State Gov’t Transparency, Accountability Website Goes Live

A website called “PennWATCH” is marking a new day transparency in state government.  The name is short for the Pennsylvania Web Accountability and Transparency Act, which passed the General Assembly unanimously and was signed into law in June 2011. 

The site was under development for over a year, until Governor Tom Corbett helped to flip-the-switch last week.  “It creates trust between the citizens and the government,” Corbett says.  “It allows people to understand – hopefully – policy, so that they can make informed decisions about how to be useful citizens in a democracy.  And, hopefully, it prevents scandal.” 

The goal, Corbett says, was to make PennWATCH user-friendly.  By logging on, the public can access government records on payments, contracts, budgets & revenues, and even state workers’ pay.   

Coming in early 2013, the employee salary information will be updated to reflect total compensation, which includes the cost of benefits. 

Secretary of Administration Kelly Powell Logan says updates to the PennWATCH site, which will not require additional legislative action, are already being considered. 

State officials have not compiled a cost estimate for the website, but Governor Corbett notes that all the work was done “in-house.”

Good Government Group to Dissolve at Year’s End

After eight years of fighting for state government reforms, Democracy Rising PA will call it quits at the end of the year.  Co-founder Tim Potts tells Radio PA they simply cannot raise enough money to keep going.  “I’m not sure exactly why that is,” Potts explains.  “I think though that there is some scandal fatigue… and I think a lot of people are tired of having the focus on corruption and mismanagement and all the rest.” 

When it formed in 2004, Democracy Rising was the only group pushing for a constitutional convention.  Pennsylvania hasn’t had one since 1967, but Potts says it’s just a matter of time. 

While Democracy Rising could not ultimately push the state toward a convention, Potts says the group has witnessed numerous good government victories over the years.  He cites first-ever lobbyist disclosure laws, an overhauled open records law and the governor’s elimination of WAMs, among other things. 

In 2013 Potts will focus his efforts on a new endeavor called The Majority Party PA, which seeks to set policy priorities based on the will of the people.  A host of government reform issues have already made it onto the agenda… including the constitutional convention that eluded Democracy Rising PA.

Wagner Releases Special Report on Penn State Governance

Nearly four months after he first went public with his preliminary recommendations, Auditor General Jack Wagner has released a 124-page special report on governance at Penn State University.  It includes nine chapter and two-dozen recommendations. 

“No matter what the board may say, in terms of changes they’ve made, very little structural government changes have occurred,” Wagner said at a state capitol news conference.  “It’s pretty much the same operation that existed on November 4th, 2011, the day before Jerry Sandusky was arrested.” 

Chief among Wagner’s recommendations is his call for the university president to be removed as a voting member of the Board of Trustees.  “Penn State has invested too much power, almost unlimited power – and I repeat – almost unlimited power in its president.”  Wagner declined to comment about the charges recently filed against ex-Penn State president Graham Spanier.

Other recommendations contained in the special report include: making the governor a non-voting member of the board, reducing the size of the 32-member board, strengthening quorum rules for the board and subjecting PSU the state’s open records law. 

Following Wagner’s news conference, a Penn State spokesman provided us with this statement: Penn State welcomes input from Auditor General Wagner.  The University only just received the report today but will conduct a thorough review.   

About half of Wagner’s recommendations would require legislative action; the other half would require changes to Penn State’s bylaws.  


Gov’s Signature to Complete Justice Reinvestment Initiative

Structural prison reforms are already being put into place, designed to produce better outcomes and save the state up to $350-million dollars over five years.  That was the first half of the Justice Reinvestment initiative (SB 100), which was signed into law in July. 

Like the first bill, the second piece of the Justice Reinvestment effort (HB 135) has cleared the General Assembly with bipartisan support.  It will reinvest a portion of the prison system savings into the front lines of the justice system, like local law enforcement and county probation & parole departments. 

“An effective probation system can lower recidivism among people on probation and can also manage growth in your prison system because of more effective management of offenders,” explains Marc Pelka, program director with the Council of State Governments Justice Center. 

