Governor Signs Bill That Could Allow State Takeover of Harrisburg Finances

The clock is ticking again on Harrisburg’s financial future.   Governor Corbett signed a bill Thursday morning giving him power to take control of the city’s finances if necessary.

Governor Corbett signed Senate Bill 1151 without fanfare and a spokeswoman declined to do an interview about his next step.  But she did tell us the Governor will declare a state of fiscal emergency for Harrisburg soon and won’t wait for a bankruptcy filing to play out in court. The state expects city council’s petition for municipal bankruptcy to be dismissed.  Harrisburg’s mayor is also challenging it, and a judge has set a hearing date for late November.

Once the Governor declares a state of fiscal emergency, the secretary of the Department of Community and Economic Development would be granted emergency powers to draw up an Emergency Action plan in the distressed city to coordinate vital services and ensure public safety.  That could include police and fire, wastewater and water, trash collection, payroll, pension and debt payments.  The Governor could also petition Commonwealth Court to place the city in receivership. However, the city would still be given a final chance to draw up its own recovery plan that’s acceptable to the state.

Harrisburg Mayor Linda Thompson is asking City Council to come together in support of a financial recovery plan that averts a state takeover.  She says the taxpayers and voters of the city voted them in office to do their business. She’s telling council “Why would you work so hard to become elected officials and allow the Governor to take over your city?”

Advocates: PA Can End “REAL ID”

Pennsylvania could become the 16th and largest state to enact a law that blocks implementation of the federal REAL ID Act.  “We believe that state resistance will lead to the demise of REAL ID, and that’s why it’s important for SB 354 to pass,” says ACLU of PA legislative director Andy Hoover.  He’s talking about a bill that has now earned unanimous approve in the state Senate. 

The federal REAL ID Act, if fully implemented, would place requirements on state driver’s licenses that critics say would essentially make them national ID cards.  It would also link all DMV databases across the country, potentially placing Americans’ personal information at risk.  “I believe it’s just one more encroachment on our individual liberty and freedom, which are slowly being taken from us in a very subtle way,” says Senator Mike Folmer (R-Lebanon), the bill’s prime sponsor. 

There are also financial concerns, as PennDOT estimates it will cost more than $100-million dollars to implement REAL ID.  “It’s one more mandate coming down from the federal government… and we all have our own economic scenarios going on as it is,” Folmer tells Radio PA. 

This has been a lingering issue under the state capitol dome.  The House passed an opt-out bill in 2008; the Senate passed one in 2010, but time ran out on both efforts.  “We’re hopeful this is the session we finally put REAL ID to bed,” Hoover says.  Folmer’s legislation passed the Senate 50 – 0, and is now awaiting action in the House State Government Committee.

Both Sides Claim to be Protecting Your Vote

A capitol rally has fanned the flames of the Voter ID debate.  Back in June the House voted, largely along party lines, to approve a controversial Voter ID bill.  As supporters work to get HB 934 considered in the Senate, the Protect Our Vote Coalition is speaking out.  Pennsylvania Voice field director Jeff Garis delivered a message to lawmakers: “That creation of jobs, that encouraging and building our economy, that protecting homeowners from being sent out of their homes will be the first item of business – not attempts to disenfranchise voters.” 

The coalition calls the Voter ID bill, a voter suppression bill.  “Although many people will face no inconvenience if state-issued photo ID is required to vote – those who will be inconvenienced will include a significant number of people with disabilities and elderly seniors,” says Deborah Delgaldo with the Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania. 

The Voter ID bill would require Pennsylvanians to show an approved form of photo ID every time they vote.  State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R-Butler) says it ensures integrity in the election process.  “It’s just hard to believe that some of these individuals will actually rally around a microphone, to defend a system that has allowed for fraud to occur and for our election code to be violated by ACORN and by other groups,” says Metcalfe, the prime sponsor of HB 934. 

Metcalfe’s bill would allow persons without an approved form of photo ID to obtain one for voting purposes at no cost.  “You’re making available the photo ID card for free, but the documentation that you need to provide is going to be an obstacle,” explains Garis.  “For some people, particularly low income people, seniors on a fixed income, there’s going to be a cost associated with that.” 

An analysis from the Pennsylvania Budget & Policy Center pegs the cost of Voter ID implementation – including free ID cards, voter notification and more – at $11 million.  While Rep. Metcalfe doesn’t believe the cost will be that high, he does acknowledge there is an associated cost for good government.  “This cost is something that taxpayers will support,” he says.

Top Lawmaker Wants to Address Transportation Funding Now

Make room in the already crowded fall agenda.  In addition to Marcellus Shale, education reform, redistricting and privatization – transportation funding is the latest high profile issue to be added to the front burner.  State Senate Appropriations Chair Jake Corman (R-Centre) tells reporters that he’ll soon introduce legislation that mirrors the recommendations of the governor’s Transportation Funding Advisory Commission.

