Drivers License, PennDOT

PA Poised to Opt Out of REAL ID

Pennsylvania could soon become the 16th and largest state to opt out of the federal REAL ID Act.  Under REAL ID, state-issued drivers’ licenses would have to meet certain federal criteria.  PennDOT would also be required to store copies of its license holders’ identifying documents, and link its databases with those of DMVs across the country. 

“REAL ID, with the nationwide database, would really create a gold mine for identity thieves,” says ACLU of Pennsylvania legislative director Andy Hoover.  He also complains that the federal law would turn state-issued drivers’ licenses into de facto national ID cards. 

Congress enacted the REAL ID Act of 2005 in response to the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations for more secure standards for identification.  The report cites that, “All but one of the 9/11 hijackers acquired some form of US identification document by, some by fraud.” 

The Department of Homeland Security has extended the implementation deadline to January 15th, 2013, but the ACLU of PA’s Andy Hoover says REAL ID cannot function without state participation. 

REAL ID is not a new issue under the state capitol dome. The House passed a bill to block REAL ID in 2008; the Senate passed one in 2010, but time ran out in both of those legislative sessions.  This year’s bill (SB 354) passed both chambers with broad, bipartisan support.  Governor Tom Corbett is expected to sign it.

Whistle-blower Website Focuses on Appalachian Region

Inspired by Wikileaks, a group of freelance journalists and computer scientists has developed a website known as Honest Appalachia.  “We hope to allow whistle-blowers to anonymously and securely upload documents to our site, which we will then vet for authenticity,” says co-founder Jim Tobias. 

It’s risky being a whistle-blower, according to Tobias. “So we felt that this resource would take that risk and replace it with a secure website that will enable whistle-blowers to more confidently blow the whistle on what they see as corruption.” 

The launch of Honest Appalachia prompted discussion on the most recent edition of Ask the Governor.  For his part, Governor Tom Corbett says he doesn’t trust anonymous sources.  “You can say anything you want when you’re anonymous.  If you say something, stand behind it.” 

Tobias disagrees.  He says anonymous whistle-blowing can be critically important to democracy.  “Arguably the most important, crucial case of whistle-blowing in US history was done by an anonymous source, which was when Deep Throat leaked information to Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein that enabled them to uncover the Watergate scandal.”   

Per its name, Honest Appalachia covers a seven state region that includes Pennsylvania.  Tobias says they’re already following a few leads, but are moving slowly because of their commitment to journalistic integrity.  “We really don’t want to put anything out there that isn’t true.”

Committee Advances Bill to Reduce Size of State House

Some say the 203-member state House is too big for its own good, and HB 153 would slash membership by 50 following the 2020 Census.  It received some bipartisan support in the House State Government Committee on Tuesday.  Its next stop is the House floor. 

Knowing that similar bills have never seen the light of day, State Rep. Seth Grove (R-York) called it a historic day.  “We get to send a message to the residents of Pennsylvania that we are serious about looking at the foundation of our General Assembly, we are serious about cutting our costs, we are serious about right-sizing government,” Grove said prior to the vote. 

HB 153 is sponsored by Speaker of the House Sam Smith (R-Jefferson) and capitol observers say that kind of clout gives this measure a better shot at passing than previous efforts. 

Critics, however, contend that larger House districts would create a whole new set of problems.  “You are making us more dependent on special interest group money if you do decrease the size of the legislature,” says Delaware County Democrat Greg Vitali, who also questions whether such an effort would actually save taxpayers money. 

Reducing the size of the state House would require a constitutional amendment, which means this bill would have to pass two consecutive sessions of the General Assembly before being put to a voter referendum.  HB 153 would not make any changes to the 50-member state Senate.

Committee Vets Teacher Evaluation Bill


State Education Secretary Ron Tomalis

State Education Secretary Ron Tomalis

Under the state’s current evaluation system, teachers fall into one of two categories: satisfactory or unsatisfactory.  99.4% of teachers currently receive a satisfactory rating, and overhauling the system is one of the Corbett administration’s top education reform priorities.  “The success in meeting the mission of our public education system, ensuring that all children reach academic achievement, is dependent upon the quality of the teacher,” Education Secretary Ron Tomalis said in his testimony before the House Education Committee. 

Legislation has been introduced in response to the teacher evaluation plan that Governor Corbett laid out, last month, in York.  State Rep. Ryan Aument’s HB 1980 would base half of a teacher’s evaluation score on student achievement.   It would also expand the current rating system to include four categories: distinguished, proficient, needs improvement or fails. 

