The Race for the Republican Nomination

It’s a wide-open field, according to Kiron Skinner, professor of international relations at Carnegie Mellon University.  “We haven’t seen a contest quite like this in a very long time.  Usually we have a sense of the frontrunners very early on in the process.  We do not, right now, have that sense,” says Skinner, who spoke to Radio PA from California, where she is also a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford.  While former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney has the name recognition and the head start in the polls, Skinner wouldn’t put her money on Romney right now. 

Santorum Campaign Kick-Off

Professor Skinner says Rick Santorum is trying to carve out space in a crowded field of social conservative candidates.

Some of the Republicans racking up the best poll numbers aren’t even official candidates yet.  For instance, former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin nets 12% in the July Quinnipiac National Poll.  Likewise, Texas Governor Rick Perry received 10%.  “[Perry] has been successful, from the standpoint of many in the party, as governor.  He is not running up big deficits, and in fact it’s a better economy in Texas than most states,” Skinner says.  

The biggest storyline leading up to 2012: “Who can create jobs?”  Skinner says many think Texas Governor Rick Perry is the one.  “It’s a big state that’s creating jobs faster and more permanently than other states, and has an economy that’s growing,” Skinner explains.  

While Republicans do view President Barack Obama as vulnerable in 2012, Skinner says that’s not the only reason for such a large GOP presidential field.  She says many candidates are rushing to fill the void in a Republican Party that’s perceived to be weak.  “There’s been no one since Reagan who’s been able to bring a broad coalition of Republicans together, to win elections by a landslide as Reagan did in ’80 and ’84.”

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.

2011 Shaping Up to be a Deadly Year for Law Enforcers

It is shaping up to be a deadly year so far for law enforcement officers in the United States.  98 federal, state and local law enforcement officers died in the line of duty in the first six months of the year, including a Berks County Sheriff’s Deputy who was gunned down while serving a warrant.

Craig Floyd, Chairman of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, says that’s a 14% increase over the same period last year. Firearms deaths are up more than 40%, reaching a 20-year high.  For the period, firearms deaths surpassed traffic-related deaths, which have been the number one killer of law enforcement officers for the last 13 years.  Traffic deaths were down 17% for the first six months.

In Pennsylvania, Berks County Sheriff’s Deputy Kyle Pagerly was shot and killed while serving a warrant in late June.  The suspect was killed in an exchange of gunfire. His widow is pregnant with the couple’s first child.

Floyd says often, the firearms deaths occur during an arrest situation when officers are serving a warrant.  In the past, he says the suspect might have given up without a confrontation.  Today, he says we’re seeing more of these criminals resist with gunfire.

Domestic disturbance calls are also dangerous for law enforcement officers. Floyd says five of the gunfire deaths in the first six months of the year happened during domestic disturbance calls. He says a third of all the criminal assaults and injuries to officers occurred during domestic calls.

Craig says we need to stop slashing the budgets for law enforcement.  He says we need to give officers the training, equipment and manpower not only to keep our communities safe, but to keep our protectors safe.

Floyd also believes tougher sentences should be imposed on repeat violent offenders.  He says they are responsible for 75% of the violent crime in our nation.

You can see the full report at .

Honor Guard photo courtesy of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund.

Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission Announces 2012 Toll Structure

The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission has set the tolls for the next calendar year, and E-ZPass customers are getting a “pass”.  Cash customers will be paying 10% more starting January 1st, but those who pay electronically will not see an increase. The 2012 rate schedule will result in an overall revenue growth of 3%.

It will be the fourth annual toll increase since Act 44 of 2007 required the Turnpike to provide funding for statewide transportation needs.  This year, there was a two tier toll schedule for the first time, allowing E-ZPass customers to pay a lower increase.  The 2011 toll schedule raised rates for cash customers by 10%, but increased electronic tolls by just 3%.

Bill Capone, spokesman for the Turnpike Commission, says they think there are customer service benefits by moving more people to E-ZPass.  He expects more will sign up, now that next year’s toll schedule has been announced.  He says electronic tolls are safer and more convenient.

Capone says as E-ZPass enrollment grows, the commission will be reviewing the number of toll collectors that are needed.  He says that leads to operational savings and efficiencies.

Capone says people don’t like to hear about tolls going up, but there’s a reason the Turnpike Commission is doing this.  He says it will assist the Commonwealth with other funding needs to improve transportation infrastructure.  Act 44 mandates annual contributions to PennDOT.

The Turnpike Commission also approved 3% increases for 2013 and 2014, but the structure of those increases was not set. The Commission will set the structure for 2013 around this time next year, after reviewing the percentage of cash customers versus E-ZPass customers using the toll road.

