Capitol Rotunda - Facing House Chamber

Voters Split on Governor Tom Corbett

A new Quinnipiac Poll finds a split job approval rating (39 – 38) for Governor Tom Corbett.  While 39% is a relatively low job approval number, pollster Tim Malloy says there is some good news: “He is doing far better than his counterparts; Gov. Scott of Florida, Gov. Kasich of Ohio, who are in negative territory.”  A widening gender gap appears to be contributing to Governor Corbett’s lukewarm numbers.  “He’s far more popular with men than he is with women,” says Malloy, “There’s an 18 percentage point difference.”  That gap was just seven points in the April Quinnipiac Poll.  23% of PA voters are still undecided on Governor Corbett.  “It could work for him or against him down the road, but it’s a big number that he would obviously try to solicit and win over,” Malloy tells us.

Today’s poll also finds that by roughly 2 to 1 margins, Pennsylvanians support Marcellus Shale drilling, and a tax on the natural gas drilling companies.  Malloy summed it up by saying, “It is drill baby drill, and it is also tax baby tax.”  As those Marcellus Shale poll numbers were being released, the State Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee advanced an amended Marcellus Shale “impact fee” proposal, which would direct revenue to affected counties and municipalities.

Whitetail Deer

Should PA Lift its Sunday Hunting Ban?

Pennsylvania’s prohibition on Sunday hunting doesn’t mesh with today’s busy lifestyles, according to State Rep. John Evans (R-Erie), who chairs the House Game and Fisheries Committee.  “There are limited opportunities that folks have to go out into the field,” Evans tells us.  In the weeks ahead, Evans will introduce legislation that would simply lift the ban.  “We’re not going to try to dictate to the Game Commission what opportunities should be made available to Sunday hunting… but we just want to bring ourselves in line with [nearly] 40-other states that currently permit at least some form of Sunday hunting,” Evans says. 

The Pennsylvania Farm Bureau can be counted among the vocal opponents of Sunday hunting.  “What farmers want is that one day a week, during the hunting seasons, when they can relax and have some peace on their own property,” says PFB spokesman Mark O’Neill.  Farmers and other private landowners control about 80% of the huntable land in the Keystone State, and O’Neill says many farmers open up their property to hunters in order to control wildlife populations.  “Farmers are not anti-hunting, they’re pro-hunting, but they just feel that Sunday is the day that should be left to other enterprises… or just taking it easy.”   

On the flip-side, Evans says we’ve already gotten away from the “blue law” mentality that was behind PA’s Sunday hunting prohibition.  “We can buy liquor in state liquor stores on Sunday, for goodness sakes,” he points out.  Evans also notes that farmers – or any private landowner – would be able to post their land to disallow Sunday hunting at any time.    

Rep. Evans’ committee is in the midst of three statewide hearings on the topic.  The first was held last week in Somerset County; the next two will be scheduled for northeastern PA, and the state capitol.  The Pennsylvania Game Commission does not take a position on the Sunday hunting issue.

Bill Calls for Funding, Accountability Changes for Charter, Cyber Schools in Pennsylvania

The Democratic chairman of the state House Education Committee is proposing changes to the funding and oversight of cyber charter and charter schools in Pennsylvania.    Representative Jim Roebuck (D-Phila) says the amendments to the state’s Charter and Cyber Charter School law would improve administrative oversight and accountability.

Roebuck says the bill would establish state responsibility for funding cyber charter schools, relieving school districts of a major funding mandate.  He adds that school districts would not receive any state funding for students residing in their district who attend cyber charter schools.

Roebuck says since it is the state, through the Department of Education, that approves, renews and monitors cyber charter schools, he believes it should also be the responsibility of the state to fund those schools.  He says the state cannot afford to delay the issue of funding cyber charter schools, calling the current system an unfair funding mandate on local school districts.

Representative James Roebuck, Jr.

