Tom Vilsak - File Photo

Biomass Project Will Benefit Western PA

The USDA is targeting 5,344 acres in northeast Ohio and northwest Pennsylvania for a new Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP) project.  US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says they will incentivize to grow “giant miscanthus,” which is a hybrid grass that can grow 13-feet tall.  “The land that will be used to grow this crop will be land that would most likely not be used for traditional crop production,” Vilsack said in a conference call with PA and OH media.  Vilsack says the miscanthus will be turned into pellets: “Which in turn will be used by electric companies to produce power and electricity.”   

The seven-county area includes Erie, Crawford and Mercer counties in Pennsylvania’s northwest corner.  “We believe that as many as 1,200 jobs will eventually be created,” Vilsack says.  Eventually, the USDA hopes there will be enough interest in these biomass pellets to create an export market.  Pennsylvania’s alternative energy portfolio standard is 18% by 2020, and at least 8% of that should come from renewable energy sources like biomass.   

Vilsack, by the way, is a Pittsburgh native.

Santorum Greets Supporters in Somerset Co.

Santorum 2nd in Pennsylvania Presidential Poll

The GOP primary may well be decided by the time Pennsylvanians vote in 2012, but the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute didn’t shy away from the chance to take the pulse of PA voters.  Former Pennsylvania US Senator Rick Santorum comes in second in his home state, with 16% support. Frontrunner Mitt Romney leads PA with 21%.  Sarah Palin captured third place with 11%, despite the fact that she’s made no announcement concerning her candidacy.  While Santorum had a decent showing in today’s Pennsylvania poll, most national polls place him toward the bottom of the crowded GOP field. 

President Obama would win the hypothetical matchup with Rick Santorum in Pennsylvania, 49 – 38.  Obama’s approval rating in PA, according to the Q-Poll, is split 48 – 48.  That’s a marked improvement from the April poll, which showed Obama in negative territory (42 – 53).  “Whether it’s still the Osama bin Laden bounce, or because voters are taking a closer look at the alternatives, President Barack Obama’s fortunes in Pennsylvania, a critical swing state in presidential elections, have improved – at least for now,” says Quinnipiac pollster Tim Malloy. 

There are two other Republican contenders with PA ties.  Ron Paul – a Pittsburgh native – netted 6% in today’s poll.  Newt Gingrich – a Harrisburg native – received 5%.

*Photo of the Penn State Team was provided by EcoCAR.

EcoCAR Challenge Nearing Completion, Pennsylvania Team One of 16 in Competition

For three years, students from 16 North American schools have part of the EcoCAR Challenge.   Penn State University’s team has been working on an extended range electronic vehicle, and this year the team had to refine it to near showroom quality. While the vehicle must perform on the road like a standard SUV, there’s a big difference under the hood.

Team member Shawn Getty, a graduate student at Penn State, says the vehicle is a series hybrid. The engine is coupled to the generator- which makes electricity that goes to the batteries. The electricity stored in the batteries goes to an electric motor which drives the wheels. There is no transmission.  The vehicle has an electric range of about 35 miles, and can run on batteries or the diesel engine.

Getty says the team has been doing well this year, placing third in the autocross and completing the 100 mile event course, which only five of the sixteen teams have been able to complete.  He says the vehicle has been running vehicle well.

The EcoCAR: The NeXt Challenge was established by the United States Department of Energy and General Motors.  You can learn more at www.ecocarchallenge.org.

The overall EcoCAR winner titles will be announced in Washington D.C. on Thursday, June 16.

The Penn State team is also on line at www.hev.psu.edu.

**Photo of the Penn State Team was provided by EcoCAR.

Capitol Rotunda Light Fixture

The Challenge of Congressional Redistricting

State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R-Butler)

Darly Metcalfe Seeks Congressional Map that's Legal, Constitutional and Fair

Every ten years state lawmakers are called upon to redraw the state’s Congressional map.  In addition to ensuring population equity and fair representation of minorities, PA lawmakers must again account for the loss of a Congressional seat due to population shifts.  “When you’re shrinking from 19-members in Congress to 18, you have to grow the districts, and somebody’s going to lose a Congressman,” says State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R-Butler), who chairs the House State Government Committee.  The House and Senate State Government Committees have just wrapped up a third joint public hearing on the Congressional redistricting process. 

Executive director of Common Cause PA, Barry Kauffman, offered his redistricting wish list during Tuesday’s testimony.  He told the committee that respect for county and municipal boundaries should be a central feature.  “People need to know who their legislator is, both in order to contact her or him, and to be motivated to vote.  And, uncertainty is depressing both to citizen action and voter turnout.” 

Kauffman also argued in favor of compact districts: “The more linear a district is, and the less it resembles either an ideal circle or hexagonal shape, the harder it becomes for people to know their representatives, to feel themselves as a part of a community of interest, to care about elections, or to participate themselves,” Kauffman testified.   

While Kauffman raised concerns of “painfully convoluted” districts, Rep. Metcalfe did not commit to specifics in the eventual Congressional map.  “I will stand for making sure that the final product is constitutional, legal and fair,” Metcalfe told reporters after Tuesday’s capitol hearing.  No additional public hearings are planned at this time, but the committees will schedule more as needed.  Metcalfe hopes for a final product in mid to late fall.      

Congressional redistricting is traditionally done through the legislative process in Harrisburg.  Like other legislation, a bill must be passed by both chambers and be signed by the governor.  It is separate from the legislative redistricting process, which is handled by the Legislative Reapportionment Commission. 

PA's Current Congressional Map

PA's Current Congressional Map

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.