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PA High Court Deems Final Redistricting Plan Constitutional

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has unanimously ruled to dismiss the appeals filed by critics of the Legislative Reapportionment Commission’s 2012 Revised Final Plan.  In his opinion Chief Justice Ronald Castille suggested the question of municipal splits was “close,” but writes that the appellants did not prove the plan is contrary to law.

The state’s high court had previously rejected a 2011 version of the redistricting plan.

Four justices joined with Castille on the latest opinion, and Justice Saylor Thomas Saylor wrote his own concurring opinion.  Recently convicted, resigned & sentenced Justice Joan Orie Melvin did not participate. 

“I was happy that the decision was unanimous,” Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R-Delaware) told a group of reporters gathered in his capitol offices.  “There was not a single dissenting opinion and it’s a very diverse court.”

Senate Democrats were among the appellants and Minority Leader Jay Costa (D-Allegheny) released a statement calling today’s decision disappointing.  “However, Senate Democrats recognize that the court has now ruled and that it is time to move on in crafting policies that serve all citizens of Pennsylvania,” Costa’s statement concludes.    

The new legislative boundaries will be in effect for next year’s legislative elections.

Radio PA’s Top 10 Pennsylvania Stories of 2012 – Part 1

As 2012 draws to a close, Radio PA is looking back at the top 10 Pennsylvania stories of the year as voted on by the news staff and other members of the statewide media. In this installment, we reveal stories 10 through 8, beginning with one of many political fights in 2012…one that began with the governor’s budget address on February 7th.

Click the audio players to hear Radio PA’s recap of each story.

#10 – The Battle for Higher Ed Funding   2012Top10-10FINAL
A year after cutting state funding to higher education, Governor Tom Corbett came back for more. In this round of proposed cuts, the governor slated reductions of 20% for the 14 state-owned universities and 30% for Penn State, Temple and PITT. Only Lincoln University, which takes a small amount of state funding by comparison, was left unaffected. The plan drew immediate fire from education advocates and state lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. During state budget hearings, the schools pleaded their cases, saying harsh cuts in state funding would could result in tuition increases and a reduction in curricula. Students themselves rallied in Harrisburg and higher education was a key component of the budget talks in May and June. In the end, state funding for the schools would remain level but Governor Corbett’s message was clear: if we don’t have it, we won’t spend it. The battle for higher education funding is Radio PA’s #10 Pennsylvania story of 2012.

 

#9 – The Redistricting Mess   2012Top10-9FINAL
The state constitution calls for the redrawing of state legislative districts every 10 years, based on numbers from the U.S. Census. the original intent of the law was to consistently reflect population shifts and other changes, but redistricting has instead become a political tool designed to make life as difficult as possible for the political party unfortunate enough to be in the minority the year following the Census. This year, that’s the Democratic party and the Dems cried foul over the Republican-dominated maps drawn up by a five-member reapportionment panel that leaned to the GOP side of the aisle. Questions were raised about the enormous number of municipal and county splits in the state House and Senate district maps. Critics also accused the panel of dragging its feet in an attempt to invent a false sense of urgency when the maps were finally released late in 2011. One Pennsylvania citizen, Amanda Holt of Allentown, drew up her own maps using what she called strict constitutional guidelines. Holt’s map was among the exhibits when the case went to the state Supreme Court and observers say it showed the justices that a better map could be crafted. As such, the high court through out the controversial maps and told the reapportionment panel to try again. Meanwhile, the 2012 elections would be based on maps drawn up in 2001. A new set of district maps were approved but the courts have yet to give final approval. Gerrymandering and the redistricting controversy is Radio PA’s #9 Pennsylvania story of 2012.

 

#8 – The Arrest of Graham Spanier   2012Top10-8FINAL
He avoided charges in the first round of indictments handed down by prosecutors, but the law came knocking on Graham Spanier’s door November 1st of this year, just days shy of the one-year anniversary of the arrest of former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky on charges of molesting young boys. Spanier, the former Penn State President who was fired the same night as Joe Paterno, was charged with failure to report suspected child abuse, endangering the welfare of children, conspiracy, perjury and obstruction…the same charges levied against former Athletic Director Tim Curley and former Vice-President for Administration Gary Schultz. State Attorney General Linda Kelly said that the three men were part of a “conspiracy of silence” that allowed Sandusky to continue preying on young boys. Spanier, Curley and Schultz are expected to go to trial in 2013 and Graham Spanier’s November arrest is Radio PA’s #8 Pennsylvania story of 2012.

