Central PA's LGBT News Source

Bottom up revolt coming?

State Rep. Brian Sims on PA's new legislative session

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It’s easy to feel optimistic around State Rep. Brian Sims. His enthusiasm warms you up immediately.

When we settled into his office on a busy session day, Sims apologized for drinking his nutritious protein lunch at his desk. And then off we were into the two burning questions The Central Voice had for him as the General Assembly begins a new, two-year legislative session.

PA Fairness Act

Will the Keystone State finally pass the PA Fairness Act?

“That could happen,” Sims says. “We have a new chairman.”

State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, longtime chair of the State Government Committee and a stridently anti-LGBT elected official, was replaced by State Rep. Garth Everett. Sims is a member of the committee which is the legislative Petri dish in which a statewide LGBT civil rights bill would grow.

Metcalfe has continuously blocked any action on the PA Fairness Act (S.B 613), first introduced in 2015. The bipartisan measure calls for basic LGBT civil rights. A committee chairman can block action on any bill he doesn’t like under current rules. Case closed.

Where does new committee chairman Everett stand? Will he ease up on the throttle and allow activity on the act?

“He’s not automatically anti-LGBT,” Sims says. “I think he’ll at least listen to why the act was introduced in the first place. My sense is this is a new day and we have an opportunity to talk about the need for reform legislation.”

Related to a burgeoning new effort to pass LGBT protections, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRC) last September issued new “guidance” indicating that it takes the position that employment discrimination based on LGBT status is prohibited by the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act. Guidance is an official statement by a governmental body with oversight and/or enforcement duties. In this instance, the language guides individuals, organizations, employers, other governmental agencies and entities of government in policy making.)

Last April, one month before the state’s General Election, Governor Tom Wolf and state lawmakers renewed their calls for passage of the PA Fairness Act. Doing so would update the state's non-discrimination law to explicitly include protections for LGBT people from discrimination at work, in housing, and in public places based on sexual orientation and gender identity. In other words, the “guidance” becomes the law of the land. Dozens of Pennsylvania municipalities have passed separate ordinances to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, including Pittsburgh, Lancaster, Carlisle, Erie, Harrisburg, Scranton, and Philadelphia.

Bottom up revolt?

Are the dictatorial House Rules under which Metcalf arbitrarily blocked any advance of LGBT civil rights about to change?

The Pennsylvania Legislature is a GOP-dominated assembly with 110 Republicans and 91 Democrats and two vacancies at present. In a reprise of 2007 failed efforts to change House Rules when Democrats had a narrow majority, four current members have tossed their reform bills into the mix.

Sims says “when you first get here you’re told to keep your powder dry. What is really meant is that you should follow leadership.” He offers a different way to approach to what those words could or should mean. “It can mean in an empowering way that incoming legislators might pay attention and learn from more experienced colleagues. And then move on their goals and priorities.” The bottom line for Sims is that he wants “all of us, including the incoming class, to be active and engaged from day one.”

“The bills to reform House Rules introduced by my colleagues are significant. They are an effort to make the House more open to all its members.”

Empowering members appears to be the foundation of the four recently introduced bills.

Majority rules

Rep. Steve Samuelson, D-Bethlehem, introduced a requirement that any bill that has a majority of the 203 House members signing on as a co-sponsor gets an automatic final consideration vote on the House floor. Bills would move out of committee in their original form and brought before the full House for debate, where they could be passed, amended or rejected.

Bipartisan cosponsors

A second proposal from Rep. Pam Delissio, D-Philadelphia, would require that any bill with 20 co-sponsors from each party would, at the request of one member from each party, be brought up for a committee vote within three legislative days.

Priority designation

Rep. Melissa Shusterman, a first-term Democrat from Phoenixville in Chester County, would permit each member to designate one piece of legislation as a “priority bill” in each two-year legislative session.

Committee membership

Rep. Joe Webster, a first-term Democrat from Norristown in Montgomery County, called for making committee membership in proportion to the two major parties’ overall membership in the House. At present, the rules establish a 60-40 balance of power in favor of the majority party.

“We are at our best when we act as a collaborative body,” Sims concludes.