Matt Pryzywara, chief financial officer of the School District of Lancaster, agrees that  a change is needed in the way cyber charter schools are funded.  He says school districts make vastly different payments, with some paying more than the actual cost of instruction and some paying less.  He says this leads to some districts subsidizing cyber school students from other districts.

The bill would also create an office of Charter and Cyber Schools within the state Education Department which would have oversight responsibilities and could investigate complaints of fraud, waste and mismanagement.

Other bills (SB 904, HB 1348) to amend the Charter and Cyber Charter School law have been introduced in the Senate and House.  Representative Roebuck’s bill differs from those in several ways, most notably regarding the funding of Cyber Charter Schools.

New Voter ID Requirements?

State House to Consider Voter ID Bill

Gov. Tom Corbett

Governor Tom Corbett Would Sign a Voter ID Bill

The State House is expected to begin debating a controversial voter ID bill this week.  It would require all voters to present a valid photo ID each time they go to the ballot box, and Governor Tom Corbett says he would sign such a bill.  “I think we want to keep the integrity of the voting process, we want to make sure that the person who appears there is the person who is supposed to be there, and that they haven’t gone to four or five different locations,” Corbett said on the Ask the Governor program, which is featured here at PAMatters.com.  “Do I believe there’s voter fraud out there?  Sure there is.  I don’t think it’s a huge problem, but there are places it could be a problem.” 

State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R-Butler) is the prime sponsor of HB 934, which currently awaits second consideration in the State House.  He modeled the bill after legislation which was approved in Indiana, and subsequently upheld as constitutional by the US Supreme Court. 

While supporters point out that photo IDs are necessary for everything from boarding an airplane to entering some public buildings – critics counter that voting is a right, not a privilege.  “There isn’t one example that we have heard that deals with requiring additional ID for something that is a right,” says Bonita Hoke, executive director of the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania.  The LWVPA recently passed a resolution calling on the General Assembly to defeat Metcalfe’s bill. 

Hoke tells us photo ID requirements would create a “real hardship” for some voters, particularly disabled and older Pennsylvanians.  However, Governor Corbett doesn’t think it’s too big of an imposition.  “Most people have a driver’s license, so I think the vast majority of Pennsylvanians already have their form of official ID,” Corbett said. 

Similar legislation earned legislative approval but was vetoed by Governor Ed Rendell in 2006.  State law currently requires proof of identification at the polls only on a person’s first time voting in a particular polling place.  If you do not have a photo ID, you are allowed to use a current utility bill, current paycheck or a firearm permit as approved non-photo identification.

PennDOT Vehicle Registration Sticker

Transportation Commission Works Toward August Goal

The Transportation Funding Advisory Commission, created by Governor Tom Corbett’s executive order, is on pace to submit recommendations by August 1st.  PennDOT spokesman Dennis Buterbaugh says the objective is to find another $2-billion to $2.5-billion dollars to annually inject into Pennsylvania’s transportation infrastructure.  That’s the majority of an annual $3-billion dollar transportation funding gap that was identified in a previous study.

So what is the commission discussing?  “It can be something as small as eliminating the annual registration sticker on your license plate.  That can save the Commonwealth some money.  Many states have taken that step,” Buterbaugh tells us.  Another simple step that may be recommended involves the drivers license renewal process.  “Currently the drivers license time is four years.  There’s been talk about possibly extending that, because there’s a cost savings to the Commonwealth,” Buterbaugh adds.

As far as big ticket items go, Buterbaugh confirms the commission did hear a presentation on the possible tolling of Route 422 in the southeast.  Tolling may or may not be a part of the recommended solution.  “But the Commission is not going to make any decision on any specific route”

A hike in the gas tax appears to be off-the-table.  “The gasoline tax is a little bit like chasing your tail,” PennDOT Secretary Barry Schoch recently said.  Schoch is also chairman of the governor’s commission.  Their next meeting is set for June 27th in Harrisburg.

