State Capitol Facing North Office Building

Senate Approves Drivers Cell Phone Ban

Texting While Driving

Texting While Driving Would be a Primary Offense Under SB 314

Texting while driving would be a primary offense.  Talking on a hand-held cell phone while driving would be a secondary offense, under legislation that passed the State Senate Wednesday afternoon.  It started out as a simple secondary offense texting ban, but Tommy Tomlinson’s bill was amended in committee to include hand-held cell phones and other language.  On the floor, Senator Jim Ferlo (D-Allegheny) was successful in changing the texting violation to a primary offense, which means it can be the sole reason a driver is stopped by police.  Violators would face a $100-dollar fine.    

“I personally argue that the whole bill should be a primary offense,” Ferlo tells us, “But I’m in the minority on this issue, so I thought it was tactically appropriate to try to win majority support… on the issue of text messaging.”  The Senate vote was 41 – 8 on the bill, as amended.  Senator Tomlinson (R-Bucks) supports the bill in its current form, but knows the process isn’t over.  “I don’t believe this is the final version of this bill.  I still think there will be continued negotiations and compromise,” Tomlinson said on the Senate floor. 

Up next for the bill is the State House, where a tougher distracted driving bill was amended with bipartisan support last month.  However, that legislation has not yet been brought up for final votes.  33-states currently ban texting while driving.  9-states have banned talking on hand-held cell phones behind the wheel.

Human Trafficking Response Team

PA’s First Human Trafficking Response Team Announced

Police, prosecutors and non-profit groups have joined forces to announce the state’s first Human Trafficking Response Team.  It will cover a five county area in Central Pennsylvania, according to Dauphin County District Attorney Ed Marsico.  “Just as we’re a major pass through for commerce, we can also be a thoroughfare for human trafficking,” Marsico said at a Wednesday news conference.  Marsico is also president of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association (PDAA), which made the announcement alongside the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape (PCAR).

PCAR’s Criminal Justice Specialist, Krista Hoffman, says human trafficking does occur in Pennsylvania.  “Every year between 100,000 and 300,000 US kids… are trafficked for prostitution within the United States,” she says.  Human trafficking became a criminal offense in Pennsylvania in 2005, and it occurs when a person is forced, coerced, threatened or deceived into performing labor or prostitution.  Hoffman notes that it does not have to involve travel.    

A grant from the Department of Health and Human Services will help to train a multidisciplinary team to respond to potential crimes of human trafficking in Dauphin, Adams, Cumberland, Perry and Franklin Counties.   But, officials see room for expansion.  “[It can] become an example of a best practice for the rest of Pennsylvania, and others throughout the country,” Marsico says.  Hoffman echoed those thoughts after the news conference: “If we can take our model of the five-county human trafficking task force and then expand it and really roll it out to the rest of Pennsylvania, I think it would be very effective.”

Marcellus Shale Protesters

Shale Protesters Complain of Inaction

Several hundred protesters, representing 13-environmental and related groups, converged on the state capitol Tuesday.  “We keep coming back to Harrisburg because [Marcellus Shale] drilling’s been going on in Pennsylvania for almost four years now, and what has our state legislature done?  They have done nothing,” said Myron Arnowitt, Pennsylvania state director of Clean Water Action.  Arnowitt called for a moratorium on natural gas drilling, until an impact study can be complete.  Protesters also called for a Marcellus Shale severance tax.  “Poll after poll tells us that the majority of Pennsylvanians want industry to pay their fair share in taxes, and they want clean air and clean water,” said Erika Staaf, PennEnvironment’s clean water advocate. 

State Senate Democrats

Senate Democrats talk state budget priorities

The protesters’ chants started filling the state capitol rotunda mere minutes after several member of the Senate Democratic caucus concluded a separate news conference on their state budget priorities.  But, there was some overlap in the two events.  Senate Democratic leader Jay Costa (D-Allegheny) said natural gas drillers should be a part of the budget solution, not a part of the budget problem.  “We believe that the conversation about the Marcellus extraction tax must take place now, must take place as a part of this budget, and must be as comprehensive as possible,” Costa said. 

Democrats and Republicans in Harrisburg have come forward, this session, with a variety of Marcellus Shale severance tax and/or impact fee proposals.  Governor Tom Corbett made a no tax pledge during the 2010 campaign, but has left the door open for a local impact fee, as long as no revenue goes to pad state coffers.  Corbett’s Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission has meetings scheduled through July 15th.  Their recommendations are due at the end of July, however the state budget deadline is June 30th.

AARP Lobby Day

A ‘Sea of Red’ at the State Capitol

Dick Chevrefils

Dick Chevrefils talks with Radio PA

Between 800 and 1,000 Pennsylvania members of AARP gathered on the state capitol lawn, Tuesday, for their annual lobby day.  All donned red AARP t-shirts.  State director Dick Chevrefils says they came to share their voices with the legislature about the issues that are important to the AARP.  “There’s a family caregiver piece of legislation that’s in both the House and Senate that we’re hoping is going to pass because it’s going to make a big impact on people that have the responsibility of caring for a loved one.”

The bills (HB 210 and SB 639) would allow neighbors and friends to enroll in the Family Caregiver Support Program, which is currently only open to relatives.  It would also increase the maximum monthly reimbursement from $200 to $600.  “It’s not going to cost the state any additional money… the funds are already there,” Chevrefils tells us.  The program is funded through state lottery revenues and federal sources.  Both bills have already passed the committee level and await additional action in their respective chambers. 

AARP members are also paying close attention to the state budget debate.  “We’re waiting to get a full picture of the budget, but at this point it’s basically watching and making sure we’re protecting the people of Pennsylvania,” Chevrefils says.  Their goal is to ensure there’s no loss to the funding for services that help people maintain their independence and stay in their homes: “When you see that sea of red, it’s the collective power of people coming together.  These people care about everybody – not only older people – but children, families, people with disabilities.  It’s all about people.”

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.