Two-and-a-Half Cheers for Larry Farnese

    The old saying is supposed to start out “THREE cheers for (insert man-of-the-hour here).” Sadly, I have to withhold the final half-cheer, although on the state Senate floor last night, Philadelphia Democrat Lawrence Farnese gave one of the best 3-minute speeches the chamber has seen in some time.

    As I watched the Senate proceedings continue past 8:30pm, Democrats were in the process of blocking funding for the state-related universities. These are the bills that send state money to institutions like Penn State, Temple, the University of Pittsburgh and Lincoln, as well as a veterinary school at the University of Pennsylvania. After days of being frozen out of budget talks, Democrats apparently thought this ill-advised tactic would be their best course of action, and it was their only chance to cause anything more than a ripple in the budget process. That’s because these so-called non-preferred appropriations bills require a 2-thirds majority in the House and Senate, and while their majorities are solid, Republicans do not have that big of an advantage in either chamber.

Senator Lawrence Farnese (D-Philadelphia)

Senator Larry Farnese just misses out on notching a classic moment in his first term

   So, Democrats voted in the negative on bill after bill, depriving the schools of any funding…all in the name of protecting them from 19% funding reductions (in school, I was taught that 100% cuts are bigger than 19% cuts, but I digress). Republicans chimed in that the tactic could delay the funding until the fall, Democrats said they were holding out for some of that “surplus” money the state has collected this year.

    That’s when Senator Farnese approached the microphone, and for three minutes chastised both parties and the overall budget process:

    Listen to Senator Larry Farnese Blast the Budget Process 

“…if the reason (for) what we’re doing is to prove a point, or because negotiations have gone on and we’re not a part of them, that’s a problem with the process and that’s a problem with this chamber.”

    The senator was correct on all counts. The battle over state-related university funding is just the latest in a long line of questionable tactics pulled by both sides as they trade off majority control from session to session. Here, finally, someone stood up and said so.

    Senator Farnese had the chance to make it a serious stand by breaking from his party’s ranks and voting to allow the funding for the schools, but his umbrage stopped just short of allowing that. Vocalizing your outrage is great, but speaking through your actions is an even more powerful expression. And, that’s where Senator Farnese lost half a cheer last night…

Democrats Take Their Swing

    Outnumbered in both the House and Senate, Democrats in Harrisburg have just one bullet in their gun, and on Monday they pulled the trigger.

    In both the House and Senate, Democrats blocked passage of several non-preferred spending bills associated with the state-related universities, which include Penn State, Pitt, Temple, Lincoln and the University of Pennsylvania. The schools would have to endure 18-19% cuts to their state funding under the bills, but the negative votes by Democrats could put 100% of the funding at risk.

    The move was possible because non-preferred appropriations bills require passage by a 2-thirds majority vote in both the House and Senate.

    Republicans characterized the move as a dangerous game of chicken, and say the negative votes could stall the funding until at least this fall or beyond. Democrats say they rejected the funding to hold out for further restoration of cuts to the schools. The latest proposals had restored hundreds of millions of dollars from Governor Tom Corbett’s original plan to trim the universities’ funding by more than 50%.

    Democrats want to tap into this year’s estimated $600-700 million in additional revenue collections to restore the cuts. Failure to pass funding for the state-supported universities would not stand in the way of passage of the overall General Fund budget plan, which is expected to get its first vote on the Senate floor as early as today.


Amended Budget Goes to Full Senate

    Senate Republicans unveiled the latest version of the FY2012 state budget late Monday during a Senate Appropriations Committee meeting in Harrisburg. The measure passed 16-10 along party lines. The $27.148 billion spending plan also has the approval of Governor Tom Corbett and House Republicans, who signed off on it during closed-door budget talks.

    The budget restores hundreds of millions of dollars in education spending cuts, but Democrats say it’s not enough. Democratic members of the Senate Appropriations Committee tried unsuccessfully to restore or increase funding to several line items through amendments that attempted to bolster human services, AIDS funding, the now-defunct AdultBasic health plan, the arts and tourism, among others. Each amendment failed by the same 16-10 party line vote.

