AAA Releases Holiday Travel Projections

AAA is out with its projections for Fourth of July travel, and expects to see fewer people on the highways this year.   The auto club predicts that more than 40 million travelers will make trips of fifty miles or more over the Independence Day holiday, a decline of just under one percent from last year.

The dip could be due to the calendar. Last year, the holiday was on a Wednesday, creating a six day holiday period for many people.  With the Fourth falling on a Thursday this year, the holiday period is shorter.

Most travelers will visit friends or relatives, dine out or sight see. Many will go to the beach or waterfront. The survey shows more plan to visit national or state parks this year than last.

About 85% will go by vehicle, down slightly from last year, with air travel up slightly. The average travel distance is down from last year but spending will be about the same.

The holiday travel period runs from July 3rd through the 7th, with Wednesday and Sunday expected to be the busiest travel days.

Stripped Down Pension Bill Moves Out of State Senate Committee

The  state Senate Finance committee has moved a pension reform bill to the floor, after gutting most of Governor Corbett’s proposals.

The stripped down bill was amended to impact only future state and public school employees. Starting in 2015, they would be placed in a defined contribution 401 (a) plan.  The amendment removes all language affecting current employees.  Another amendment exempts state police and corrections officers.

Senator John Eichelberger (R-Blair) says action is needed now to deal with the SERS and PSERs unfunded pension liabilities.

Senator John Blake (D-Lackawanna) does not believe the bill will lead to lower pension costs and thinks it could cost taxpayers more in the long run.

The committee approved the bill by a 6 to 5 vote.

Despite the amendments which removed most of his proposals, Governor Tom Corbett commended the committee for voting SB 922 to the floor. He called the vote a positive step toward reform.

The Governor says he will continue to work with the legislature on other aspects of pension reform.

Senate Liquor Privatization Bill Unveiled

The long-awaited and much-anticipated Senate version of liquor privatization legislation is now officially unveiled. State Senator Chuck McIlHinney uncorked his proposal Tuesday after chairing a series of public hearings in his Senate Law & Justice Committee.

McIlhinney’s proposal would expand the carry-out sale of wine and spirits to more than 14,000 existing license holders, such as restaurants, hotels and beer distributors. Currently, their licenses only allow for the sale of alcohol to be consumed on the premises. There would be annual fees for permit holders…$8,000 for wine AND spirits; $4,000 for wine OR spirits only; and a $2,000 specialty permit to sell only a specific category of spirits (brandy & Cognac, cordials, gin, rum, tequila, vodka, whiskey).

The legislation would dramatically expand the access to alcohol for consumers, but the state would maintain wholesale control of the system for at least two years, during which a study will determine the next steps, which could include total divestiture of the wholesale system.

State stores that currently sell wine and spirits will be evaluated based on the expansion of sales in each given area. Some stores may be closed, others may remain open. There are also reforms for packaging and shipping included in the Senate version of the bill, including allowing direct shipments from wineries to PA residents. The onerous 18% Johnstown Flood Tax would also be eliminated under the proposal.

While Governor Tom Corbett wants any privatization proceeds to go to an education block grant, Senator McIlhinney’s bill directs funds to a Property Tax Freeze program for seniors. Additional money would also be set aside for rape crisis and domestic violence programs.

Critics say the plan would cost PA taxpayers tens of millions of dollars in lost revenue.

McIlhinney said Tuesday that the legislation has the votes to make it out of committee, but he does not yet have enough votes to pass the proposal in the full Senate. Governor Tom Corbett has said he wants a privatization plan passed before lawmakers finish their work on the state budget and head out for their summer break.


Senate Liquor Legislation Expected Today

State Senator Charles McIlhinney is expected to unveil his legislation today dealing with the liquor business in Pennsylvania. McIlhinney recently chaired a series of hearings on the proposal to privatize the booze business in PA, hearings that sometimes became contentious as union-backed opponents of privatization, including some lawmakers, expressed their outrage at the plan to close more than 600 state stores across the Commonwealth.

What will be included in the Senate bill is still a mystery, but McIlhinney indicated during the third and final hearing that he did not support Governor Tom Corbett’s plan to use the proceeds from the sale of the state stores for education block grants. The governor calls the plan “Passport for Learning.” Opponents dubbed it “Shots for Tots.”

The state House of Representatives passed a plan earlier this year that did not include the block grants. It is possible the Senate could follow suit and propose a privatization plan that does not include specifics on the use of the proceeds. In that case, the money would be set aside and its use would be determined at a later date.

Governor Tom Corbett has been pushing privatization since taking office in 2011. He says the state should not be in the business of selling alcohol, but the elimination of the state store system would mean the loss of thousands of jobs, and despite plans for job assistance, it’s unlikely that all state store and PLCB employees would find immediate work.

Meanwhile, retailers like Pennsylvania-based Sheetz convenience stores are pushing hard for the privatization effort. Sheetz employees wear pins promoting the potential sale of beer and advocates for the various chain retailers have been regulars on Capitol Hill in Harrisburg. It is arguably the most heavily-lobbied issue in a year full of big issues in Harrisburg.