 

Coming soon…stories 7 through 5.

 

RadioPA Roundtable

Radio PA Roundtable 09.14.12

On this week’s Radio PA Roundtable, Brad Christman and Matt Paul, along with the Pennsylvania Cable Network, take you into a session of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in Philadelphia, where you will hear arguments on two major cases: Voter ID and state legislative redistricting. Governor Tom Corbett also weighs in on the latest developments regarding the Voter ID bill he signed into law this year.

Radio PA Roundtable is a 30-minute program featuring in-depth reporting on the top news stories of the week.

Click the audio player below to hear the full broadcast:

[audio:https://s3.amazonaws.com/witfaudio/radiopa/Roundtable09-14-12.mp3]

Voter-ID Arguments Begin

History is being made as the Pennsylvania Supreme Court opens its session today with arguments for and against Pennsylvania’s new Voter-ID law. In addition to considering a case that is receiving national attention, the high court is allowing its proceedings to be aired on live television on the Pennsylvania Cable Network.

Billing themselves as the oldest Supreme Court in the nation, dating back more than 300 years, PA’s justices are considering two major cases today: Voter-ID and the state legislative boundaries which were drawn, and then redrawn, during the redistricting process of 2011-2012. The Court overturned a previous legislative map in January, leaving this year’s elections to maps drawn in 2001.

Under the Voter-ID law, also known as Act 18, voters are required to present a valid photo ID at the polls before voting. Critics say it puts an undue burden on segments of the voting population. If the law is upheld, it will be in effect for the November 6th election.

Today’s session is also unusual in that one of the 7 Justices, Republican Joan Orie Melvin, has had to step aside to fight corruption charges. That leaves the court split 3-3 along assumed party lines, opening the door for a possible tie ruling. In that event, the Commonwealth Court ruling that refused to issue an injunction to block Voter-ID would stand.

PCN will be airing arguments in both cases throughout the day. The Supreme Court is meeting in Philadelphia for today’s session.

 

Capitol View from East Wing

Public Hearing Pending on New Legislative Redistricting Plan

The Legislative Reapportionment Commission is gearing up for a May 2nd public hearing on a new preliminary plan.  Anyone who’d like to address the panel at the capitol hearing must submit a written request by Wednesday.  Earlier this year, the state Supreme Court threw out the Commission’s first attempt

The revised preliminary plan was adopted with a 4 – 1 vote last week.  One of the observers was Amanda Holt, the Lehigh County piano teacher and graphic artist whose own stab at mapmaking showed the Supreme Court that it can be done with greater respect to the integrity of political subdivisions.  “I felt like there was a lot of talk about compromise, and my concern would be that our constitution not be compromised in this process,” Holt says of the latest LRC meeting. 

Holt hasn’t formally requested it yet, but she’d like the chance to address the panel again at next month’s public hearing.  “Citizens have been able to make a difference in this process, and bring light to our constitution, and help parts of our constitution that were ignored in this process,” she says. 

Watching the process since the LRC’s first public meeting in March 2011 has been Common Cause Pennsylvania Executive Director Barry Kauffman.  “I’m always the optimist, hopeful that we can still make some tweaks in the proposed plan, still have it better serve the people of Pennsylvania,” Kauffman says of the latest public comment period. 

The Commission’s revised plan would split about half as many municipalities as the remanded 2011 House and Senate maps.  The new maps are supposed to be in place for this year’s legislative elections, but the Supreme Court ordered that the 2001 maps remain in place until the process is resolved.

Legislative Reapportionment Commission Okays Preliminary Plan… Again

Pennsylvania’s latest set of redistricting maps is now available for public comment.  The redrawn House and Senate maps put more emphasis on reducing municipal splits, and less emphasis on population deviation, per the direction of the state Supreme Court.  The high court threw out the Legislative Reapportionment Commission’s first attempt early this year.

