Since 1976, there have been 24 LGBT non-discrimination bills introduced in the Pennsylvania General Assembly. Only once, in 2009, did any of them leave a legislative committee. All of these bills have failed to pass. Today, 17 states protect people from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, housing, and public accommodations. The adoption of basic protections for LGBT Pennsylvanians is long overdue. In 2014, Pennsylvania will finally become a battleground where the adoption of this critical legislation is possible.
The Pennsylvania State Senate now has 25 co-sponsors on SB 300, the chamber’s leading LGBT non-discrimination bill. It was introduced by Sen. Patrick Browne (R-16) and Sen. Lawrence Farnese (D-1) in August 2013. With half its members on board and evidence of at least a dozen more Senators who would vote in favor of the bill, the next step is to get SB 300 out of the Senate State Government Committee for a floor vote. The power to make this bill a priority for the Senate rests with its Majority Leader, Sen. Dominic Pileggi (R-9). In this election year, where half the State Senate seats will be up for grabs, the Delaware County Republican will either want to appeal to moderate voters and run SB 300, or polarize the issue to put it on ice until the next legislative session in 2015.
The State House is in a similar position with HB 300, which was introduced by Rep. Chris Ross (R-158) and Rep. Dan Frankel (D-23) also last August. With Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R-12) as the Chair of the House State Government Committee, political commentators have duly noted the futility of trying to get this legislation to a floor vote. In the General Assembly, committee chairpersons essentially wield unlimited control over releasing any bills that have been sent to them to the floor of their chamber. While the House and Senate Leadership can pressure committee chairs, Rep. Metcalfe has been very clear that he will never move HB 300.
One possible scenario is a compromise between the chambers to get the bill out of the Senate to appease moderates as a sign of progress, but halt any movement in the House to keep ultra-conservatives at bay.
There is, however, a rare political maneuver that supporters of SB 300 and HB 300 could employ to enact this law in 2014: the discharge resolution. This legislative rule is seldom successful because of partisan politics, as it undermines the power of the majority party’s leadership and can be seen as embarrassing legislators. Yet, it has been far more shameful that Pennsylvania has gone for nearly forty years without passing LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination legislation.
Using the discharge resolution rule, a legislator can gather a petition to bring any bill directly to a floor vote, effectively overriding a committee chair if they refuse to move a bill. To counter this maneuver, the majority party can switch the committee of the legislation before a vote on the discharge resolution, thus requiring a new petition to be filed.
In 2014, however, any legislator would look ridiculous trying to undercut a prominent civil rights bill by moving it to committees such as Agriculture & Rural Affairs or Transportation. A discharge resolution in the House would force the hand of the legislature’s leadership to make a public decision if they will support basic protections for LGBT Pennsylvanians.
We can confirm that in each chamber, a majority of legislators will vote in favor of SB 300 or HB 300 in a floor vote. The number of co-sponsors, who have been secured through committed advocacy from constituents and a variety of community organizations, including the Pennsylvania Student Equality Coalition, is a testament to that.
Since 1983, 32 municipalities in Pennsylvania have adopted local non-discrimination ordinances that protect LGBT people, covering 31% of the state’s population. Repeated public polling shows a clear majority of Pennsylvanians support the adoption of this legislation.
While we are optimistic for movement in the Senate this year, likely in the spring, action in the House and the ultimate enactment of this law remains unclear for 2014.
Over the past 38 years, thousands of Pennsylvanians have experienced the cruelty of anti-LGBT discrimination – including being terminated from their jobs and evicted from their homes. The citizens of Pennsylvania must not be further delayed from ensuring the dignity and equality of our friends, family, and neighbors. From the state where “All men are created equal” was first proclaimed to the nation, Pennsylvanians deserve better.