Most agree something has to change, but privatization opponents are pushing for what they call a “modernization” effort. For now, that is likely to be the fallback Plan B should privatization fail to pass before the summer break.


Pennsylvania & New York to Share Copy of the Bill of Rights

When the original Bill of Rights was passed by the Congress of a young nation in 1789, copies were hand-written and sent to each state. Pennsylvania’s copy disappeared in the 1800s. New York’s was believed to be lost in a fire. Still, the New York Public Library has one of the hand-written copies and many believe that is Pennsylvania’s copy.

Rather than litigate, Governor Tom Corbett says Pennsylvania and the New York Public Library have agreed to share the document for the next 100 years. Pennsylvania gets it for four years every decade and New York gets it for six. Pennsylvania’s first 4-year turn starts in the fall of 2014, and the document will be on display at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.

The process began when a friend of Corbett’s, Philadelphia attorney Steve Harmelin, approached him while he was Attorney General and asked if he could begin negotiations on behalf of the Keystone State. Harmelin had just successfully helped North Carolina recover its copy of the Bill of Rights, which was taken during the Civil War.

A library benefactor agreed to donate millions of dollars to build the special climate-controlled case that will be needed to properly display and preserve the deteriorating parchment.

WHAT REALLY HAPPENED TO PENNSYLVANIA’S COPY? No one knows for sure. Some think it may have been stolen by a state employee in the 19th century. In any event, the copy to now be shared was donated anonymously to the New York Public Library in the late 1890s. Since the documents were not marked for each state, there’s no way to tell which copy this is.

Bag Ban at Penn State This Fall

Saying it’s an important added level of security, Penn State University has announced a ban on all bags, backpacks and purses at home sporting events this fall.

The policy was first put in place for the Blue-White spring football practice game in April. That was just after the backpack bombings at the Boston Marathon. The new policy impacts sporting events held at Beaver Stadium, the Bryce Jordan Center, Rec Hall and any other campus venue.

University officials say you will be allowed to carry one clear one-gallon plastic bag for items needed for medical and/or child care needs, but all items will be subject to inspection.

The school points to similar policies in place at Michigan and Michigan State as examples of bag bans at other Big 10 schools.


Radio PA Roundtable – June 14, 2013

On this week’s Radio PA Roundtable, the state House of Representatives passed its version of the state budget. You’ll hear segments of the final debate; also, a major twist this week in the Philadelphia building collapse story. Governor Tom Corbett stops by and we bring a very special surprise celebrity guest in segment 3.

Radio PA Roundtable is a 30-minute program featuring in-depth reporting, commentary and analysis on the top news stories of the week.

Click the audio player below to hear the full broadcast:

Governor Corbett to Nominate Judge Correale Stevens to the PA Supreme Court

Governor Tom Corbett today will submit his nomination for a vacant seat on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. That seat opened up with the resignation last month of former Justice Joan Orie Melvin who was convicted on corruption charges earlier this year. She is appealing that conviction.

The governor has selected longtime Superior Court Judge Correale Stevens for the post. Stevens has been on that bench since 1998, serving as President Judge since 2011. Prior to that, Stevens was a Luzerne County Judge and District Attorney. He also spent four terms in the state House of Representatives.

The nomination, expected to be delivered to the state Senate today, requires a two-thirds confirmation vote. If that happens, Stevens will be seated on the high court for the term that ends in January of 2016. The election to select a permanent justice is due in November of 2015.


Batten Down the Hatches for Bumpy Weather Thursday

The weather system feared to form a phenomenon known as a derecho began moving into Pennsylvania early this morning, sweeping through western PA in the 3 and 4 o’clock hours and then continuing its path across the Commonwealth. Much of the state is in store for severe thunderstorms, heavy rain and damaging winds, along with the possibility of tornadoes and large hail. The saving grace is that the system is moving rapidly. As the storms moved into PA, it appeared that the middle swath of the state would see the strongest thunderstorms, while the heaviest sustained rains could come in the northern and southern tiers.


House Passes Republican Spending Plan

After nearly five hours of debate, the state house has approved a 28.3 billion dollar Republican spending plan.  The 108 to 92 vote came along party lines.

Education was a main theme as members rose to speak about the proposed General fund budget.   Republicans say it increases spending for education.  Democrats say it does not come close to restoring the cuts of the last two years.

House majority leader Mike Turzai (R-Allegheny) called the spending plan responsible, compassionate, caring and fiscal stewardship. He says it recognizes we have to live within our means.

House minority leader Frank Dermody (D-Allegheny) says the budget once again turns its back on our children.  He says schools have been forced to slash the most fundamental tools for educating our children; teachers and books.  He called it unconscionable and shameful.

The measure now goes to the senate.  A spokesman for the majority leader says they’ll continue working with the House and Governor Tom Corbett to reach an agreement on next year’s budget.  They’re confident the work will be completed by June 30th.  The Senate is expected to take up budget-related bills the week of June 24th.