In the final days leading up to the June 30 “deadline” for reaching an agreement on the state budget, House and Senate lawmakers returned to Harrisburg last week to continue negotiations and continue work on other policies.
While a final agreement was not reached Friday, the General Assembly did consider proposals related to a broad range of issues. Here is a rundown of what happened last week in the legislature of most relevance to the business community.
Mandatory Nurse Staffing Ratios
The House of Representatives voted to pass House Bill 106 last Wednesday. This proposal would establish government-mandated nurse staffing ratios in Pennsylvania hospitals and impose monetary penalties for hospitals that do not meet the strict nurse-to-patient ratios.
While there is a well-documented nurse shortage both nationally and in Pennsylvania, government-mandated ratios will not help address the problem. Instead, they will likely trigger unintended consequences, including reduced services, bed closures, and even hospital closures. All told, this mandate could increase health care costs for Pennsylvania patients and employers by as much as $2 billion.
We opposed this bill (CLICK HERE for our memo), which later passed the House by a vote of 119-84.
The Senate voted to pass Senate Bill 838, which would update and improve Pennsylvania’s probation laws.
The legislation includes several provisions to help probationers re-enter the workforce and maintain employment. The bill would direct courts to consider scheduling confinement around an individual’s work schedule; incentivize individuals on probation to pursue education and job training programs; and limit the circumstances under which a technical violation would result in the revocation of an individual’s probation, which can complicate employability.
We supported this bill (CLICK HERE for our memo), which later passed in a vote of 45-4, with one Senator not voting.
Cell Phone Taxes
Following its unanimous House passage, House Bill 1138 sailed through the Senate Finance Committee last Tuesday. This bill seeks to exempt cell phone service from the state’s Sales and Use Tax (SUT) and Gross Receipts Tax (GRT).
In addition to creating greater certainty for the business community, the legislation would create a more welcoming tax environment concerning telecommunications services, which will encourage additional private capital investment into the deployment and adoption of mobile communications technology.
We supported this legislation in committee (CLICK HERE for our memo); it passed by another unanimous vote of 11-0.
Workers’ Compensation Expansion
The Senate Labor and Industry Committee met last week to consider Senate Bill 365. This legislation relates to workers’ compensation coverage for mental healthcare, proposing to significantly expand coverage for mental health conditions by extending to conditions that manifest following normal working conditions. Currently, mental healthcare is covered under regular group health insurance.
Moreover, while the bill is intended to focus on public law enforcement and emergency response personnel, as currently drafted it appears to cover a broader range of the workforce, including potentially in the private sector. For these reasons, we opposed the bill (CLICK HERE for our memo)/ the bill ultimately passed the committee, though our concerns were noted by several Senators and the bill sponsor expressed her intent to work with us to improve the bill.
PA Human Relations Act Expansion
In the last week couple weeks, two bills to expand the PA Human Relations Act, have advanced out of the House State Government Committee.
House Bill 1394, known as the “Crown Act,” seeks to prohibit “discrimination based on a person’s hair type, hair texture, or hairstyle” under the PA Human Relations Act, according to its co-sponsorship memorandum. The bill’s language, however, is far broader and sets an ambiguous standard that is open to wide interpretation and could lead to unintended consequences. The bill could also complicate the ability of employers to enforce certain health and safety workplace policies.
The PA Chamber has recommended the legislation be amended to address the areas of ambiguity and ensure employers can maintain reasonable health and safety standards. (CLICK HERE for our memo to the Committee). The bill was expected to run on second consideration (when amendment may be added) and possible come up for final passage last week, but the House adjourned before considering the measure.
House Bill 503 would add familial status, marital status, and family caregiver status as protected classes under the PA Human Relations Act. This legislation may be similarly well-intentioned, but it is also likely to trigger unintended consequences that will increase employers’ exposure to unfounded or illegitimate claims of discrimination.
As such, we recommended lawmakers solicit feedback from stakeholders and attempt to mitigate the potential for unintended consequences (CLICK HERE for our memo). The bill advanced committee by a vote of 16-5 on Wednesday.
Energy, Power Generation
The House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee was expected to vote on House Bill 170 and House Bill 1476 last Tuesday, but lawmakers held off on running both bills after we raised a litany of concerns about both proposals (CLICK HERE for our memo).
These bills would have respectively executed a de facto moratorium on new gas development in Pennsylvania (H.B. 170) and suspended permitting for power generation to support data centers throughout the Commonwealth (H.B. 1476).
While votes on these proposals were postponed, the bills may reappear on the committee calendar at a later date. Employers are encouraged to review and consider their impacts in the interim.