The CSG Justice Center has worked with 16-states on Justice Reinvestment, and Pelka says each strategy is tailored to the issues driving growth in those states prison systems.  “So although the individual policies are different for each particular state, the overall outcome is reduced spending on corrections and reinvestment in areas that increase public safety.” 

A Justice Reinvestment working group first met at the Governor’s Residence in January.  Radio PA spoke at length with Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel about their progress in June.

A More Efficient PennDOT

The state Department of Transportation is looking to streamline and modernize through a new initiative called PennDOT Next Generation.  “We’re going to continue to look department-by-department to make sure we’re not spending the same dollar twice, and see if we can go across agency lines to reduce costs,” PennDOT Secretary Barr Schoch explained to the House and Senate Transportation Committees.  

Schoch says four initial pilot projects will produce annual savings of $7-million.  30-current projects could save the state anywhere from $25 – $75-million a year.  

Barry Schoch

Some of the projects already saving money include an electronic permitting system for Highway Occupancy Permits and a revised bridge inspection policy.  Current projects are investigating more efficient use of winter materials and the regionalization of transit providers.  

The administrative savings may be a drop in the bucket compared to the state’s $3.5-billion dollar annual transportation funding gap, but House Transportation Chair Rick Geist (R-Blair) tells reporters it’s important.  “I think it’s wonderful when it comes to the bureaucratic inspection and self-inspection of how to do things better,” Geist explains.  

Geist is calling for legislation to move all transportation functions under PennDOT and out of other agencies.  “We have stuff that’s all over state government,” he explains.  

Lawmakers will be receiving a summary report of PennDOT Next Generation at the end of the year, and it will include a series of legislative recommendations.

California University of Pennsylvania

Lawmaker Blasts State System Tuition Hike

Angry with the State System of Higher Education’s decision to raise tuition rates by 3% this fall, State Rep. Brad Roae (R-Crawford) issued a blunt statement this week, which said it “should be ashamed of itself” for trying to take advantage of students.

Roae tells Radio PA the US Department of Labor recently reported that the Consumer Price Index inflation rate last year was 1.7%.  “But the PASSHE board is calling the 3% tuition increase a below inflation rate increase, which I think is pretty bogus,” Roae explains.  He believes the tuition hike is unnecessary and will only serve to make a college education less affordable.

PASSHE spokesman Kenn Marshall stands by their assertion that tuition has been held under the rate of inflation for the fifth time in the past eight years.  He says the Consumer Price Index and inflation rate are not interchangeable.  “The CPI is actually a number that can be used to calculate the inflation rate… and based on that 1.7% CPI, the annual inflation rate is actually 3.1%.”

Higher Education Rally

Students rallied against proposed higher education budget cuts this spring. In the end, the new state budget included level funding for state-owned and state-related universities.

The mathematical debate notwithstanding, Rep. Roae believes State System tuition should be frozen.  “My ten piece bill package would do what the PASSHE board should be doing, and that’s looking at ways to keep costs down so that tuition isn’t so high.”  In addition to a tuition freeze, Roae’s bills would cap university presidents’ salaries, make full-time professors teach more hours, end paid sabbatical leave and more.

But Marshall says they’ve been actively engaged in costs controls for more than a decade.  “We’ve reduced our costs by almost $230-million dollars over the past ten years,” he says.  That includes 900-positions being left vacant in the past two years alone.

In-state, undergraduate tuition at all 14-state-owned universities will be $6,428 this fall.

Corrections Secretary Optimistic About Prison Reforms

Pennsylvania’s prison population increased by 40% between 2000 and 2011, driving General Fund spending up by 76% over that same time.  State prisons currently house more than 51,000 inmates, and nearly 45% of those released will be back behind bars within three years.

These were just a few of the trends confronted by the “Justice Reinvestment Working Group,” which got all of the stakeholders together to discuss ways to create a more efficient and effective prison system. State Corrections Secretary John Wetzel is optimistic their recommendations will not only drive down the prison population, but reduce crime too.

