Harrisburg Capitol with flag

HARRISBURG — State lawmakers have some big issues left to confront in the few days they have scheduled in 2019.

Lawmakers left the Capitol Wednesday, and they have only four days scheduled for session in November. The House has six session days scheduled for December, while the Senate has just three.

Advocates and lawmakers say the controversy over allowing adult survivors of child sex crimes to sue organizations, like the Catholic Church, for covering up for predators may be on the agenda.

Senate President Pro Tem Joseph Scarnati, R-Jefferson County, said he expects the Senate will vote later this month on a proposed constitutional amendment to open a window to allow for civil lawsuits in cases where the existing statute of limitations has expired.

“We plan to move these bills through the Senate this fall," Scarnati said in a statement provided by his office. "I remain hopeful that all parties involved can come together to move these important reforms forward in the near future.”

Scarnati pointed to four bills that have already passed in the state House that would change the law regarding child abuse. They include House Bill 962 and House Bill 963.

House Bill 963 would open a two-year window to allow for lawsuits but do so by amending the state Constitution. That process requires votes in two separate legislative sessions, followed by a ballot question placed before the voters statewide. The current two-year legislative session runs 2019-20, meaning the amendment would have to pass the General Assembly again in 2021, at the earliest, before voters would get to decide whether to amend the Constitution.

House Bill 962 would change the statute of limitations moving forward so victims of child abuse would have until the age of 55 to file lawsuits. Under existing law, they must sue by the age of 30, which advocates claim is inadequate because most survivors aren’t willing to come forward with accusations until they are older.

House Bill 1051 would provide a harsher penalty for ongoing failure to report child abuse, and House Bill 1171 would make clear that if a victim signs a confidentiality agreement to settle a lawsuit, that agreement wouldn’t prohibit the victim from speaking to police, according to summaries of the legislation posted on the General Assembly website.

“I am supportive of the four House bills" — House Bill 962, House Bill 963, House Bill 1051 and House Bill 1171, Scarnati said.

The controversy over allowing adult survivors of child sex abuse to sue when their statute of limitations is expired intensified in 2018 when a grand jury revealed it had found evidence Catholic bishops across the state had covered up the abuse by 300 predator priests over decades. Almost none of the victims in those cases could sue due to the state’s statute of limitations.

Efforts to open a window for lawsuits stalled at the end of the 2018 legislative session when Scarnati refused to hold a vote on legislation that had already passed the state House that would have allowed victims to sue.

Sunday hunting

The statute of limitations controversy isn’t the only legislation lingering at the Capitol.

The state House passed legislation on Wednesday that would allow hunting on three Sundays a year. Pennsylvania is one of three states in the country that doesn’t allow Sunday hunting.

The state Senate left the Capitol before the House vote, so proponents of the change will push to get the Senate to pass the legislation, said Harold Daub, executive director of the Pennsylvania Federation of Sportsmen and Conservationists.

The Sunday hunting bill passed the Senate earlier this year, but it was amended in the state House to add a requirement that hunters get written permission to hunt on Sunday.

The House passed the measure after the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau dropped its opposition to the Sunday hunting bill, but there is still some opposition, mainly from the Pennsylvania Grange and the Keystone Trails Association.

Proponents of Sunday hunting say it will help slow the decline in the number of people hunting. The number of adult resident hunting licenses sold in Pennsylvania dropped 16 percent from 2008, when the Game Commission sold 670,659 of the licenses, to 2018, when 561,587 were sold, according to Game Commission data.

Pennsylvania Grange officials say it’s not clear that allowing hunting on Sunday will do much to change the fact fewer people are interested in hunting. And if there’s no indication that allowing hunting on three Sundays is making a dent in the drop in hunter participation, hunting groups will say they need more Sundays, Grange Legislative Director Vince Phillips said.

“The basic question is whether Sunday hunting will reverse the decline, something supporters of Sunday hunting have not documented,” Phillips said.

Hiking groups are also worried that hunting groups will continue pushing to get more Sundays added for hunting if they are successful getting the initial three approved, said Casey Schneck, program administrator for the Keystone Trails Association.

“Our members appreciate having one day of the week when they can go into the woods without gunfire,” he said.

Gun reform

Despite public pressure due to mass shootings across the country, there’s little hint that gun reform legislation will be part of the General Assembly’s end-of-the-year activities.

The Senate judiciary committee held hearings on possible gun reform, in addition to exploring the issue of statute of limitations reform in the fall session. Judiciary Committee chairwoman Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne County, wouldn’t commit to moving legislation in the near future.

“Action will not be driven by the calendar, but by when a consensus can be reached,” Baker said in a statement.

Shira Goodman, executive director of CeaseFire PA, said there’s not much reason to believe leaders in the General Assembly plan to move any more gun bills.

“They should,” she said. “They’re supposed to be working. They are a full-time legislature.”

If lawmakers aren’t at the Capitol in session, that means they should be in their districts where constituents can lobby them to begin acting on issues they think are important, she said.

John Finnerty reports from the Harrisburg Bureau for The Meadville Tribune and other Pennsylvania newspapers owned by CNHI. Email him at jfinnerty@cnhi.com and follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.

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