Pennsylvania faces a roughly $3.5-billion annual transportation funding gap, and the commission’s recommendations would raise $2.5-billion by year five.  “We’re going to do this someday and it’s not going to get cheaper,” Sen. Corman says.  “The only reason not to do it is political fear, and that’s just not acceptable.” 

The Transportation Funding Advisory Commission would raise the money for roads and bridges by uncapping the Oil Company Franchise Tax, indexing vehicle and driver fees to inflation and increasing fines and fees for traffic violations.  The average driver could pay up to $36 more in year one, and $132 more by year five.  However, those amounts could be lower depending on how much of the oil franchise tax is passed onto consumers. 

But Corman says inaction is not saving Pennsylvanians any money.  “We’re going to pay it in extra gasoline in traffic; we’re going to pay it in extra wear and tear on our vehicles.  You know it’s an average 10-mile detour when a bridge is closed down,” Corman explained to reporters after session on Wednesday.

Corman says the time to act is now, but acknowledges that it will require direction from the governor, as the Transportation Committee chairmen have indicated no interest in moving this legislation without hearing from Gov. Tom Corbett. 

To this point, Corbett hasn’t made any decisions about how to approach transportation funding.  Speaking at a news conference earlier this month, Corbett said, “They’re all priorities that we need to take a look at, but not everything can go first.”  The governor was responding to a question about where transportation funding fits into the fall legislative agenda.

State Supreme Court Goes “Social”

The state’s highest court is using social networking to alert people about decisions and rulings.  The Pennsylvania  Supreme Court has established a Twitter feed to provide quick notification of new orders, rules, opinions and statements written by the justices.

Art Heinz, communications coordinator for the administrative office of PA Courts, says it’s part of the court’s commitment to provide information and access to court proceedings and documents. He says the feed will give followers an alert when a decision has been issued by the court.  The reader can click on the link and the ruling will come up.

Heinz says the court is keenly aware that the way people receive information now is changing rapidly.  He says Twitter is a widely recognized vehicle for providing these information alerts. He says the court is always interested in improving access to court documents in a cost-effective and efficient manner.

The Twitter feed is not a two way communication method.  People who have questions should visit the comment section at the Pennsylvania judiciary’s web site.

Anyone can sign up to receive alerts at by entering supremectofpa.

PennPIRG Report Encourages Pennsylvania to Create Its Own Health Exchange

nationwide study of   health exchanges being set up under the federal health care reform law says Pennsylvania should act to create a new insurance marketplace.   

The Pennsylvania Insurance Department is still deciding  if the state will design its own health exchange, or leave it up to one managed by the  federal government.  The Pennsylvania Public Interest Research Group has issued a report saying the state should get going on its own exchange.

Alana Miller, program associate for PennPIRG, says having our own exchange gives us the ability to analyze what we want and what makes sense for Pennsylvania.  She says the exchanges offer states a chance to address the problems of cost and quality.  She adds they help consumers get a fair shake when they’re buying insurance.

Miller says not all exchanges are created equal. She says a strong exchange should be protected from insurance industry influence and negotiate with insurers for better rates.  She says that would help consumers in the long run with better quality care and lower costs. 

Miller says an exchange would give easy to use tools and comparisons for consumers when they’re choosing between plans.  She believes a state developed exchange gives Pennsylvania the ability to analyze what we want in our own plan and what makes sense for Pennsylvanians.

Miller says health exchanges are competitive marketplaces that can empower individuals and small businesses with better and more affordable options for coverage.  She says many other states are already developing their own exchanges, which need to be operating by 2014.

Lawmakers Stepping in to Highmark, UPMC Dispute

Time is running short to resolve the stalemate between Highmark and UPMC.   As it stands now, UPMC plans to end its contract with Highmark next year, meaning 20 hospitals and 27 hundred doctors would no longer be in network for the insurer’s subscribers.

State Representative Tony DeLuca (D-Allegheny), says he feels it’s the responsibility of the legislature and Governor’s administration to step forward and work to break the stalemate any way they can, for the good of the people they were sent to Harrisburg to represent.    

He’s proposing legislation (HB32) that would give the state Insurance Commissioner more authority to step into contract disputes between hospital systems and insurers.  Representative DeLuca says his bill would make it possible for the commissioner to require an expiring or terminating contract to continue for another term if it’s determined that action would be in the best interest of the citizens.

State Senate Democratic Leader Jay Costa says it’s not their practice to step into disputes between private entities, but this is a time when it’s necessary for the greater good.  He says they’ll be introducing comparable legislation in the State Senate

Representative Frank Dermody (D-Allegheny), House Democratic Leader, says concern about the dispute between UPMC and Highmark transcends partisan lines. He says the unwillingness of UPMC to continue talking through the disagreement with Highmark is causing problems for employers who must make long range decisions about health care for their employees.  He says it’s causing problems for workers and retirees who face uncertainty about access to health care and the likelihood of higher costs.