“At six months out we should start seeing some progress in the numbers; 18-months out we should be seeing some strong population reduction, and improved outcomes.” says Wetzel.  “More people in to programming, shorter waiting lists, people being processed faster and people being successful when they get out.”

The reforms included in the bill will, in part, keep low-level offenders and technical parole violators out of state prisons.  It will also help officials to better match offenders’ needs with the appropriate treatment programs.

Pennsylvania is the 16th state to take the Justice Reinvestment Approach.  “It’s been a real range of states – large & small, red & blue – that have gone through this process,” explains Marc Pelka, senior policy analyst with the Council of State Governments Justice Center.

The savings could amount to $350-million dollars over the next five years, and some of that money will be earmarked for reinvestment in programs that prevent crime.

SB 100 has already received unanimous support in the General Assembly and now awaits Governor Tom Corbett’s signature.  The reinvestment language is pending in separate legislation.

You can hear our entire interview with Corrections Secretary John Wetzel on this weekend’s Roundtable program.

Diverse Group Presses for PA Prison Reforms

A new coalition of corrections reform advocates brings together voices from all across the political spectrum.  “I think extreme partisanship has affected government at all levels,” former Democratic Governor George Leader explained at a capitol appearance.  Leader praised the cooperative effort, which organizers are calling “transpartisan.” 

“We have common goals… We can spend less and get more from this,” added Matt Brouillette, who leads the Commonwealth Foundation, a conservative think-thank in Harrisburg. 

They’re talking about Pennsylvania’s prison system, which has added 18-lockups since 1980 and currently houses 51,000 inmates. 

Corrections Secretary John Wetzel

PA Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel

Nearly 45% of those who are released will wind up back behind bars within three years.  “We gloss over it by saying, ‘oh, that’s our recidivism rate.’  No.  These are people who are getting out and who are screwing up our community,” says Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel who’s lending his support to the new coalition. 

Wetzel says they’re already making policy changes to make the system more efficient and effective, but they need legislative help too.  “We’re talking about transforming the system to one that is corrections, literally.” 

The group wants to assess an offender’s risk earlier, target resources and programming to those most likely to re-offend and rely on specialty courts as an alternative to incarceration for non-violent offenders. 

Secretary Wetzel is also trying to cut down on long waits to release prisoners who’ve already been paroled.  He says a 100-day delay costs the taxpayers $9,000 dollars per parolee. 

“If any of these things were going to save money, but potentially increase the crime rate, we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” Wetzel explains, as he stresses the goal is to reduce the crime rate.

Lawmakers Debate Downsizing in Election Year

Every two years, 228 of the General Assembly’s 253 seats are up for election.  2012 is one of those years, but what makes it unique is that it’s the first time that lawmakers are giving serious consideration to the idea of legislative downsizing.   

Pennsylvania has the largest full-time legislature in the country.

“It will make the legislative process more efficient because members will be able to communicate better and understand the other person’s problem,” says Speaker of the House Sam Smith (R-Jefferson), who gave the issue immediate clout when he sponsored the constitutional amendment last year. 

But activist Tim Potts of Democracy Rising PA says that – as reforms go – this is sleight of hand.  “It’s something that diverts your attention to things that are a whole lot more important,” Potts says.

Democracy Rising’s 2012 Public Integrity Poll did find 62% of Pennsylvania voters support downsizing the General Assembly.  That’s significant, but Potts says it’s fairly low on the list of improvements that Pennsylvanians would make.  He points to the 72% who want to change the system for redrawing legislative districts, the 74% who want to limit campaign contributions, and the 93% who want lobbying reforms. 

Speaker Smith’s legislation (HB 153) was originally penned to reduce the size of the 203-member House by 25%.  It was amended on the House floor to also include a similar reduction in the Senate, from 50 to 38-seats.  It passed the House earlier this month with a vote of 140 – 42.  A spokesman for the Senate Republicans says their chamber is expected to take up the measure in May or June.

A constitutional amendment must pass the General Assembly in two consecutive sessions before it can be put to the voters in the form of a ballot referendum.  HB 153 is designed to take effect following the 2020 census.