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Testifiers Urge Panel to Consider Social Harms of Privatization

A litany of testifiers foreshadowed the potential unintended consequences of liquor privatization during the first of three hearings to be held before the Senate Law & Justice Committee.  “We cannot look at expansion without first exploring how increased alcohol use may affect citizens of our state,” committee Chairman Charles McIlhinney (R-Bucks) explained at the onset. 

While McIlhinney says he wants to ensure ‘smart privatization,’ most testifiers on Tuesday seemed to think the smart move would be to retain state control of retail liquor and wine sales.  “What is the problem we’re trying to solve here?” asked Drug and Alcohol Service Providers Organization of PA president Deb Beck.  “We’re lowest on deaths and number two on revenue produced.  What’s the problem?”  Beck’s written testimony included a long list of sources for the numbers she pointed out to the committee. 

But by the start of the 9:30am capitol hearing many in the room had already received an open letter from the Pennsylvania Manufacturers’ Association that questioned the slanted lineup of testifiers, and pointed to other statistics that show Pennsylvania performing worse than privatized states. 

When questioned by one committee member, Fraternal Order of Police Pennsylvania State Lodge president Les Neri noted that everyone can find a study that justifies their position, but he can speak from experience.  “I’m telling you as a street cop, the guy who’s done the job for 38-years, that the increase in licenses and outlets for alcohol will increase crime.  I just can’t tell you by what statistic.” Neri explained. 

While the FOP opposes the liquor privatization bill that passed the House (HB 790), others on the law enforcement panel did not take a position; they merely pointed to the need for additional resources for manpower and investigations should lawmakers vote to privatize. 

The hearing concluded with a handful of middle and high school students from the Council Rock Coalition for Healthy Youth, who asked the panel to prevent privatization in order to protect Pennsylvania’s future.

Despite the onslaught of criticism his privatization plan received, Governor Tom Corbett released a statement thanking the committee for the hearing and asserting that public safety must be the number one focus of state government.  “The Senate took a first step in bringing Pennsylvania consumers choice and convenience,” Corbett said in the statement.  While the House amended his original plan, Corbett’s been taking a lead role in this year’s privatization debate

A second hearing is planned for May 14th and Sen. McIlhinney says a third will be scheduled for early June.  He says all sides of the issue will be heard.

Hearing Probes PA Judges’ Mandatory Retirement Age

Lawmakers are mulling possible changes to the mandatory retirement age for the state’s judges, and a House Judiciary subcommittee heard from all sides of the issue on Thursday.  The focus of the hearing was HB 79, which would change the constitutional age limit on PA judges from 70 to 75. 

The current judicial age restriction was imposed in 1968.  “Many of us know there have been many demographic changes in Pennsylvania and in our nation since that time,” said state Rep. Kate Harper (R-Montgomery), the bill’s prime sponsor.  “Not the least of which is, of course, that life expectancy has advanced in that time from age 70 to 78.” 

Pennsylvania is one of 33-states that currently impose some sort of age restriction on judges.  While one must retire from the bench at the age of 70 in the Keystone State, he or she still has the ability to serve as a senior judge until the age of 78. 

Duquesne University Law School Dean Kenneth Gormley testified in favor of Harper’s legislation, telling the Subcommittee on Courts the mandate made sense back in 1968.  “The age of 70 for any jurist at that time was a pretty advanced age,” he explained. 

But in 2013, Gormley says the mandate is especially restrictive for women whose average projected life expectancy is 81.1-years.  Men bring today’s combined average life expectancy down to 78.7. 

The Harper bill appears to be the middle ground in this discussion.  A separate Senate bill would completely eliminate the mandatory retirement age for the state’s judges, while others believe the limit ensures that judges are removed from the bench before decreased mental capabilities pose any problems. 

Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, which does not take a position on the issue, points out that judges themselves are divided over whether the mandatory retirement age is necessary.

PA Senate Passes Three Good Government Bills

A trio of good government bills went before the state Senate, Wednesday, and all three were approved unanimously.  The highest-profile measure would allow for online voter registration, making Pennsylvania the 17th state to offer the option.  “For the health of democracy, elections should be run as smoothly as possible,” ACLU of Pennsylvania legislative director Andy Hoover said in a statement.  “Online registration can make the process more precise.  That leads to less delay and fewer problems on Election Day.” 

The other two bills are designed to promote government transparency by requiring lobbying disclosure information and campaign finance data to be filed electronically.  Senate Republican leader Dominic Pileggi (R-Delaware), the prime sponsor of the campaign finance bill, says the move is designed to increase timeliness, accuracy and transparency.    

State Senator Rob Teplitz (R-Dauphin), who co-chairs the bipartisan, bicameral Reform Caucus, spoke out in favor of all three bills.  “That’s what all of our constituents I believe want to see us doing – is creating openness, transparency, more accountability in government, more access to be able to vote,” Teplitz said on the Senate floor. 

All three measures require House approval before they can be sent to the governor’s desk.

Transportation Chair Unveils New Funding Plan

A newly proposed transportation funding package uses Governor Tom Corbett’s plan as a baseline, then goes even further.  In February, Governor Corbett outlined a plan that would raise $1.8-billion dollars annually by year five.  Tuesday, Senate Transportation Chairman John Rafferty unveiled legislation that would generate $2.5-billion by year three

Both proposals would uncap the Oil Company Franchise Tax that gas stations pay, but Rafferty also wants to add a $100-dollar surcharge to traffic violations and hike the state’s vehicle & registration fees that have gone unchanged since 1997.

“We aren’t just going to resurface roads and pave bridges,” Rafferty says, “we’re actually going to add capacity to our transportation infrastructure, which is something that is critically needed.  New lanes on roads, new intersections, new bridges.”