Governor Tom Corbett Addresses Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce

Governor Tom Corbett Not Budging on Surplus Issue

Through the first eleven months of the fiscal year, the Department of Revenue reports that collections have outpaced expectations to the tune of $540-million dollars.  Many lawmakers are ready to tap into that money to mitigate some of the proposed budget cuts.  However, Governor Tom Corbett isn’t ready to use the “S” word… surplus.  “I don’t know how you have a surplus when we know that Pennsylvania – because of the recession, because of the number of people who lost jobs – had to borrow money from the federal government, [and] owes the federal government $3.7-billion dollars as we sit here today.” 

Governor Corbett’s comments came on Radio PA’s monthly Ask the Governor program, which is featured here in PAMatters.com.  Corbett said he’s sticking to the $27.3-billion dollar framework he laid out during his March 8th budget address: “That allows everybody to plan based upon that number, and to make the difficult cuts, and I wish they didn’t have to make those cuts.  I don’t want to have to make those cuts, but it’s necessary to get our house in order.” 

Corbett has come under fire in recent months for the education cuts he’s proposed for next year’s budget.  “We didn’t do this lightly, we’re not being hard-hearted about this, but we have a $4.2-billion dollar hole in the budget,” Corbett says, referring to the structural deficit that exists in large part to the expiration of the federal stimulus program.  Corbett points out that basic education has been held at pre-stimulus levels (see insert). 

Basic Ed. Funding Chart

House Republicans’ budget bill would restore $100-million dollars to the basic education funding line item, and account for an additional $380-million dollars for higher education.  Governor Corbett’s original budget plan would have slashed funding for the State System of Higher Education, and State Related universities, in half.  But House Republicans didn’t add to the $27.3-billion dollar bottom line – they instead trimmed an additional $470-million dollars in welfare spending.  Asked about those projections, Corbett was skeptical: “Do I believe we’re going to find savings in the Department of [Public] Welfare?  Yes.  Am I going to find it at the rate, at the number and at the speed that we need to for one fiscal year?  I have grave concerns about that.  I’m a very cautious person.” 

Corbett, House and Senate leaders will flesh out their budget priorities in the weeks ahead, in hopes of meeting the June 30th budget deadline.  If successful, it would be the first on-time state budget in eight years.

June 11th is “Get Outdoors Day”

This Saturday (June 11) is “Get Outdoors Day”.   Surveys show that kids spend 50% less time outdoors than they did 20 years ago according to Jim Hubbard, Deputy Chief for the U. S. Forest Service

Hubbard says they want families to reconnect and experience nature. He says just being there is worth it.  He says people will experience what it’s like to stand on a trail in the trees or listen to birds and streams.

Hubbard says there are other benefits as well, such as stress reduction.  He says environmental awareness is also part of the campaign.

Hubbard says if you can’t take part in an activity scheduled for “Get Outdoors Day”, then just visit a national, state or local park. You can also just go outdoors near your home and take a walk.

Hubbard says there are special activities across the country on Saturday.  You can find a list of events near your home at discovertheforest.org.

In Pennsylvania, events are taking place at Bald Eagle, Moraine, Parker Dam and Pine Grove Furnace state parks. The state has 117 state parks and 2.2 million acres of state forestland. You can get more information on events at state parks at www.dcnr.state.pa.us/Calendar

Governor Tom Corbett has proclaimed June as Great Outdoors Month in Pennsylvania. 

Boating at Moraine State Park

Sate Capitol View from Commonwealth Ave.

