HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania — After three years of futility, Republicans finally used their majorities in Pennsylvania's state House and Senate to pass their top agenda items: ending the traditional pension benefit in the state's public employee retirement systems and privatizing its government-controlled wine and liquor store system.
But the GOP's victories are expected to be short-lived — and that may help explain why they passed.
Practically every lawmaker believed that the pension and liquor bills were destined for the veto pen of Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf. That made it easier for some to drop misgivings, or outright opposition, and fall in line by voting "yes," some lawmakers said. Sen. Don White is one of the lawmakers who voted for the wine and liquor bill despite concerns that he wanted addressed.
"I think we all did," said White, R-Indiana.
On Thursday, Wolf vetoed the liquor bill, and Democratic lawmakers expect him to veto the pension bill as early as Monday. Wolf had long made clear that he opposed both, even before both bills passed last Tuesday without a single Democrat voting for either.
Former Gov. Tom Corbett would have signed them, lawmakers say. But Corbett, a Republican, was defeated by Wolf in November, after two-plus years of Republican leaders feuding over the pension and liquor bills and, ultimately, being unable to deliver anything to Corbett. No major pension bill passed either chamber under Corbett, and no wine and liquor bill passed the Senate.
For their part, House and Senate Republican leaders explain the success by pointing to the GOP's larger majorities won in last November's election. Now, there are 30 Republican senators, compared to 27, and 118 Republican House representatives, compared to 111.
"This year, we had members who wanted to put it forward, so we went with it," said House Majority Leader Dave Reed, R-Indiana.
Those majorities also feature freshmen who ran on the GOP's pension and liquor platforms in more conservative districts, thanks to a Republican-engineered redistricting plan. It also helped that House and Senate Republicans had a common enemy, the tax-increase seeking Wolf, said Rep. Stan Saylor, R-York, who was the House whip while Corbett was governor.
Still, the vote counts indicate that some Republicans shifted their stance from last year, and holdouts could have switched their votes when it became clear that the bills could pass.
But Saylor and other Republicans acknowledged that Wolf's opposition — at least for some in the GOP — helped turned the real deal into a fire drill. Some Republican senators, for instance, voted for a liquor bill that they had little interest in seeing become law.
"I voted for it with a promise that when and if he does veto it, and we have a chance to renegotiate the bill, I have a chance to make sure my concerns are addressed," said White, who worried that no private outlet would replace state-controlled wine and liquor stores that would disappear from his district's rural areas.
An architect of the final liquor bill, Sen. Charles McIlhinney, R-Bucks, predicted that a markup by private retailers, on top of the state's current tax rates on wine and liquor, would drive up prices and suggested the bill was moving simply because House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, was insisting on it. McIlhinney swiftly called for a change in direction after Wolf's veto.
Sen. Dominic Pileggi, the chamber's majority leader for all four years under Corbett, said the GOP's larger majorities helped push the bills across the finish line after Republicans came close to securing the votes to pass both. But, he noted, it was different this time.
"There was not the same intensity of focus that you would customarily see on a bill that was being supported by the governor, which is the circumstance we had with Gov. Corbett," Pileggi said.
In the House, 106 Republicans voted for the pension bill, even though Republicans acknowledged that some GOP House members were fretting over the pension bill's provision that would switch them into a 401(k)-style system upon re-election. It helped that GOP leaders had guaranteed them that Wolf would veto it, said House Minority Whip Mike Hanna, D-Clinton.
"That was the word they used," Hanna said, citing conversations with Republicans he declined to identify because they spoke to him in confidence. "They were 'guaranteed' it would be vetoed."
Marc Levy covers politics and government for The Associated Press in Pennsylvania. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/timelywriter