The House maps reduce the number of municipal splits from 108 to 68, according to GOP Leader Mike Turzai (R-Allegheny).  “Population deviation however – in particular reason to reduce splits – did increase from 5.97% to 7.76%.” 

Rep. Turzai notes that five House seats were moved based on the new population data, but he says it was to nobody’s partisan advantage. 

The court-appointed chairman of the five-member panel made waves when he insisted on a change in the proposed Senate map.  Population shifts dictate that a Senate seat be moved from western PA to the northeast.  Senate Republican Leader Dominic Pileggi (R-Delaware) contends the data dictates that Democrat Jim Brewster’s seat be moved, but he acquiesced to Chairman Stephen McEwen who wanted to move Republican Jane Orie’s seat instead.  Orie was recently convicted on public corruption charges, which means her seat is vacant. 

The Commission voted 4 – 1 in favor of the preliminary maps, with Senate Democratic Leader Jay Costa (D-Allegheny) casting the lone dissenting vote.   House Democratic Leader Frank Dermody (D-Allegheny) stressed that this is not the end of the redistricting process.  “I am hopeful and confident that, as we listen and consider public comments, more will get done to improve the final plan,” Dermody said at Thursday’s meeting. 

A public hearing is set for May 2nd.

Capitol Rotunda Light Fixture

Special Elections to Coincide with April Primaries — Update

The state Supreme Court has ordered special elections for six vacant House seats to coincide with next month’s primary.  The high court’s order says the fundamental right to representation is at issue, and Philadelphia attorney Kevin Greenberg says 350,000 residents will now have somebody to represent them. 

“It’s likely some of these folks will be Democrat, it’s likely some of these folks will be Republican.  But these 350,000 people will be able to elect somebody to vote for them in the Statehouse and that’s and important right,” says Greenberg, who represents the 11-constituents who filed petitions with the court.  Greenberg says each of the six districts is represented by at least one petitioner. 

Speaker of the House Sam Smith had maintained that he was not able to call special elections until the new legislative redistrict maps were adopted.  But the legislative redistricting process is still not resolved, and the Supreme Court says these special elections will be held using the 2001 boundaries.

The opinion reads: “The district boundaries for the six vacant seats at issue here were set in the 2001 Final Reapportionment Plan, and the new members who would be elected to serve the remainder of their terms will merely step into the shoes of their predecessors – just as the Speaker and every other sitting House member who is currently seated under the districts set forth in the 2001 redistricting map.”     

Four of the posts had been held by Democrats, and Pennsylvania Democratic Party Chairman Jim Burn hails the decision as an important victory.  “Republicans have tried to delay the elections and silence the voices of Pennsylvanians, but today’s ruling is a stinging rebuke to Harrisburg politicians who have picked politics over property representing Pennsylvania,” Burn said in a statement. 

Three of the six vacant seats are located in Philadelphia, and one each in Montgomery, Lehigh and Allegheny counties.

UPDATE: Speaker Smith released a statement Thursday afternoon in which he said he would call the special elections.  However, that statement blasted the Supreme Court for ignoring the clear intention of the law, and “advancing its own veiled agenda.”

New Legislative Maps Still in Limbo

The Legislative Reapportionment Commission has met for the first time since the state Supreme Court threw out its 2011 redistricting plan.  No votes were taken and the proceedings lasted only minutes before Chairman Stephen McEwen recessed the meeting until next Tuesday.  “It has come close, we’re not there yet,” McEwen said of the legislative leaders’ efforts to arrive at a compromise that can pass constitutional muster with the high court. 

Dominic Pileggi

Sen. Pileggi talks with the media following Wednesday's commission meeting.

Senate Republican Leader Dominic Pileggi (R-Delaware) suggests that the April 24th primary election will be held using the 2001 legislative maps. “There is no way that we can have a new map in place in time for the April 24th primary to occur with the new map.”  Pileggi doesn’t foresee legislative action to move the primary date, but did not speculate as to whether additional court action will be taken on the issue. 

