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Lawmakers Introduce Bills to Ban Teacher Strikes in Pennsylvania

Legislation has been introduced to make Pennsylvania the 38th state to ban teacher’s strikes.   The Strike-Free Education Pact would ban teacher strikes and lockouts in Pennsylvania and sets penalties for illegal work stoppages.  Representative Todd Rock (R-Franklin) says teacher strikes produce no winners. He says the biggest losers are always the children.

Rock says it’s not about punishing or taking rights away from teachers, it’s about restoring to every Pennsylvania child the legal right to a strike-free uninterrupted public education. He has proposed House Bill 1369 to ban strikes at the statutory level.

As part of the package, Representative Daryl Metcalfe (R-Butler) has introduced  House Bill 1640 to amend the state constitution to specifically ban strikes or lockouts of employees of public education. The line addressing strikes would be added to Article 3, Section 14 which now says the General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education.

Representative Paul Clymer (R-Bucks), chair of the state house Education Committee, says government agencies play an important role that should not be interrupted by the collective bargaining process.

Representative Dan Truitt (R-Chester) says this is not about punishing teachers. He says he doesn’t blame teachers for taking advantage of the current system. Truitt believes the unions are too willing to use the strike option to gain an unfair advantage.  He believes the legislation is needed to level the playing field between the school districts and the teachers unions for the sake of the students, taxpayers and the teachers.

Representative Daryl Meltcalfe says the General Assembly is responsible for providing for a thorough and efficient system of public education.  He says allowing for teacher strikes as our current law does, creates inefficiency.

Voter ID Bill Blasted by State House Democrats, Defended by Sponsor

State House Democrats are attacking a Voter ID bill that may come up for a final vote this week in the house.   Representative Babette Josephs (D-Philadelphia) says the Republicans in the General Assembly are poised to suppress the votes of law abiding citizens.   

House Democratic Leader Frank Dermody (D-Allegheny) called it a smokescreen. He says there’s no evidence of widespread or any voter fraud in Pennsylvania.

Representative Dan Frankel (D-Allegheny), caucus chair, called it a blatant political play.  He says it would stop people who don’t have government-issued photo ID from voting, including many people who don’t have driver’s licenses such as senior citizens and those who ride the bus.

Democrats also say the bill could cost the state millions to implement, with costs for publicizing the change and providing valid photo ID to those voters who do not currently have them.  

The measure, House Bill 934, is scheduled for a final vote on Wednesday.

The sponsor, Representative Daryl Metcalfe (R-Butler), calls it common sense legislation. He says it’s a matter of ensuring that there’s integrity in the process.

Representative Metcalfe says costs should not be as high as some people claim. He says there’s a process that occurs every election cycle to notify people of changes at the next election. 

In response to criticism that there’s no evidence of voter fraud, Representative Metcalfe says if you don’t have a checks and balance system in place, it’s kind of hard to prosecute something that you’re not checking for at the polls.

He adds the Supreme Court has upheld a similar law in Indiana.

Several groups are on record as opposing the bill,  including the ACLU of Pennsylvania, the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Alliance for Retired Americans.

Somerset County Courthouse

Reporting from Somerset County

Santorum Campaign Kick-Off

Rick Santorum launches his presidential bid

The latest voice in a crowded GOP presidential field belongs to former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum.  Launching his White House bid from the steps of the Somerset County Courthouse, Santorum said America is great because it was founded that way – not because of its government.  Santorum chose Somerset, PA for the announcement because his grandfather came there in 1927: “Because he knew that America believed in him, believed in people, gave people a shot.  If they worked hard, they could succeed.  That’s the America that my grandfather came to… and that’s the America that we need again today.” 

Among the hundreds of folks gathered on the courthouse steps, we caught up with staunch supporters, the curious, and everyone in between.  “I’m not necessarily a fan, I’m an independent, but he’s a hometown boy,” said Georgia Sheftic of Stoystown, who noted that she was listening closely to Santorum’s message.  Dean Mickey only had to walk a few blocks from his home to attend Monday’s announcement in Somerset.  “I like what he espouses.  He’s pro-life, he’s a conservative, and he’s a family man,” Mickey says.  Mickey’s confident that GOP primary voters will come around to Santorum.  “He appeals to a lot of people.  He might not be middle of the road, but those who believe what I believe are going to come to him without a doubt.” 

Santorum reached out to his social conservative base when he criticized President Barack Obama for devaluing not just our currency — but our moral currency too.  Amid vigorous applause Santorum said Obama was doing so by not standing up for the Defense of Marriage Act, and through the federal funding of abortions.  Santorum spoke passionately about his opposition to the federal health care reform law, which he referred to as ‘Obamacare.’  “Why do you think they worked so hard?  Why do you think they were willing to break every rule?  Why do you think they were willing to lose this election?  Why do you think they ignored the polls, and jammed it down the throats of the American public?”  Many in the crowd answered in unison with Santorum, “Power.” 

