It’s been a year and a half since State Rep. Napoleon Nelson introduced the bipartisan Emerging Technologies Caucus in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, and since, new faces and initiatives have been brought to the table to advance PA’s tech rep.
With a session under the group’s belt, and incoming members of the state House being sworn in this month, Nelson, a Democrat from the 154th District in Greater Philadelphia’s Montgomery County, is optimistic about the topics the caucus will be able to tackle.
Nelson introduced the caucus in 2021. The legislator had a background in technology — degrees in computer science from MIT and finance from the Wharton School — and an interest in how blockchain technology, artificial intelligence, virtual reality and cybersecurity will shape the lives of Pennsylvanians. The aim of the caucus is to provide reasonable regulations and transparency around these emerging technologies that will protect state residents, while still attracting and retaining entrepreneurs to set up shop here.
Since its inception, the caucus has grown to 21 members, a bipartisan group that spans the state. The members aim to represent the technology needs and growth plans in the different environments of Pennsylvania, from more urban areas like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and from rural counties, like Butler and Cambria.
Nelson said they’re keeping in mind strategies and data found in a new Brookings report about how the state’s innovation landscape fares against others. Access to funding is something the caucus is aware would attract more tech entrepreneurs, as would startup-friendly legislation.
Caucus members have made headway with some emerging issues, like autonomous vehicles. Caucus members Rep. Robert Mercuri, of Allegheny County, Rep. Eric Nelson of Westmoreland County, Rep. Valerie Gaydos of Allegheny County and Rep. Marci Mustello of Butler County all sponsored House Bill 2398, which allowed for the regulation and operation of highly automated vehicles with or without a driver.
The bill was introduced and signed in November 2022. Rep. Donna Oberlander, one of the bill’s sponsors, said then that the legislation paves the way for the Commonwealth to take the lead in AV testing.
An earlier bill, House Bill 2098, sponsored by Rep. Eric Nelson in 2021, hasn’t been approved but brings regulatory and tax attention to the rental vehicle market.
“My peer-to-peer legislative package will ensure that our rental regulation is modernized to ensure one set of regulatory and tax obligations are applied to all rental transactions in Pennsylvania,” he wrote in a 2021 memo. “At the same time, it will ensure there are no barriers to companies who wish to make rentals available through digital, or technology enabled, methods. This will allow the industry to grow, while protecting consumers, and preventing tax revenue disruption in Pennsylvania.”
Caucus leader Nelson said he’s working on legislation related to blockchain technology, and will be looking into neural networks in artificial intelligence technology. He’s hoping the caucus becomes a group where members with varying interests and responsibilities to their constituents can bring tech issues to the table.
“This is a democratized space,” he said. “It’s about what’s new and emerging in your neck of the woods, what you’re curious about,” he said.
The caucus is still so new, it doesn’t yet have bylaws or a rigid structure, Nelson said. And like the House, it has a lot of turnover. He’s hoping incoming members to the legislature are interested, and more local events over the next term could bring out a bigger diversity of interests. He’s also aiming to work with newly inaugurated Gov. Josh Shapiro, maybe even elevating the tech interests to a cabinet position.
“We want to bring in members from across the state, really delve deeper into the real questions, and the ethical concerns,” Nelson said. “We’re aiming to help PA rather than be an entrepreneurial hurdle.”