A variety of stakeholders had their say at Thursday’s Education Committee hearing, including the state’s largest teachers union.  “Using standardized tests as 50% or more of a teacher’s evaluation will not produce evidence of teacher effectiveness that is strong or fair,” said Pennsylvania State Education Association board member Linda Cook.  She does say, however, that PSEA wants to improve the current system in other ways. 

The Pennsylvania School Boards Association supports the development of the new teacher evaluation standards, but raised concerns with the proposed timeline. “Being forced to move according to the deadlines set in legislation could inadvertently undermine the system that [the Pennsylvania Department of Education] has moved so methodically to create,” said Kathy Swope, President of the Lewisburg Area School Board, who testified on behalf of the PSBA. 

The Corbett administration wants the new teacher evaluation framework in place for the next school year.  HB 1980 currently awaits committee action.

Education Agenda Reaction Runs the Gamut

Some are noting a lack of detail in the governor’s education reform speech, but the state’s largest teachers union doesn’t need specifics to oppose the advent of school vouchers in Pennsylvania.  “The bottom line for us on any voucher program is that they don’t work, they don’t raise student achievement,” says Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) spokesman Wythe Keever.  He says the state should be focusing on initiatives that do work, such as tutoring, full-day kindergarten and smaller class sizes. 

The Pennsylvania School Boards Association (PSBA) adds that vouchers are unaffordable at a time when public education funding has already been cut by $900-million.  “Across all demographic groups, the public is just not interested in spending tax dollars to send children to private schools,” says PSBA executive director Tom Gentzel.  He points to the latest survey – conducted by Terry Madonna Opinion Research – that found 65% of Pennsylvanians either strongly or somewhat oppose vouchers.

But, Gentzel does tell us there are parts of the governor’s agenda that are worth discussing.  He says charter school accountability measures are long overdue.  Likewise, the PSEA isn’t deriding the entire plan.  “PSEA agrees with the governor that teacher evaluations need to be improved, and we support the use of multiple objective measures of performance,” says the PSEA’s Wythe Keever, who’s interested in the results of the new teacher evaluation pilot program.    

Governor Tom Corbett

Gov. Corbett unveiled his education reform agenda at the Lincoln Charter School in York.

Governor Corbett’s agenda appears to have some bicameral support in the General Assembly, based on the high-ranking cast of Republican lawmakers who stood by his side at the Lincoln Charter School in York.  “What the governor is putting on the table are very tangible proposals that allow us to move Pennsylvania into the forefront of reform,” says House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R-Allegheny).  “Our economy in the 21st century is going to look for excellence,” says Senate Majority Whip Pat Browne (R-Northampton).  “Through the reforms the governor is advocating for, we will be pursuing excellence here in Pennsylvania.”  Governor Corbett wants lawmakers to act in the next few months, so that the reforms he outlined on Tuesday can be in place for the start of the 2012-2013 school year.

State Insurance Department Plans Forums on Health Insurance Exchanges

Health Insurance exchanges are a key part of the federal Health Care Reform Law.  Pennsylvania is in the process of deciding if it wants to develop its own, or leave it up to the federal government.

Operating its own Health Insurance Exchange, a one stop shopping opportunity for people and businesses looking for health insurance, would allow the state to design something that meets the needs of Pennsylvanians.  But Insurance Commissioner Michael Consedine says there are strings attached, such as the costs and the  long term requirements on the state in operating that exchange.

He says the federal government picks up some of the costs as the outset. However, the costs are eventually up to the state to cover if it runs its own exchange. If the federal government runs the exchange, Consedine says the costs are covered by the federal government.  However, a state based exchange would be tailored to the unique aspects of the state’s marketplace.

Consedine says the State Insurance Department is holding a series of forums to hear what the public thinks will make sense for Pennsylvania.  The forums will be held on Tuesday, August 9th at the Doubletree Hotel Pittsburgh/Monroeville Convention Center, on August 11th at the Crowne Plaza Liberty Convention Center in King of Prussia and on August 23rd at the Sheraton Harrisburg Hershey in Harrisburg.

You can pre-register at  You can also comment on line if you can’t attend any of the three hearings.

Consedine says if Pennsylvania does not have a state-based exchange ready or at least in the planning stages by 2013 under the current federal law, at that point the federal government would start to look at possibly operating the exchange for Pennsylvania.

He adds they are still awaiting a significant amount of guidance from the Department of Health and Human Services and the federal government in terms of the specifics of health care reform.  He says that includes the exchange design and the minimum benefit plan that would need to be offered as part of the exchange.

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