A poll released last week from the Pew Research Center showed that Santorum has a lot of ground to make up – as he currently has only 48% name recognition among Republican and Republican-leaning voters.  The former Senator from Pennsylvania will spend the rest of the week in the early primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire as he looks to make up that ground.  Meanwhile, Santorum’s not the only GOP presidential candidate with strong Pennsylvania ties: Newt Gingrich was born in Harrisburg, and Ron Paul was born and raised in Pittsburgh.  Paul also graduated from Gettysburg College.

Rick Santorum Is Officially in the Race for the White House

    Former U.S. Senator Rick Santorum used the Somerset County Courthouse as a backdrop as he made his official announcement that he’s running for President of the United States in 2012. On a bright, sunny day in western Pennsylvania, Santorum’s speech was momentarily interrupted when a spectator fainted near the stage. After assisting those who helped the unnamed supporter to their feet, Santorum returned to the lectern to finish his speech.

    Santorum says he chose Somerset County for his announcement because his grandfather left Italy to come to the area as a coal miner in 1927. That was just 5 years after Benito Mussolini took power, and Santorum says his grandfather left the old country for one word: “freedom.”

    The former Senator and Congressman also took several jabs at President Barack Obama, saying the President had devalued America’s currency through his economic policies, but also devalued the nation’s “moral currency” through a social agenda that includes federal funding of abortions and the President’s lack of support for the Defense of Marriage Act.

    Santorum joins a crowded, but wide open Republican presidential field that already includes Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Tim Pawlenty and Herman Cain, among others. He has spent months unofficially campaigning in early primary and caucus states like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, including an appearance at the first GOP debate in South Carolina last month. The next Republican debate is scheduled one week from today in New Hampshire. It will be the biggest stage yet in the burgeoning race for the 2012 Republican nomination.

Somerset County Courthouse

Rick Santorum to Announce for President Today

    He’s been running for months, visiting early primary and caucus states like Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, but today former Pennsylvania U.S. Senator Rick Santorum makes it official: he is a candidate for President of the United States.

    Santorum has chosen to make his announcement on the steps of the Somerset County Courthouse. The former Congressman and two-term U.S. Senator from western Pennsylvania also has a residence in Virginia. Santorum was defeated for re-election to a 3rd term in the Senate by Bob Casey, Jr. in 2006 and has since spent time on the lecture circuit and setting up his exploratory committee. He may not have the name recognition of some other declared GOP hopefuls and prospective candidates, but Santorum has demonstrated that he has some support in the Republican base.

    Santorum’s years in the Senate are perhaps best marked by his fight against the procedure opponents dubbed “partial birth abortion.” He led the fight to pass legislation against the procedure and stood with then-President George W. Bush when the ban was signed into law in 2003.

    Santorum has been married to wife Karen for 21 years and they have 7 children.

Ruffed Grouse in the Wild

Habitat Improvement Projects Underway

Wildlife habitat improvement projects are underway, this spring, on Pennsylvania’s 1.4-million acres of State Game Lands.  “In today’s age it’s not hard to understand there’s an enormous amount of landscape that’s being turned from wildlife habitat due to developments,” says Pennsylvania Game Commission spokesman Jerry Feaser.  That’s why he tells us it’s critical to ensure that wildlife have access to shelter, food and water.  The projects include food plots, wetland restoration and specific timber cuts to benefit wildlife.  “So that there’s more of a diversity of the vegetation that benefits a wide array of wildlife.”   

Pennsylvania’s Wildlife Action Plan shows that 300 acres of habitat are being lost every day.  The primary culprit: urban/suburban sprawl.  “While that also creates some different, alternative habitat for a host of smaller wildlife,” Feaser says, “It still creates problems because that diversity that wildlife depends on has been taken away in some cases.”  Many tracts of State Game Lands were formerly stripped or mined, and the Game Commission projects are designed to ensure that the vegetation that returns will be beneficial to wildlife. 

State law requires the Game Commission to spend a minimum of $4.25 per general hunting license, and $2.00 for each antlerless deer license on habitat improvement each year.  “We as an agency have exceeded that legislated minimum by several hundred thousand dollars annually,” Feaser says.  During the 2009-2010 license year, the Game Commission spent $5.9-million dollars on habitat improvement projects.  That’s more than $570,000 dollars over the mandated minimum based on the number of licenses sold.  The Game Commission does not receive any state taxpayer dollars. 

In unrelated Game Commission news, they’ve teamed up with the Pittsburgh Pirates to offer discounted tickets to fans with a hunting or furtaker license.  The promotion applies to select home games in July, August and September.

Wegmans Pulling out of Wine Kiosk Program

The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board is losing almost one-third of its existing wine kiosk locations.   Wegmans Food Markets has notified the LCB it will be removing the wine kiosks serving 10 of its stores in Pennsylvania, saying they did not fit well with the store environment.

