As a bill to divest Pennsylvania funds of companies with ties to Iran and Sudan approached a vote in the state House this week, Rep. Doug Reichley saw an opportunity.
Reichley, a Republican from the Lehigh Valley, believes the persecution of religious minorities in China, the movement of American manufacturing to China, and the threats of the North Korea dictatorship poses moral and economic threats to Pennsylvania.
But as a member of the minority, “it’s much more difficult to get our legislation to move forward.” So instead of introducing a new bill to divest state funds of companies with ties to China and North Korea, he proposed a set of amendments to the existing bill, House Bill 1821, introduced by Rep. Josh Shapiro, a Democrat from the Philadelphia area.
HB 1821 — versions of which have been circulating through Harrisburg for years — would force the state to divest several public funds of companies with specific economic interests in Iran and Sudan, particularly in the oil and gas industries of those countries.
State and local lawmakers see divestment as an opportunity to take a stand on international issues. But the various desires to divest can conflict, as they did this week.
It happened as HB 1821 came up for a second consideration on the House floor this week, one of the final chances for lawmakers to amend the bill before a final vote.
For advocates of Iran divestment, the addition of China and North Korea threatened to delay passage of the bill — and, if passed, delay implementation of the bill as well.
Hank Butler, executive director of the Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition, a statewide lobbying group working toward Iran divestment, said he told Reichley, “We fully understand and respect your argument, but we don’t want to hinder this bill.”
Iran and Sudan both rank as high priorities in the world Jewish community, even though the nuclear ambitions of Iran threaten the security of Israel, while the human rights abuses in Darfur and South Sudan do not explicitly impact the lives of Jews.
But for Butler, the concern was less about whether the causes are Jewish or not than about finally moving legislation that has faced obstacles and delays in recent years.
Adding North Korea, he said, would mean first figuring out which companies even do business in that country. Advocates of Iran divestment, like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, have already done similar legwork about the economy of Iran, and advocates for divesting funds of Sudan assets have lists for that African country.
Those lists made it easier for the state to begin divesting the Pennsylvania Tobacco Settlement Investment Fund of Iranian and Sudanese assets this past February.
Without a list, the implementation of the bill — where fund managers go through portfolios looking for assets that meet the threshold for divestment — would take longer.
“We have everything ready to go,” Butler said.
With China added to the legislation, Pennsylvania would have “no companies left” to invest in, Butler said, making it unlikely legislators would be willing to pass the bill.
Reichley ultimately agreed to remove his amendments, and instead made a statement on the House floor this week to voice his concerns about China and North Korea. He said Shapiro offered to hold a public information meeting to help publicize those concerns.
The bill passed second consideration, meaning it needs one final vote before being able to move to the Senate — where a companion bill is being debated — and possibly into law.
The back-and-forth is the first public movement on divestment legislation in the state since September, when a House committee approved the bill and added language to guide how the state should reimburse any losses to state funds caused by divestment.
Since then, the U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved the Iran Sanctions Enabling Act, which would make it easier for state and local governments to divest public funds of companies investing more than $20 million in Iran’s energy sector.
Rep. Mike Doyle, (D-Pa.) and Rep. Tim Murphy, (R-Pa.) both voted for the bill. The Senate is currently considering similar legislation.
(Eric Lidji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-687-1006.)