    Senate Appropriations Chairman Jake Corman (R-Centre) says this budget proposal spends responsibly while respecting the billions of dollars in debt the Commonwealth is now carrying.

    The budget bill is expected to go to the full Senate today.

Sate Capitol View from Commonwealth Ave.

“Fair Share Act” Goes to Governor Tom Corbett’s Desk

    The state House of Representatives has given final approval to a Senate bill known as the “Fair Share Act.” The legislation was one of the top priorities of Governor Tom Corbett and it is now on its way to his desk for signature.

    The bill addresses percentages in civil lawsuit awards to ensure that the percentage of damages leveled against a defendant does not exceed the level of their determined responsibility. It would apply to defendants found 60% liable or less in civil cases. Democrats tried unsuccessfully to amend the bill to exempt minors and senior citizens before the legislation passed 116-83 on Monday afternoon.

    Supporters of the bill argued that exempting anyone from the proposed tort reform would defeat its purpose, and that the bill had nothing to do with plaintiffs. They say the current lawsuit climate in Pennsylvania has hindered the state’s ability to attract new business and create jobs.

    The bill will become law 60 days after the governor signs it.

Final Days of the State Budget Process Are Here

    Both the state House of Representatives and state Senate gaveled in rare Sunday voting sessions over the weekend, as the two chambers brace for the final flurry of legislative activity expected this week before the summer break. Thursday is the deadline for the state budget, and despite some minor delays in the Senate over the weekend, leaders still say the deadline can be met for the first time since 2002.

    In addition to budget-related bills, House lawmakers dealt with a distracted driving measure that would ban all texting while behind the wheel and legislation that limits liability for damages to the percentage of responsibility in civil lawsuits. Those bills could see final House action this week.

    The Senate is expected to begin working through budget amendments on Monday after dealing with non-preferred appropriations bills for state-related universities among its action on Sunday. The debate over funding for higher education, which was a big part of Sunday’s floor activity, is expected to continue this week.

    Off the floor on Sunday, House and Senate Democrats continued their call for a Marcellus Shale extraction tax or state impact fee. Governor Tom Corbett says he won’t even consider such a proposal and he wants any “impact fees” kept local and completely separate from the General Fund budget talks.

Survey Shows Social Media Being Used More Often When Disaster Strikes

A new survey shows Americans are relying more on social media and texting when disaster strikes.   “Get Ready,  America!, the National Hurricane Survival Initiative, has released a survey that shows social media and texting are becoming the leading ways people will communicate in a disaster. 

The Sachs/Mason-Dixon commissioned poll found 72% of Americans are members of a social network. 45% of them say they’d rely on it to communicate with friends and family in a disaster and another 24% say they might.

There are some demographic differences. Social media is more prevalent among younger Americans, with 91% of those 18 to 34 connected. 63% of those respondents said they would use those platforms to communicate in a disaster.

For people ages 35 to 59, 75% said they use social media and 44% of them would use it to communicate in a disaster.

Ryan Duffy, managing director of Sachs Digital, says they’re recommending everyone have a mobile phone as part of their disaster kit.  

Duffy says cell phone companies look for areas hardest hit by natural disasters and bring in Cell on Wheels units to provide access if there’s a downed cell phone tower.

Duffy says it really can save a life if you have the right information.  He believes it’s worth everyone’s while to follow local emergency service agencies on Facebook or Twitter and to have a greater sense of awareness when disaster strikes.

ReadyPA is currently on Facebook. The Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency is still reviewing Twitter.

Voter ID Bill Clears State House

    A bill that would require voters to present a photo ID every time they cast a ballot passed the state House of Representatives Thursday after weeks of debate and political wrangling. The measure received a mostly partisan 108-88 vote in the Republican-controlled House.

    Critics say the bill will suppress turnout among the elderly and minorities, but supporters contend that their only goal is to combat voter fraud. During Thursday’s final debate, Luzerne County Democrat Gerald Mullery, who’s also an attorney, argued that a similar law passed in Indiana resulted in valid court challenges and costly legal battles. He predicted the same fate here if Pennsylvania enacts a voter ID law. During debate on the constitutionality of the bill, Lancaster County Republican Bryan Cutler countered that Pennsylvania already has some voter restrictions in place, and requires a photo ID from first-time voters and those voting for the first time at a new polling place.