Marcellus Shale

Expect “Impact Fee” Debate This Fall

The governor’s Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission has voted to recommend it, and the industry even endorses it.  “The industry and the Marcellus Shale Coalition has been very clear of its support of an impact fee that’s competitive, that’s styled to address the un-met needs of local governments,” said Marcellus Shale Coalition president Kathryn Klaber. 

Klaber stressed that the Marcellus Shale Coalition supports a “competitive” impact fee, citing a new study of the economic impacts of the booming Marcellus Shale industry.  “What we’re seeing in this study are some very large numbers in terms of economic activity and tax benefits… and we wouldn’t want to change that mix so much that we’d be thwarting the kind of investment that this study highlights.”

joe scarnati, SB 100, marcellus shale

Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati has Already Introduced Impact Fee Legislation

Asked about the prospects of an impact fee on Thursday, Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati (R-Jefferson) said further discussions are needed.  “I’m open to ideas, but certainly I want to see as much driven back to where the drilling activities are.  Impact fee is certainly an appropriate name for what we’re trying to address here,” Scarnati told reporters.  He does acknowledge, however, that it would be difficult to pass an impact fee bill, which doesn’t provide some money for statewide environmental projects. 

While the stars appear to be aligning in favor of an impact fee this fall, not everyone is one board.  “The local impact fee is too narrowly conceived.  There are impacts of natural gas drilling that fall well beyond communities that actually have natural gas wells,” said Sharon Ward, director of the Pennsylvania Budget & Policy Center.  Ward supports a broader severance tax, and so do House Democratic leaders.  They’re backing a new bill that would tax gas producers 30-cents per 1,000 cubic feet of natural gas severed. 

However, Governor Tom Corbett has made it clear that he will not sign a severance tax.  He’s previously left the door open for an impact fee – as long as no money is used for the General Fund – but has not commented publicly on the advisory commission’s recommendations.  The Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission’s final report is expected to be released on Friday.

It’s So Hot, You Could Almost…

It’s so hot, you could almost fry an egg on the sidewalk.  From magenta to tangerine, National Weather Service maps are lit up with colors straight out of a box of Crayola crayons.  While it’s a pleasant sight for those of us sitting in the air conditioning, these brilliant hues stand for the Excessive Heat Warnings and Heat Advisories that are issued for most of Pennsylvania.  Temperatures range from the mid-90s to near 100-degrees.  Heat indexes are climbing even higher. 

Curious (well-hydrated and wearing light colored clothing), Radio PA’s Brad Christman and Matt Paul headed outside in an attempt to “literally” fry an egg on the sidewalk.  Around 3:30pm on Thursday, with the air temperature in Harrisburg near 99-degrees… the project was unsuccessful (note the picture above).   

On a serious note, an Excessive Heat Warning means that a prolonged period of dangerously hot temperatures will occur.  According to the National Weather Service, the combination of hot temperatures and high humidity combine to create a dangerous situation.

These conditions make everybody vulnerable to heat-related illnesses, like heat stroke.  “When this happens, body temperatures can rise to excessive levels, 107, 108, 109-degrees.  When that happens it essentially causes a breakdown of critical functions of the body,” says Dr. John Skiendzielewski, director of emergency medicine at Geisinger Medical Center

Dr. Skiendzielewski cautions that senior citizens are especially susceptible. “Because of problems with their circulation… and prior strokes, they just can’t handle that as well as younger individuals can.”  He urges everyone to check on elderly loved ones or neighbors in these conditions.  “The elderly, unfortunately during these economic times, also try to conserve money.  So, they won’t turn on their air conditioners even if they have it,” Dr. Skiendzielewski cautions.  If seniors are having problems, take them some place cooler.

Fewer Jobs, Higher Unemployment in PA

The statewide job count fell by 2,600 in June, and the unemployment rate rose to 7.6%.  That’s up from 7.4% statewide unemployment in May.  The state Department of Labor & Industry reports biggest hits came in the service providing supersectors.  For instance, 7,800 education & health services jobs were lost last month.  The financial activities supersector lost 2,000 jobs. 

The bright spot in Pennsylvania’s June jobs report comes from the goods producing supersectors.  Construction added 1,100 jobs.  Manufacturing added 2,000 jobs. 

Despite the net loss of jobs from month-to-month, Pennsylvania is still home to 46,400 more jobs today than this time last year.  Also, today’s jobless rate is still much better than last June’s 8.7% statewide mark. 

The nation’s June jobs report was similarly bad.  The nationwide unemployment rate now stands at 9.2%.

Industry-Backed Study Details Benefits of Marcellus Shale Boom

Pennsylvania is now a net exporter of natural gas, and has the potential to account for 17.5-billion cubic feet of natural gas, per day.  President of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, Kathryn Klaber, says that would be one-quarter of the nation’s natural gas production.  The new study, The Pennsylvania Marcellus Natural Gas Industry: Status, Economic Impact, and Future Potential, was conducted by Penn State researchers, and commissioned by the Marcellus Shale Coalition.    

