Lawmakers take oaths as Pa. legislature opens

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The Pennsylvania House of Representatives are sworn in during the 199th Legislative Session at the Capitol in Harrisburg Tuesday January 6, 2015. ( DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer )

HARRISBURG - The 199th Pennsylvania legislative session opened Tuesday with lawmakers in the House and Senate being sworn in to first or new terms.

Rep. Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny) won a standing ovation from his colleagues after being unanimously elected speaker. Senators also took their oaths, and President Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson) was unanimously reelected.

Both chambers begin the two-year session with stronger Republican majorities: the 50-member Senate has 30 GOP members and the 203-member House of Representatives 119.

That makeup is bound to set the stage for showdowns with incoming Democratic governor Tom Wolf, who takes office Jan. 20.

Among the priorities for the legislature and Wolf will be figuring out how to close an estimated $2 billion budget deficit.

In floor speeches, Turzai, new Majority Leader David Reed (R., Indiana), and Democratic leaders, including Philadelphia delegation chairwoman Rep. Cherelle L. Parker, urged cooperation in the months ahead, as Wolf, Gov. Corbett, and other dignitaries looked on.

Among the nine Philadelphia-area freshmen taking the oath was Rep. Leslie Acosta, the first Hispanic woman ever elected to the General Assembly. Acosta, a Democrat whose majority African American and Latino district covers Kensington and parts of North Philadelphia, is only the fifth lawmaker of Hispanic descent to serve in the legislature.

"It gave me a sense of hope," Acosta said after the ceremony. "The new speaker seems willing to cross the aisle and work with the other side."

Neither chamber set additional session days between now and Jan. 20, ending the prospect of controversial bills being rushed through to Corbett's desk ahead of Wolf's inauguration.

For his part, Wolf offered congratulations to the newly sworn-in lawmakers and said that while there were "great challenges ahead," he looked forward to working with the House and Senate to solve them.

Also sworn in Tuesday were State Reps. Vanessa Lowery Brown and Ronald G. Waters, both Democrats of Philadelphia, who were charged last month with bribery and other crimes by Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams in connection with an undercover "sting" investigation.

In Pennsylvania, elected lawmakers who have been charged or convicted can remain in office until they are sentenced.

The base pay for the 253 members of the General Assembly is $84,000. Party leaders and committee chairs are paid more. It is the second-highest base pay in the nation, behind California.

Also Tuesday in the Capitol, Thomas G. Saylor was sworn in as the 56th chief justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court by his predecessor, Ronald D. Castille, who stepped down after reaching the required retirement age of 70.


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