Republicans have filed legal action that contends use of the 2001 maps would violate the constitutional principles of “one person, one vote,” but Pileggi notes the state Supreme Court has directed them to use existing maps in the existing primary cycle. 

Neither Pileggi nor his Democratic counterpart would discuss details of the ongoing negotiations.  “All I can tell you is that we’re working together to try to figure out what we can do to incorporate a plan that adheres to the Supreme Court decision and to the constitution,” Senate Democratic Leader Jay Costa (D-Allegheny) told a gaggle of reporters after the meeting. 

Costa believes the courts have been very clear that the April 24th primaries need go on with the 2001 lines.  “We believe that’s going to be the case.”

Flurry of Bills Signed

In the wake of all the yearend legislative activity, Governor Tom Corbett signed 23 bills on Thursday.  Perhaps the most controversial new law (SB 732) will hold abortion facilities to the same standards as ambulatory surgical centers throughout the state.  “It is extremely disappointing that Governor Corbett signed this politically-motivated bill into law,” Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania Advocates Executive Director Sari Stevens said in a statement.  “Make no mistake, this new law has everything to do with politics.”

The bill was drafted in response to a grand jury’s tragic and filthy discoveries at one Philadelphia abortion clinic.  Supporters say it’s about safety.  But critics say the costly new regulations will actually close down safe abortion facilities, and ultimately jeopardize women’s health.  This new law takes effect in 180-days. 

Another new law will provide a boost to Pennsylvania’s one-million family caregivers.  The Pennsylvania Caregiver Support Act will increase the maximum monthly reimbursements from $200 to $500, and for the first time open up the program to caregivers who do not live in the same household.  “Here in Pennsylvania we had such restrictive eligibility requirements – one being that you had to live under the same roof – we were leaving about a million dollars on the table every year because families could not qualify,” says Vicki Hoak, executive director of the Pennsylvania Homecare Association.  The Caregiver Support Program is funded through Lottery dollars; it requires no new state spending.   

It’s going to be easier to buy beer on Sunday, with the enactment of HB 242.  Beer distributors will be allowed to be open from 9am until 9pm on Sundays, compared to the previous noon to 5pm restrictions.  “The legislature recognized that consumers are shopping at different hours, outside of traditional hours,” says Pennsylvania Malt Beverage Distributors Association President Mark Tanczos.  HB 242 will also allow restaurants to start serving alcohol earlier on Sundays, in order to accommodate the Sunday brunch crowd. 

Some of the other bills signed on Thursday will reauthorize Philadelphia’s Automated Red Light Enforcement System, enact a capital budget for the current fiscal year, and codify the new congressional maps.

Lawmakers Near Final Approval of Congressional Maps

Pennsylvania will lose a Congressional seat in 2012, as the Keystone State’s population growth didn’t keep up with other states over the past ten years.  The General Assembly must now act quickly to approve the new congressional maps.  “If a congressional redistricting plan is not enacted by the end of this calendar year, it will cause chaos in the 2012 election cycle,” said Senate GOP Leader Dominic Pileggi.  During Wednesday night’s Senate debate, Pileggi noted that the process of circulating nominating petitions begins on January 24th

The Republican-drawn maps were unveiled earlier in the week, cleared the Senate on Wednesday night, and advanced out of the House State Government Committee on Thursday afternoon.  Up next is consideration by the full House. 

Democrats are lining up to criticize SB 1249 as blatant gerrymandering.   “I ask anybody who looks at these maps, are these districts contiguous or are they torturous?” said Rep. Babette Josephs (D-Phila.), the Minority Chair of the House State Government Committee. 

Appearing on Radio PA’s monthly Ask the Governor program, Governor Tom Corbett said this is the situation every ten year, no matter which party is in the majority.  “It’s incumbent upon the congressmen who represent those districts… to make sure that they pay attention to their constituents no matter where they are.” 

Corbett says the process is particularly difficult when one congressional district must be drawn out of existence.    In this case, the proposal would combine the districts of Democratic Congressmen Jason Altmire and Mark Critz. 

“We knew that the Republicans would use their control of the process to draw a map that that benefitted Republicans, but we did not expect them to abuse their power to this degree,” said Pennsylvania Democratic Chairman Jim Burn.