] Follow Pennsylvania Capital-Star on Facebook and Twitter.