Now that the Pennsylvania General Assembly has passed 5/12(ish) of their general fund budget, all eyes turn to the fall when they will have to work to complete the final 7 months. Rumors abound regarding what could and could not end up being a part of that budget. One rumor that persists is that for the first time since 2005, the state legislature may hold a ‘lame duck’ session.
What is a lame duck session?
The phrase “lame duck” actually originated in the banking world, but is now a common term in politics. A lame duck session, also known as sine die, is when a legislature holds session in November after the general election. It is also when a President takes action after they have lost their election or finished their two terms. You may have heard the expression during both United States Presidents George W Bush and Barack Obama’s terms, who took significant action during their lame duck periods.
In Pennsylvania, new elected officials technically begin to get paid on December 1, even though they’re not officially sworn in on the first Tuesday in January under the Pennsylvania Constitution. In 2020, the general election is to be held on November 3. So should the legislature decide to, they could technically convene session any time between November 3 and November 30, and this would be considered the lame duck session. They are called lame duck sessions because legislators who may have lost their election or are otherwise not returning are known as “lame ducks.”
Why have lame duck sessions been considered controversial?
Lame duck sessions have been considered controversial for two reasons. First, as stated above, after the election there will be legislators who have lost their election who will still be able to vote on bills. This removes any accountability to the voters, and legislators may make votes that they wouldn’t have otherwise made if they knew they were going to face voters again. Their successor has already been elected, and may have made a different vote.
Second, and similarly, having just been re-elected, those legislators that are returning are the farthest that they will be from facing election, making “risky” votes a lot less so.
Why has it been so long since Pennsylvania has had a lame duck session?
In 2005, the Pennsylvania capitol in Harrisburg was rocked by controversy over a middle-of-the-night pay raise that legislators voted for themselves. Many legislators lost their seats, including powerful leaders. As a result, when the legislative session began in 2007 and new leadership was elected, leadership decided to end the controversial lame duck sessions. It should be noted that a lame duck session was held in 2010 to deal with a Gubernatorial veto and few other consequential issues.
Why might 2020 be the year that lame duck sessions make a comeback?
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, state revenues are down significantly and legislators are facing a massive budget deficit. Estimates of the deficit can rise as high as $5 billion. Given the size of the deficit, some very difficult decisions are going to have to be made, and that means legislators are going to have to make some very tough votes. The “safest” time to make votes like that, politically, is during a lame duck session. Moreover, there simply may not be enough time before the November election to come to an agreement on a budget of this magnitude.
What issues could be on tap during a 2020 lame duck session?
The short answer is all of them. More specifically, cuts to funding for popular programs could be on the table, as well as tax increases. And that means all of them: personal income tax, sales tax, corporate net income tax, sin taxes (cigarette, gaming, alcohol), etc. Additionally, other methods for generating revenue such as the legalization of adult use cannabis will likely be on the table.
For those of you that (like me) have never been through a lame duck session, I’m told that it’s like final weeks of June when the state budget is traditionally being completed) but even more hectic. At this point, a lame duck session is merely a rumor, although it would certainly make sense given the current dynamics.
We will have to see what happens, but I’m curious how Pennsylvania’s lame duck procedure may change due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
This RPG insight was written by RPG senior associate Jason High. RPG is a top government affairs firm based in Washington DC, and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.