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.

National Drivers Test

Are You Fit to Drive? I am

Cleaning out my inbox the other day, I spotted a news release slugged, “Nearly 1 in 5 American Drivers Unfit for the Road,” and it was just too tempting not to follow up.  It turns out GMAC Insurance has been conducting a National Drivers Test for seven years now, and 18% of American drivers failed in 2011.  Pretty bad, right?  Well, 19% of we Pennsylvanians failed the test too.  The Keystone State actually ranked 26th according to the GMAC data – a marked improvement from 2010 when PA came in 39th among states. 

Looking even more closely at the data, Pennsylvanians’ average score was 77.7% , just a hair below the national average.  I had envisioned myself writing this post while boasting a perfect score (but I think 95% is a perfectly acceptable score too).  PLEASE, someone tell me you too would be tripped up by this one:

“When you approach a traffic signal displaying a steady yellow light, you must:”

A: Go through the intersection before it turns red

B: Stop if it is safe to do so

C: Be prepared to stop

D: Slow down and proceed with caution

Seriously… B, C, and D are virtually the same thing?!?  Despite my complaints, the correct answer remained “B.”  GMAC’s chief marketing officer Scott Eckman tells me the question people miss the most is: “How far you should follow somebody.”  If you’re taking the test later on, just remember the three-second rule (and not the one that applies when you drop a pretzel in the newsroom). 

If you want to brush up on your driving knowledge, the PA driver’s manual is posted online.  While I was surfing around looking for it, I came across PennDOT’s own safe driver quiz.  I won’t go into details about my score on this one, but I did learn that the fine for failure to yield to a pedestrian is $50-bucks.  Also, ‘failure to restrain children up to age four in an appropriate child safety seat’ is apparently a primary violation of the state’s seat belt law (I gave myself a pass on that one since I don’t have kids).    

Good luck on those quizzes… and on the highways.

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.

Pennsylvania Finance Building

Auditor General Raises Red Flag on Tobacco Settlement Fund

Jack Wagner

Jack Wagner meets with the news media on Thursday

Fresh off of a series of five statewide public hearings, Auditor General Jack Wagner has delivered a special report to state lawmakers.  “It’s about time the General Assembly steps to the plate and listens to what the public is talking about in relation to their dollars, these tobacco settlement dollars,” Wagner said at a Thursday news conference.  “Overwhelmingly, in 99.9% of all the testimony we heard, the public wants these dollars to be spent for health-related purposes.”  Wagner says that was the intent behind the Tobacco Settlement Act of 2001, but about $1.3-billion dollars has been quietly diverted to other budget purposes over the past six years. 

Pennsylvania has been receiving $350-million tobacco settlement dollars a year, and is expected to continue to receive that money for at least the next 15-years.  Two of the high-profile uses spelled out in Act 77 of 2001 were the adultBasic health insurance program, and tobacco use prevention and cessation programs.  The adultBasic program expired earlier this year due to a lack of funds, but Wagner says it can still be salvaged with a combination of public and private financing.  “There is a significant need for it to continue,” Wagner says.  “There were 42,000 people on the rolls of adult basic and there were almost 500,000 on the waiting list.” 

When it comes to tobacco cessation programs, Wagner was flanked by a chart that shows they received $50.5-million dollars in funding for fiscal year 2003, but only $14.7-million in FY2011.  He says 20,000 Pennsylvanians die of smoking-related illnesses each year.  “We are hopeful that what has happened over the last five or six years does not continue to happen in this budget,” Wagner said, upon delivering his special report to legislative leaders and Governor Tom Corbett.  A Senate Republican spokesman confirms that the Tobacco Settlement Fund will be discussed during the upcoming budget negotiations, but he could not speculate as to the result of those talks.

Pennsylvania Sends 4 Spellers to National Spelling Bee Semi-Finals

Joanna Ye

    Years of preparations boil down to one tense day for the kids who have advanced to the semi-finals of the 2011 Scripps National Spelling Bee, which will crown a new champion this evening. After two days of written and oral spelling, the field was whittled down from 275 to 41.

    Pennsylvania leads all states with 4 semi-finalists. Topping the list, a returning semi-finalist from 2010. Joanna Ye of Carlisle finished tied for 5th in last year’s national spelling bee. Joining Ye in the field of 41 are fellow Keystone Staters David Krak of Lititz, Anahita Iyer of Doylestown and Sukanya Roy of South Abington Township.

    Some of the words spelled correctly in round 3 of the bee included papilionaceous, mynheer and mycetophagous.

    The remaining 41 spellers will take to the stage this morning until a field of finalists is set for tonight’s showdown on ESPN. The finals are scheduled to begin at 8:30pm at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in suburban Washington, D.C.