The substantial new investment in Pennsylvania’s transportation infrastructure is designed to improve public safety, create new construction jobs and attract new businesses to the area.  The estimated cost would be $2.50, per week, for the average motorist in Pennsylvania. 

PennDOT Secretary Barry Schoch was among the many stakeholders to join Rafferty for Tuesday’s announcement.  Schoch praised the leadership of Sen. Rafferty, but stopped short of fully endorsing his proposal.  “The governor and I have always said we’re open to a dialog… obviously there are balances between the cost to consumers and the benefit,” Schoch says.  “This is a great beginning point of that debate and discussion.”

Knowles: Transportation is Smartest Place to Invest Liquor Privatization Dollars

With a public hearing on liquor privatization now scheduled in the state Senate, a group of state House members is calling for the upfront windfall from the sale of private wine and liquor licenses to be invested in transportation infrastructure. 

State Rep. Jerry Knowles (R-Berks/Schuylkill)

State Rep. Jerry Knowles (R-Berks/Schuylkill)

“It takes each and every dollar from privatization of the wine & spirits shops, and those dollars would be spent on roads and bridges,” state Rep. Jerry Knowles (R-Berks/Schuylkill) said of the legislation he sponsored

The governor wants to see liquor privatization revenue used for education block grants, but the bill that passed the House never designated a specific use for the revenue; it simply created a restricted account to hold the money. 

“I would like to see it be a billion, but it doesn’t matter if it’s $750-million, it doesn’t matter if it’s half a billion,” Knowles said at a capitol news conference.  “That’s still big money where I come from.” 

Knowles and his supporters are wary of being blamed for school funding cuts when the four-year block grant program, envisioned by the governor, expires.  “I want to make it perfectly clear,” Knowles said, “the governor has a good idea, it’s just that I have a better idea.”

Rep. Knowles recognizes that his plan would not raise enough revenue to solve PA’s near $3-billion dollar annual transportation funding shortfall, but he suggests that any legislative solution should start with HB 220. 

Meanwhile Senate Transportation Chair John Rafferty is scheduled to unveil a new funding plan on Tuesday, and the as-of-yet unrelated liquor privatization bill faces an uncertain fate in the chamber.

House Republicans’ “Marcellus Works” Bills on the Move

The “Marcellus Works” package of bills is designed to spur job growth through the increased use of Pennsylvania’s home-grown natural gas, and the House Finance Committee has just advanced a series of tax credits for natural gas vehicle fleets, heavy-duty trucks and fueling stations. 

“With the high unemployment, we know that the Marcellus Shale industry – and now with the discovery of oil in this state – is a big plus for this Commonwealth,” state Rep. Stan Saylor (R-York) told the committee.  “It is time for us to start using our own resources to benefit Pennsylvania citizens.” 

Saylor is the prime sponsor of HB 301, which would provide tax credits for companies that utilize natural gas in their vehicle fleets. 

Several Democrats on the Finance Committee voted in favor of the bills, but minority Chair Phyllis Mundy (D-Luzerne) argued that corporate tax breaks do not pave the road to economic prosperity.  “We have gone way too far with this notion,” she says.  “This is trickle-down economics at its worst.” 

Up next for the tax credit bills is the state House, while five more “Marcellus Works” bills await possible Wednesday action in the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee.

A Renewed Push for Reform in Harrisburg

A new package of reform legislation has been introduced at the state capitol, on the heels of the formation of a bipartisan, bicameral reform caucus.

If the goal is to be as transparent as possible, Republican state Senator John Eichelberger (R-Blair) says there’s no reason not to pass the nine bills unveiled on Monday.  “We have a bigger push now than we’ve had since I’ve been here, six years,” Eichelberger said at a news conference in the capitol rotunda.  “It’s a pretty substantial push.” 

One of the nine bills would require public officials to disclose all gifts that exceed $50 in value, compared to the current $250 threshold.  Another bill would expressly prohibit a governor or a member of the governor’s administration from accepting gifts from anyone who does business with the commonwealth

Senator Mike Stack (D-Philadelphia), who’s leading this latest reform push alongside Eichelberger, believes the state capitol still has problems with its public image.  “Too often our current laws allow for the appearance, at least, of cozy relationships between special interests,” Stack says.  “It’s dispiriting and it erodes the public faith in what we’re trying to do here.” 

Stack acknowledges that the nine bills unveiled on Monday do not represent an exhaustive list of government reforms, but he believes they represent a good first step.

Supporters Push Nurse-to-Patient Ratio Bills

Pennsylvania hospitals would be required to meet minimum nurse-to-patient ratios under bills introduced in the state House and Senate.  The ratios would vary depending on the care setting, but supporters say they could both improve patient safety and save money in the long run

Inadequate staffing is the ultimate concern for Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals (PASNAP) president Patty Eakin.  “Patients can suffer,” she tells Radio PA, “and suffering is not just dying but you might have medication errors made, you might have medications missed, treatments missed.”    

Eakin points to a 2010 study out of the University of Pennsylvania that indicates California’s mandatory minimum nurse-to-patient ratios are helping to save lives. 

But California is the only state to go down this road to date, and Pennsylvania hospitals have long opposed similar bills that have been introduced in the General Assembly. 

The Hospital & Health System Association of Pennsylvania says a one-size-fits-all policy ignores the many variables involved in determining safe staffing levels.  HAP also contends there’s no consensus on what nurse staffing levels should be or how to set them. 

This year SB 637 has been introduced by Sen. Daylin Leach (D-Montgomery) and HB 923 has been introduced by Rep. Phyllis Mundy (D-Luzerne).  While similar bills have gone nowhere in Harrisburg, Eakin says giving up the fight is not an option. 

(photo credit: CDC / Judy Schmidt)