    Chester County Republican Chris Ross cast the only “no” vote in the Republican caucus. All Democrats present in the chamber voted against the bill, which now heads to the state Senate.

Corbett Administration Comes to Terms with Another State Employee Union

    It took 10 meetings spread out over weeks of talks, but the Corbett Administration and the Service Employees International Union have reportedly come to a tentative agreement on a new contract for about 10,000 state employees. It’s the 2nd consecutive day that the state has come to terms with a major state employee union. A deal with AFSCME Council 13 was announced Wednesday night.

    Last night’s agreement came just 24 hours after the SEIU Local 668 characterized the ongoing talks as “frustrating” and said the two sides were “miles apart.” The union plans to release details of the agreement today.

    Both the SEIU and AFSCME contracts were set to expire next week.

New Website Simplifies Process for Reporting Suspected Child Abuse

A new website is on line to provide statewide resources for reporting and preventing child abuse.  It’s a joint effort of Penn State’s College of Medicine, Milton S. Hershey Medical Center and School of Law.

Look Out for Child Abuse” is designed to be a one stop resource for completing a CY-47 form, Pennsylvania’s official form for reporting suspected abuse. A video on the site walks a person through the process step-by-step, helping users compose a detailed easy-to-read report. The forms will still have to be printed and sent to the appropriate county children and youth agency.  However, a pilot program will be tested with Cumberland County Children and Youth Service for a form that could be submitted electronically.

The website  also includes legal information, resources for victims and educational tools. Dr. Benjamin Levi, professor of pediatrics and humanities at the Penn State College of Medicine, says one of the  things they’ve tried to do, is to make the website very accessible to lots of people for lots of different reasons. He says the opening page includes a site map that will allow people to navigate easily and quickly.

Dr. Levi says the goal is to make the reporting information widely available.  He says Pennsylvania is one of the lowest reporting states in the country for child abuse.  He says the rate is less than half of the national average and presumably that’s not because there are fewer children being abused in Pennsylvania, it’s because people don’t report as often.

Dr. Harold Paz, CEO of Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, says we recognize the problem of child abuse is not simply a medical problem, or a legal problem. He says it’s an issue that affects children across the Commonwealth and we need to make creative and collaborative approaches if we’re going to be able to stop abuse.

Former Pennsylvania First Lady Michele Ridge is a member of Vision of Hope’s Advisory Council for the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape. She says child sexual abuse is a serious problem. She says protecting children from sexual  abuse is a shared responsibility. Mrs. Ridge  says these critical new tools through “Look Out for Child Abuse” will help them achieve their goal.

Ridge says all of us must work together by joining the fight to help protect the hopes and dreams of our children.

The site address is

* Photo courtesy of “Look Out for Child Abuse” website.


One Week Remains Before State Budget Deadline

State budget negotiations continue in Harrisburg as the Corbett Administration attempts to iron out differences with fellow Republicans in the legislative leadership. Their goal is to have a spending plan signed and in place one week from tonight, making this the first budget deadline met in 8 years.

Governor Tom Corbett said last night that he remains confident that a deal can be reached in time to meet that deadline, but there are indications that his confidence is not shared by the Senate leadership. Drew Crompton, Chief of Staff to Senate President Joe Scarnati, says the governor’s refusal to discuss a proposed Marcellus Shale “impact fee” has the potential to push the process beyond June 30th. The governor has previously stated that the impact fees are to be kept separate from the general fund budget and he refused to comment on whether or not they were a part of Wednesday’s talks. Corbett does list tort reform and school vouchers as two major issues that need to be discussed before party leaders can agree on a budget.

Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi previously stated that a handshake agreement of sorts would need to be in place by today if the budget had a chance to pass by June 30th. As talks ended last night, indications were that such a “gentleman’s agreement” is still elusive.

Meanwhile, state Democrats are critical of the budget negotiation, calling it a “behind closed doors” process. Republicans control the House, Senate and Governor’s office in Harrisburg.