Kathryn Klaber says PA’s shale industry has blown its projections out of the water.  “At the beginning of 2010, it was projected that Pennsylvania would be producing a billion cubic feet equivalent  per day by the end of 2010, and we saw that it was double that.”   

The study also projects that Marcellus Shale development could support 156,000 PA jobs this year, and more than 256,000 PA jobs by 2020.  “Every dollar that’s invested in building one of these wells involves more people to do that work, to run the equipment, and to do everything throughout the supply chain,” Klaber said. 

But, the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center contends those jobs numbers are overstated.  “Overall, we welcome the gas industry’s contribution to Pennsylvania’s economy, but with this study, the industry continues to overstate the economic benefits and underestimate the costs of increased drilling in the Marcellus Shale,” PBPC director Sharon Ward said in a statement. 

The study is being released less than a week after the governor’s Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission voted for a series of 96-recommendations, including a local impact fee.  “The industry and the Marcellus Shale Coalition has been very clear of its support of an impact fee that’s competitive, that’s styled to address the unmet needs of local governments,” Klaber said in an interview with Radio PA.

Three Pennsylvania National Guard Soldiers Killed in Afghanistan

The Pennsylvania National Guard is mourning the loss of three of its members in Afghanistan.   

47-year-old Sgt Edward Koehler of Lebanon, 49-year-old Sgt Brian Mowery of Halifax in Dauphin County and 30-year-old Staff Sgt Kenneth VanGiesen of Kane, McKean County were members of the 131st Transportation Company.  They were killed and five other soldiers were hurt when a roadside bomb hit their convoy as they transported supplies in Afghanistan on Monday near Bagram.  The unit has been deployed since January.

State officials say Sgt. Koehler graduated from Lebanon High School in 1982 and joined the Marine Corps.  He served as a Marine until 1988, took a ten year break from military service, then enlisted in the Pennsylvania National Guard in 1997. He had been deployed to Kuwait and Iraq with the unit from 2003 to 2004.

Sgt. Mowery, a 1980 graduate of Central Dauphin High School, served in the Marine Corps Reserve from 1979 to 1985. He joined the Army National Guard in 2000 and spent several months in Kosovo from 2003 to 2004 with the 111th Infantry Regiment.

Staff Sgt VanGiesen graduated from Kane Area High School in 1999 and enlisted that year in the Pennsylvania National Guard.  He was on his fourth active-duty tour, having served in Germany and Iraq.

Governor Corbett says the tragic incident is a stark reminder of the dangers our troops face on a daily basis for the cause of freedom.  The Governor says we owe them our respect, our support and our gratitude.

Major General Wesley Craig, Pennsylvania adjutant general, says “The impact of the tragic loss of our three soldiers is felt throughout the entire Pennsylvania National Guard.”  Maj. Gen. Craig says “We will honor their service by caring for their families left behind, and by increasing our determination to accomplish the mission they set out to do.”

Environmental Group Puts PA Near Top of “Toxic 20”

Pennsylvania is second to only Ohio in the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) study, which ranks the worst states for air pollution from power plants.  “Nearly half of all the toxic air pollution reported from industrial sources, in the United States, comes from oil and coal-fired power plants,” says Dan Lashof, the NRDC’s climate center director. 

The study takes aim at coal power in particular, but president of the Pennsylvania Coal Association George Ellis calls it political rhetoric.  “I think they’re grossly misleading the public with this information.  I think it’s a scare tactic, and it’s certainly unfounded,” says Ellis, who contends that coal is burning cleaner today than it ever has before.  Ellis calls coal the most reliable and affordable source of electricity.

Public input is still being accepted on the Environmental Protection Agency’s planned Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, which the Natural Resources Defense Council strongly endorses.  “The EPA estimates that the reduction of toxic pollution required by the pending Mercury and Air Toxics Standards would save as many as 17,000 lives every year by 2015,” Lashof emphasized in a conference call with reporters. 

But George Ellis with the Pennsylvania Coal Association believes the standards would go too far.  “What you’re going to see is the premature retirement of electric generation plants, because it would be too costly for utilities to comply with these regulations.”  Over half of PA’s power comes from coal, and Ellis fears lost jobs and higher electric bills if the new regulations are implemented as planned.

Both Lashof and Ellis will be watching Capitol Hill closely, as several amendments have been drafted, which would block or delay the new EPA standards. 

Behind Ohio and Pennsylvania, Florida, Kentucky and Maryland round out the top five in the NRDC’s “Toxic 20” list of states with the most air pollution from power plants.