Rep Dan Frankel (D-Allegheny) has introduced legislation (HB1910) aimed at UPMC’s specialty hospitals. He says the measure would make certain any insurer could have access to Western Psychiatric Institute, Children’s Hospital, Magee-Women’s Hospital, The Hillman Cancer Center and the cancer network. 

The State House Insurance Committee has been holding hearings on the stalemate.

Changes Coming to Powerball Early Next Year

Powerball turns 20 next year and there will be some changes in how the game is played, and how much it will cost for a ticket.    The goal is to create more millionaire winners and increase the odds of winning a prize in Powerball.  

Elizabeth Brassell, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Lottery, says the number of balls in the red Powerball pool will be reduced from 39 to 35.   In addition, the opening jackpot will double to 40 million dollars and the second, match five jackpots will increase from 200 thousand to 1 million dollars.  

Brassell says odds today of winning any prize are 1 in 35.  She says that will improve to 1 in 31.8, and the odds of winning a jackpot prize will improve from 1 in 195 million to 1 in 175 million.

Brassell says not only do they anticipate larger prizes for more Pennsylvania Powerball players, they also think the enhanced game will expand Powerball sales.  She says that will contribute more to the bottom line of those programs for older Pennsylvanians the lottery was created to fund.

When the changes take effect, a ticket to play Powerball will cost $2. Tickets for the new version of the game go on sale January 15th.

In anticipation of the changes, the lottery has to start limiting the advance play feature starting this month.  Players now can purchase up to 13 weeks, or 26 drawings, in advance.  October 19th is the last opportunity to purchase 26 draws in advance.   Drawings are held on Wednesdays and Saturdays.  Powerball is a multi-state game.

State Takeover Looms Over City of Harrisburg

State takeover legislation is another step close to the governor’s desk, after passing the Senate 37 – 13 on Tuesday afternoon.  Despite $450 million dollars in mounting debt, officials in the City of Harrisburg cannot agree to a financial recovery plan.  SB 1151 would allow the governor to declare a state of emergency and assume control of the capital city’s finances.  The governor would then be able to appoint a receiver to create and implement a long-term recovery plan for the city.

Critics, like Senator John Blake (D-Lackawanna), call it an overreach.  “It disrespects longstanding principles of democracy, autonomy and local sovereignty,” Blake said on the Senate floor. 

Proponents, like Senator Jeffrey Piccola (R-Dauphin), call the takeover unfortunate, but necessary.  “If this bill does become effectuated, and a declaration of fiscal emergency is made by the governor, [there’s] a 30-day window of opportunity for the mayor, city council and the commonwealth to resolve their differences and come to a consent agreement,” says Piccola, who would prefer city officials come to a resolution themselves. 

A federal bankruptcy judge has set a Nov. 23rd hearing date to hear oral arguments over the legal issues that surround Harrisburg City Council’s Chapter 9 bankruptcy petition.  Council defied Mayor Linda Thompson and state officials, earlier this month, by voting 4 – 3 to seek bankruptcy protection.

Councilman Brad Koplinski says bankruptcy is a better option than accepting a harsh recovery plan that would doom the city, thus putting it on a path to bankruptcy anyway.  Mayor Thompson, however, says City Council does not have the authority to file the bankruptcy petition.  “They have people in their ears who believe they know the law, people who have their own political agendas as well, and they’ve been led down the wrong lane,” Thompson said at a recent news conference. 

HB 1151 still requires one more House vote before it can be sent to the governor’s desk.  That could happen as early as Wednesday.  Meanwhile, the capital city’s ongoing woes have recently caught the attention of the national media.

Busy Week for State House Committees

Unanimous votes in the House Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee have advanced two bills to the House floor.  A newly amended version of HB 955 would both extend and expand the Pennsylvania Fire and EMS Grant Program.  Gaming dollars currently fund $25 million in firefighting grants per year, but Chairman Stephen Barrar’s(R-Chester) bill would raise that to $40 million.  “It’s very important that we get this $40 million dollars into the hands of our fire companies, the great majority of them are volunteer companies,” Barrar says.  He notes that state gaming revenues have increased dramatically in recent years, but the program’s dollars have been constant.  The legislation would also reauthorize the program for another four years. 

The second bill to see action in the Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee, Tuesday, would raise Pennsylvania National Guard members’ minimum pay.  Under current law, National Guard members ordered into state service by the governor are to receive a minimum of $75/day.  “The minimum pay for state activated National Guard troops would be increased, it has not been done so for the past 15 years,” says State Rep. Doug Reichley (R-Lehigh), whose bill would raise that minimum to $100/day.  The Pennsylvania National Guard Association lists HB 1758 among its legislative priorities.  “Obviously, with the amount of work and strain we’re putting on our National Guard troops who are activated in state of emergencies, now is the time to recognize them for their service,” Reichley told the committee.