Lawmakers Missing in Action For Votes

By ANGELA COULOUMBIS | The Philadelphia Inquirer
|  Sunday, Sep 29, 2013  |  Updated 12:10 PM EDT
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Lawmakers Missing in Action

AP

Pennsylvania State House in Harrisburg, Pa.

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Half the battle is showing up, the adage goes.

But it's not one a handful of legislators from Philadelphia and its suburbs have taken to heart.

A Philadelphia Inquirer review of records since 2011 shows several of the region's lawmakers are routinely absent on voting days. Some missed days or weeks at a time.

State Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Philadelphia) missed nearly a third of the voting sessions in 2011, and about 15 percent this year - including a vote on a bill that affected the financial rescue plan for Philadelphia schools.

Sen. LeAnna Washington (D., Philadelphia) was absent nearly a third of the time this year and last, including days with votes on some of the most controversial issues: voter ID and Medicaid expansion.

Sen. Daylin Leach (D., Montgomery) has skipped a quarter of this year's voting days.

And in the state Senate, at least, those absences easily escape public view. That is because senators can take steps to be recorded as present on the official record - even as voting on legislation that day - though they aren't physically in the Capitol.

That's unlike most states, including New Jersey, where legislators must be present to vote.

"I'd talk with colleagues sometimes about how so-and-so was always absent or on leave," said former Sen. Jane Earll, a Republican from Erie who retired last year after 16 years in office, and who confessed that she would become annoyed after making the 310-mile trip from her house to the Capitol, only to see empty seats.

"There is a lot of discretion in how you manage and conduct yourself as an elected official," she said. "But when it's chronic, it's irritating."

To be sure, General Assembly members do more than travel to Harrisburg to vote on bills. Pennsylvania legislators are full-time and earn at least $83,802 each. When not in session they are expected to be in their districts, attending meetings, organizing events, and addressing constituent concerns.

At the same time, coming to the Capitol to debate and vote on legislation is, by all accounts, a fundamental part of the job. The two chambers generally have from 50 to 80 voting days a year, with generous breaks in between. Thursday and Friday session days are rare.

Last week, the House and Senate were gaveled into session after a summer break that began in early July.

In the House, at least, members must be present to vote on bills, because they are allowed only one type of leave: If they aren't in Harrisburg, they are marked absent.

'Legislative leave'

The Senate is a different story -- and one tough for the public to track.

For example, on Jan. 30 of this year, the official roll call showed all 50 senators in Harrisburg and voting.

In reality, seven senators were not in the Capitol that day, including Philadelphia Democrats Christine Tartaglione, Washington, and Anthony Williams, as well as Leach.

They were on what the Senate calls "legislative leave," which not only allows them to be marked present - but even to vote on legislation.

Senators in Pennsylvania are granted legislative leaves if they are "performing a legislative duty outside of the Harrisburg area," and as long as they submit a "specific reason . . . in writing."

But how specific? The reason Washington gave for skipping the Jan. 30 session was "meeting with constituents." Sen. Robert Tomlinson (R., Bucks), who has missed seven session days this year, wrote that he needed leave on Feb. 4 for "district meetings." Both leaves were granted.

Senators on leave can authorize their party's floor leader to cast their votes, and the official record - the roll call - reflects that. Senate officials defend their leave policy, saying it has been on the books for decades to allow senators flexibility to attend to legislative business outside Harrisburg.

"Some members are known as policy wonks and really dive deep into issues," said Erik Arneson, spokesman for the Senate's Republican majority. "Other legislators are known more for constituent service and being visible and active in their home district. Most members are in between the two extremes. It's a matter of each legislator's approach to the job, and how they balance those responsibilities."

Perfect attendance

Most senators take two to five legislative leaves in a typical year, the records show. Some take none.

Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R., Delaware) has not missed a day in 21/2 years. Sen. Sean Wiley, an Erie Democrat who was elected last year to Earll's old seat, has yet to miss a day despite one of the longest commutes.

Williams, a former gubernatorial candidate who has talked of running for Philadelphia mayor, cannot say the same.

In 2011, he was on leave for 31 of 72 Senate session days. He said in an interview that an illness early that year accounted for most of his leaves. He declined to discuss details. In 2012, he was on legislative leave for just six of 53 session days.

This year, Williams took leave for 15 of the Senate's 50 session days - including five of six in January.

He said much of his leave came after a 5-year-old girl was kidnapped from her West Philadelphia school and brutalized, and he was in his community, organizing marches and raising rewards to find the suspects.

"There are some people who say you should be in Harrisburg all the time. I understand that," he said. "But I have to make a judgment call sometimes. And I take responsibility for it."

Washington has been granted 14 legislative leaves so far this year, records show. Among the votes she was not present for: the Senate's July 3 decision to send Gov. Corbett a bill that had been stripped of language to expand Medicaid to an additional 600,000 lower-income Pennsylvanians. A separate measure voted that day authorized a $45 million state grant for Philadelphia's schools.

In 2012, she was absent nearly a third of session days while on legislative leave - including the day when the Senate, along nearly partisan lines, approved the fiercely debated voter-ID bill.

Washington declined to be interviewed but said in a statement: "I maintain constant contact with my Capitol office and keep detailed records regarding the reasons why my presence is required in the district."

Leach, of Montgomery County, has missed 13 of the Senate's 50 session days this year -- almost half on legislative leave -- including the July 3 votes on Medicaid expansion and the Philadelphia schools grant. He, too, said lawmakers often have work-related conflicts on session days, and must make judgment calls on the best use of their time.

He said there are days, usually Mondays, when the Senate does "nothing of substance."

"We know in advance what the calendar is," said Leach, who is running for Congress. "So if it's a choice between recognizing the Partridge family that day or meeting with constituents, I think it's better use of my time to meet with constituents."

House members have less flexibility. Though there have been accounts at times about "ghost" voting -- when a member votes for an absent colleague -- the written rules are unequivocal: If members are absent, they are recorded as such, and cannot vote that day.

That hasn't stopped some House members from calling in absent.

Losing clout, moving on

Some of the lowest attendance rates were for House members who lost powerful posts, were running for other elective offices, or both.

Evans missed 22 of 80 session days in 2011, the year after he lost his longtime chairmanship of the House Appropriations Committee.

Onetime House Speaker Dennis O'Brien -- a Republican now on the Philadelphia City Council -- missed 28 session days in 2011. Philadelphia Democrat Kenyatta Johnson, also on City Council, missed 19 days. Both ran for their current offices that year.

In an interview, Evans, who this year has missed eight of 52 House session days, said he would hold up his 33-year legislative career against anyone's. He also said that since Corbett, a Republican, took office in 2011, he has had to find other ways to advance his Democratic agenda, such as more grassroots organizing.

"There are some people who show up there every single day, and I don't think you know their name, and I don't think they will ever be at the level I am," Evans said. "They will never be able to touch the things I've done. That's not egotistical, that's the facts."

Rep. Angel Cruz (D., Philadelphia) has missed about a third of this year's session days, including a day in April when the House passed a hotly contested bill prohibiting women with insurance coverage under exchanges in the federal Affordable Care Act from obtaining abortions in most situations. He did not return calls seeking comment.

Bill Patton, spokesman for the House Democrats, said absences only become actionable if they are unexcused, and noted that most members are "conscientious" about formally requesting leave.

That said, he acknowledged that his caucus' leaders have had "conversations with several members" over the last few years about attending session more frequently.

"They have been asked to make every effort they can to be here," said Patton, "particularly when serious issues are in front of the House that we expect close votes on."

He would not elaborate.

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