“Ask the Governor” Leaves the Launch Pad

    It had been 16 years since I last sat across the broadcast studio from Tom Corbett. Back in 1995, he was the newly-appointed Attorney General and I was just entering my 2nd year as an anchor & reporter at Radio PA. Flash forward to June 9th, 2011. He’s now the governor and I’m the Radio PA News Director.
    Our first “Ask the Governor” with Tom Corbett is in the vault. Video clips are available right here on PAMatters.com and the program is airing on dozens of radio stations across Pennsylvania. By all measures, the first program with Governor Corbett was a major success. We touched on numerous issues and had a great hour-long dialogue. The governor seemed to enjoy his time with us, and after the taping we were already talking about some of the things we’ll have in store for you in next month’s show. It’s also important to note that next month will be a big budget wrap-up show, as we expect the new budget to be signed and in place.
    For me, one of the more interesting segments of the debut show was a conversation about the media…specifically, the coverage in Harrisburg of a dispute between the Health Secretary and a local restaurant owner. The governor was candid and made some rare comments about the incident. It was an indicator to me that as this series progresses, the governor will not be shy about addressing any issue we bring up. As a journalist, that’s something I always appreciate and respect.
    Please check back regularly for more video clips and information about upcoming Ask the Governor programs, and feel free to send us your question or comment for Governor Corbett.

PA School Districts

Bill Aimed at Preventing Teacher Strikes Would Not Include an Outright Ban

One package of bills has been introduced to ban teacher strikes in Pennsylvania.  But   there’s another plan that would not go that far.  The “Back to Educating Our Kids” act would require negotiations between teachers and school districts to start earlier, dividing the process into negotiation, fact finding, mediation and arbitration. 

 If talks move to arbitration under the proposal, a decision would come well before the start of a school year and both sides would have ten days to accept the decision or reach an agreement. If there’s no final deal, Representative Steve Santarsiero (D-Bucks) says there would be penalties. Teachers could lose the right to strike and school districts could have state funding put in escrow until a deal is reached.

The measure, HB 1660, would also prohibit strikes and lockouts from the beginning of the negotiation process through the 10 day post-arbitration decision period.

Santarsiero, a former teacher, says  the act is designed to provide incentives for both sides to settle teacher contract disputes.  He says the problem with simply outlawing teacher strikes, is that it does not resolve what can be a festering contract dispute.

Representative Bernie O’Neill (R-Bucks) was a special education teacher in a district where he was once locked out in a contract dispute.  He supports the bill, saying he thinks it’s fair and puts responsibility on both sides of the aisle.

Representative Thomas Murt (R-Montgomery) is a former teacher and a former school board member.  Having seen the situation from both sides, he told Representative Santarsiero the bill is a step in the right direction. Murt said prolonged collective bargaining negotiations and strikes can cripple a child’s educational progress.  He says the act would address the situation by requiring teachers and school districts to begin negotiating sooner.

Pennsylvania Education Secretary says Educator Evaluation Results Show Need for Change

Education Secretary Ron Tomalis

Pennsylvania’s  education secretary says the results of teacher and principal evaluations in the 2009-10 school year in Pennsylvania raise serious concerns about the quality of the evaluation system.   Ron Tomalis says he has great concerns about a system that ranks nearly 100% of the educators as satisfactory, when one out of four of the students in Pennsylvania are not performing at grade level. 

Tomalis says the Corbett administration is proposing an aggressive and rigorous evaluation system. Half of the proposed evaluation would be  based on how well students are doing in the classroom, the rest would be determined by how well the teacher manages the class, how prepared they are and how knowledgeable they are on content.  

 Tomalis says Pennsylvania spends $700 million a year on professional development. He says they want to make sure that money is properly targeted.

Tomalis says the goal is not necessarily to remove struggling teachers from the classroom; they first want to see that these teachers can get the resources and assistance needed to get them up to speed,  where they will have a positive impact on student achievement.

Tomalis says the current evaluation system is a one-size-fits-all approach.

Tomalis says it doesn’t matter what class size you have, how much money is spent per pupil or how many computers there are in the classroom.  He says if you have a highly effective teacher, you’ll have a greater impact than all those other factors.

The goal is to start rolling out a new evaluation system in the 2012-2013 school year.