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Pennsylvania House Passes $27.3 Billion Budget

    Over Democrat objections, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives has given it’s approval to a $27.3 billion, no-tax increase state budget that restores some proposed cuts in education. The House vote was 109-92 and the action leaves 37 days for the House and Senate to work out any differences before sending a final budget to Governor Tom Corbett’s desk.

    House Republicans say they have restored $200 million in basic education cuts and $300 million for higher education, compared to the governor’s original spending proposal unveiled in March. The GOP found the additional dollars for education by counting on savings in the Department of Public Welfare, and not by tapping into a projected half-billion dollar budgetary surplus this year. Governor Tom Corbett has made it clear that he wants that money to go into reserve funds or be used to pay down debt.

    Democrats argue that the surplus money should be used to offset some of the remaining education cuts, saying the House budget still cuts a billion dollars from existing education spending. They characterize the budget as “anti-middle class,” primarily because they say state cuts in funding for local services will result in increased county and local levies, including higher property taxes.

    The budget bill now goes to the state Senate and negotiations between the two chambers will determine the final spending plan, which is due by June 30th. It’s been nearly a decade since a governor has signed a budget before that fiscal year deadline.

Lawmakers Introduce Bill to Remove Ban on Teachers Wearing Religious Garb, Symbols in the Classroom.

Pennsylvania is one of only two states that still ban teachers from wearing any type of religious garb or symbol.   A bipartisan effort is underway to lift that ban. Representative Eugene DePasquale, a York Democrat, says it’s about ending religious discrimination in the public.  He says statutes banning teachers from wearing any religious garb or symbols were implemented in a time of anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish sentiments at the turn of the last century.

Representative DePasquale says Pennsylvania and Nebraska are the only states that have not repealed their religious garb statutes. He says it is not about having teachers proselytize in the classroom; it’s simply about allowing them to wear an emblem of faith as they teach.  

House bill 1581 would amend Section 1112 of the Public School Code to remove the prohibition on teachers wearing any religious garb, mark, emblem or insignia while in the performance of their duties.

Representative Will Tallman, an Adams County Republican, is cosponsor of the bill.  He says it’s a freedom of expression issue and will not be disruptive to the educational process.

Under the current law, a teacher could be punished for wearing any type of religious garb or symbol in the classroom, even if their faith required it.   A public school director can be held criminally liable for not enforcing the law.

Representative DePasquale says the bill would not block teacher dress codes.  

Sandra Strauss, director of Public Advocacy at Pennsylvania Council of Churches, says it’s far past time to repeal this ban.  She says the council has always supported religious expression in terms of dress.   

The lawmakers discussed the bill Tuesday at a capitol news conference.

PA Gaming

Grand Jury Report Criticizes Gaming Control Board

The 102-page document compiled by the 31st Statewide Investigating Grand Jury paints an unflattering picture of the state’s gaming regulators.  It cites a political process that neglected or ignored its policy objectives, failed to protect the public from unlawful gaming practices, and avoided transparency.  The report includes 21-recommendations ranging from a new venue for the Bureau of Investigations and Enforcement, to a significant overhaul of the current employees of the board, and annual audits. 

Gaming Control Board chairman Greg Fajt released a statement calling the report simply a rehash of “old news” at a significant cost to taxpayers.  Fajt says the grand jury met for two years and found no criminal activity, because there was none to be found.  Fajt recognizes there were “minor missteps along the way,” but notes that the PGCB was the first newly created state agency in 30-years.  He maintains the Gaming Board has been a success. 

Copies of the report have been delivered to Governor Tom Corbett, all four legislative caucuses, the PA Supreme Court, Auditor General, Treasurer and others.


Teen “Sexting” Bill Passes PA House

The State House voted overwhelmingly in favor of legislation that creates the offense of teen “sexting.”  The bill would apply to nude photographs distributed among teenagers, via cell phones and even computers.  The prime sponsor is State Rep. Seth Grove (R-York), who says the legislation will make teens think before they “sext.”  At the same time, Grove says, it would provide a more appropriate punishment than what’s allowed for today.  He says current law treats teens’ “sexting” as a serious felony under child pornography laws.  His bill (HB 815) would make the crime a second degree misdemeanor.  “It ensures that students don’t ruin the rest of their life because of making some childish decisions, and sending nude photographs of themselves or others,” Grove says. 

Teens wouldn’t be thrown in jail under Grove’s bill.  “The judges have the ability to order community service, some form of educational program and a fine if they want to go that route,” Grove says.  The bill would allow a teen’s record to be expunged, and Grove says that compared favorably with the alternative in current law.  He tells us felony convictions would follow a young offender for life, and even affect their future job applications.   

The Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association (PDAA) supports the bill.  Executive director Richard Long says it provides a penalty that’s more in line with the actual conduct that’s occurring with these teen “sexting” incidents.  “The current law is not adequately tailored to reflect what’s going on… just ten years ago there was no such thing as sexting,” Long tells us. 

The bill only applies to teens; adults would still be prosecuted under child pornography laws if they’re involved in the sending or receiving of nude photos of minors.  HB 815 passed the House with a 178 – 20 vote.  It now heads to the State Senate for consideration.

Linda Kelly Confirmed as Pennsylvania Attorney General

    The state Senate voted to confirm several appointees on Monday, most notably giving a positive nod to Governor Tom Corbett’s choice to replace him as Pennsylvania Attorney General. Linda Kelly was confirmed on a unanimous 50-0 vote and will finish out the remaining 20 months of the term. 

    The office became vacant when former Attorney General Tom Corbett was elected Governor last year. At the time of the governor’s inauguration, the post was filled on an interim basis by 1st Deputy Attorney General William Ryan. Ryan has served as acting Attorney General for a little more than 4 months.

    Kelly’s background includes stints with the Allegheny County District Attorney’s office and the office of U.S. Attorney for Western Pennsylvania during a 30+ year career as a prosecutor.

    With Senate confirmation, Linda Kelly becomes only the 2nd woman to hold the office in Pennsylvania’s history. She has promised not to run for election to the office in 2012, a contributing factor to her easy nomination process.

Final House Budget Vote Possible Today

    The Pennsylvania House of Representatives is poised to give its final approval to a $27.3 billion budget plan. The House voted 110-89 to advance the bill on Monday, setting up the final vote which could come as early as today. The spending plan stays true to Governor Tom Corbett’s overall spend figure, while supporters say it proritzes education funding over welfare spending. That means that while some of the Governor’s proposed education cuts are still included, some of that funding has been restored in the House version.

    House Speaker Sam Smith (R-Jefferson) left the door open for more spending on Monday, but only if the Governor’s office changes its revenue projections for the new fiscal year which begins on July 1st. Meanwhile, Smith agrees with the governor’s stance on this year’s surplus, currently a half-billion dollars. That money is destined for reserve accounts or for debt payments.

    Speaking to the PA Press Club on Monday, Speaker Smith also laid the blame for this year’s budget deficit squarely on the shoulders of former Governor Ed Rendell. Smith says Rendell’s legacy is the $4 billion budget gap that lawmakers are now trying to fill.

More Severe Storms, Possible Tornadoes

    Another strong storm front moved through central and eastern Pennsylvania late Monday, triggering tornado warnings in multiple counties. Some of the heaviest damage is reported in Juniata County, where barns, homes and other structures were subjected to high winds. No deaths or serious injuries have been reported, but barn roof collapses contributed to some loss of livestock and some buildings were reported to be completely destroyed.

    The National Weather Service will send a team to Juniata County today to examine the damage on the ground and determine if it was indeed caused by a tornado. Similar investigations are underway in other areas of central Pennsylvania today.

    No major issues are being reported by PPL Electric or PECO. PPL reported 55 customers without power in Juniata County overnight, while PECO reported nothing more than minor outages in Philadelphia.

    This latest series of storms adds to what has been a violent spring weather-wise for much of the country, including Pennsylvania. Multiple tornadoes have already been confirmed in the Keystone State this year, with summer still almost a month away.


Bikers: Let Freedom Ride

On the same day that one state lawmaker reintroduced a bill to once again make motorcycle helmets mandatory, more than one hundred bikers rode to the state capitol for their annual motorcyclists’ rights rally.  It was no coincidence, according to Charles Umbenhauer with ABATE of PA.  “It’s probably a good idea to air both sides of this issue.  I certainly hoped we wouldn’t have to revisit it this early, but if we have to, it’s fine.”  ABATE stands for Alliance of Bikers Aimed Toward Education.   

“We do have a helmet law in Pennsylvania,” Umbenhauer stressed.  He says motorcyclists have to be at least 21, and either have two years of experience or complete a state-approved motorcycle safety course in order to choose to ride without a helmet.  Additionally, passengers can choose to ride helmetless if they are at least 21, and riding with an exempt motorcyclist.  The modified law has been in place since 2003. 

“We’re not anti-helmet, we’re not trying to get anybody to ride without a helmet,” Umbenhauer says.  Instead, ABATE focuses on education.  They believe the answer to motorcycle safety is training and awareness, not mandated helmet laws. 

While ABATE opposes State Rep. Dan Frankel’s (D-Allegheny) effort make motorcycle helmets mandatory for all riders again, the group is pushing several other bills.  For instance, they would like to see motorcycle learners’ permits limited to one year and to limit the number of times a person can apply for a learners permit.  Another bill ABATE endorses would address civil liability issues to encourage more owners of large parking lots to allow their property to be used for motorcycle safety courses. 

Numerous state lawmakers — like State Rep. