New House Majority Leader Benninghoff manages the pandemic-era pressures of the legislative calendar and an imperious governor

State Rep. Kerry Benninghoff (R-Centre/Mifflin) took on the responsibilities of the Majority Leader with the preparation time of a lieutenant taking over for a commander just shot from his horse.

“Usually you get a couple of months after caucus elections [typically held a week or two after November general elections],” Benninghoff explained in a recent interview. “I had about twelve hours.”

His Republican colleagues elected him in June, in normal times the busiest stretch of the legislative calendar, after former Leader Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster) was sworn-in as Speaker to replace the resigning Mike Turzai (R-Allegheny). At the time, the General Assembly was trying (and still is) to get a bigger role, any role, in the Wolf administration’s decisions amidst the ongoing pandemic; decisions that Benninghoff characterized as “arbitrary and inconsistent.”

Last Monday, House Republicans offered further proof of Benninghoff’s assessment: “the science” that the administration claims is guiding its decision making during the pandemic does not support Governor Wolf’s “strong recommendation” of no interscholastic or club sports this fall. The science, in fact, doesn’t exist at all, according to a response to a Right-to-Know request by State Rep. Seth Grove (R-York).

"From the beginning of this pandemic,” Benninghoff said in a statement issued that day, “the Wolf administration has been making decisions that impact the lives and livelihoods of thousands of Pennsylvanians without involving the people's representatives in the legislature and without concern for the unintended consequences of wide-ranging and inconsistent orders, guidance, and recommendations.”

“Thanks to the strong work of Rep. Grove,” he continued, “we now know that the administration has made the unilateral decision to strongly recommend the cancellation of fall sports without the Department of Health having any corresponding data to justify their decision.”

The governing body for interscholastic athletics, the PIAA announced on Friday that it will move ahead with fall sports despite the governor’s recommendation. Benninghoff praised the decision, saying the association “made the right decision to take an independent stand and allow fall sports to continue. As a parent, grandparent and former coach, I know school sports and extracurricular activities are more than just fun. They are a chance for students to gain confidence, learn from life-changing mentorships and find motivation to achieve more academically.”

Back in June, Benninghoff rejected advice that he ease into his new role as Majority Leader. Under his leadership, the House quickly approved legislation that will create thousands of high paying jobs by making available production-based tax credits to fertilizer and petrochemical manufacturers who locate here to take advantage of affordable, abundant methane gas extracted from the Marcellus Shale.

Another bill that cleared the House under his leadership would save thousands of high paying, family sustaining jobs in the energy industry by giving the General Assembly say over Governor Wolf’s plan to impose a carbon tax by having Pennsylvania join a multi-state environmental compact, the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI).  Ultimately, lawmakers may come to the same conclusion as the Department of Environmental Protection’s own advisory committees that the costs of joining the compact far outweigh the benefits. While Wolf did sign the tax credit bill into law (after vetoing a previous version earlier in 2020), he has also promised to veto the bill requiring legislative approval of RGGI if it reaches him. However, questions regarding the constitutionality of his executive action remain.

PMA strongly supports both bills.

“The manufacturing community is grateful to have Kerry Benninghoff serving as Leader, and we can already see consequential pro-growth policies being advanced under his stewardship,” said PMA President & CEO David N. Taylor.

Along the way, Benninghoff has maintained pressure on the administration to rightfully include the General Assembly as an equal branch of government in the fight against the virus. 

“We don’t want to hear about a decision from the administration an hour or two before a Wolf press conference,” he said. “We want to be part of that process before the decision is made.”

But early on, the administration rejected the creation of a coronavirus task force of Republican and Democratic lawmakers with officials within the administration.  The General Assembly responded with the approval of a resolution to end the governor’s shutdown order, an order he extended for three months in early June. In early July, the Democratic majority on the state Supreme Court sided with the governor, calling the resolution a “legal nullity.”

Most recently, the General Assembly overwhelmingly sent the governor legislation requiring access to public records during the emergency. Facing certain override, the governor allowed the bill to become law without his signature. It was that law that Rep. Seth Grove used to discover that Governor Wolf made the recommendation to cancel all fall sports with NO supporting data.

This fall, Benninghoff said the House will take an in-depth look at the election code after the many problems surrounding mail-in ballots in the June primary. For its part, the Wolf administration last week asked the state Supreme Court to allow mail-in ballots received up to three days after Election Day, November 3, to be counted. Under state law ballots must be received by 8 p.m. on Election Day.

The House will also look at legislation that will grant liability protections to business and health care facilities from COVID-19 lawsuits.

However, the biggest fall item will be completion of the state budget. In late May, the General Assembly approved school funding but delayed other budget items until the revenue picture became clearer.

“In another month will have a better idea of the numbers,” Benninghoff said, “but we are thinking a shortfall in the $4 to $5 billion range. We are looking to Washington for further assistance, but either way I’ve asked the Appropriations Chairman [Stan Saylor (R-York)] to work on a plan B.  Even if we do get federal help, we still have next budget year to think about.”

Benninghoff was first sworn in as representative of the 171st District in 1997. He lives in Bellefonte and is the father of five children – Michael, Heather, Amy, Kelley and Ryleigh. At the end of 2010, Ryleigh succumbed to cancer.

Prior to being elected to represent the 171st, Kerry worked in construction, cared for patients as a hospital orderly, and served Centre County for two terms as county coroner.