 In a statement, the company said they hoped its customers would find the kiosks to be a valuable addition to their shopping experience, but that proved not to be the case.  The statement says customers want the convenience of purchasing wine in a supermarket, but found the choice of items too limited in the kiosk.   

Stacey Witalec, spokeswoman for the LCB, says the decision will not affect the kiosk program.  She says they’re focused on bringing convenience, selection and value to customers through the kiosk opportunity.  She says they will continue to focus on the locations that are still operating as well as any future opportunities.

There are 22 other kiosks statewide and a number of leases pending with Wal-Mart’s stores.

 Witalec says the LCB continues to evaluate the program, as they have done since the pilot launched last June.  She says they will continue to listen to their customers, making sure they’re seeing the selections they’d really like to purchase in the kiosk in their area.

Under the Capitol Dome

What Should Lawmakers Do With Unanticipated Revenue?

Sen. Jay Costa

Sen. Jay Costa

Almost everyone expects an on-time budget, for a change.  But there’s no consensus on how to handle state revenues that have come in $540-million dollars above estimate through the first 11-months of the fiscal year.  Senate Minority leader Jay Costa (D-Allegheny) says it should be used to mitigate proposed education budget cuts for the new fiscal year, which starts on July 1st.  “It’s very hard to defend – given the nature of the reductions in expenditures that are being proposed – that we can squirrel away $600-million dollars,” Costa says, as he predicts the state will end the fiscal year with a $580 – $600-million dollar surplus.

“We will ultimately use about half of the budget surplus, or somewhere in that vicinity, is sort of my prediction in terms of where we are going,” Costa tells us.  He adds that it’s still not enough for Senate Democrats’ liking, but that the cuts won’t be as “draconian” as they are now.  Earlier in the week, a Senate Republican spokesman told us they will seek to use “some” of the surplus to soften the impact of education and hospital cuts. 

House Republicans, however, passed a $27.3-billion dollar budget that would not spend this year’s higher-than-expected revenues.  During last month’s budget debates, Appropriations chair Bill Adolph (R-Delaware) stressed that we don’t know if this revenue is sustainable.  “Calls for increased spending, based upon a few months of bringing in more money than expected, are irresponsible in our current economic climate.” 

That’s long been the stance of the Corbett administration, and it seems they have at least one Democrat on their side.  “I think Governor Corbett is right to say that the majority of the surplus needs to be kept in reserve for the unknown,” says Auditor General Jack Wagner, who finished second in the 2010 Democratic gubernatorial primary.  Asked about the budget battle at an unrelated news conference, Wagner cautioned that Pennsylvania’s liabilities dwarf any surplus.  He cites additional pension obligations, money owed to the Pennsylvania Employee Benefit Trust Fund and a pending labor contract, just to name a few.        

The state budget deadline is June 30th.  Senate Republican Appropriations chair Jake Corman (R-Centre) recently told us that he expects to have an “action plan” by the end of the week.

Pennsylvania Spellers Finish 1st & 3rd at Scripps National Spelling Bee

    14-year old Sukanya Roy of South Abington Township near Scranton is the winner of the 84th Annual Scripps National Spelling Bee. Roy won the title last night by correctly spelling “cymotrichous” in round 20. By contrast, last year’s spelling bee only lasted 9 rounds.

    Roy won the trophy and the lucrative prizes that come with the national championship, after outlasting 274 other spellers this week. The finals were held in suburban Washington, D.C. and were broadcast nationally on ESPN.

    Pennsylvania was well represented in the bee, placing 4 spellers among the 41 to advance to the semi-finals. That was more than any other state. In addition, Carlisle’s Joanna Ye finished in a tie for 3rd place after spelling out in the 17th round. Ye finished tied for 5th in 2010, but this was her final year of eligibility.

Motorcoach Enforcement Effort in Pennsylvania Puts Buses, Drivers Out of Service

State Police conducted a seven day enforcement blitz on tour buses last month.   The enforcement effort from May 15th to 21st concentrated on popular travel destinations.  369 motor coaches were inspected at casinos, amusement parks and other spots across the state. As a result, 26 of the vehicles and 16 drivers were placed out of service.

State Police spokesman Jack Lewis says the reasons varied from brakes not in proper alignment to drivers not having proper documents with them. He says there are a wide variety of things that can cause a vehicle or driver to be placed out of service. However, when that happens during a trip, the bus company has to send a replacement bus or replacement driver.

Lewis says motor coach safety has become a high visibility issue after recent crashes in the United States.  He says law enforcement wants to take all the steps it can to make sure bus passengers are safe.

Lewis adds the great majority of motorcoach operators are doing everything they can to make sure their vehicles and drivers are in good shape and properly documented. He says in those cases where there are violations, they want to make sure the message gets to the companies that officials will not accept problems with vehicles or drivers.

 Four State Police troops, the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh Police departments and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration took part the enforcement effort.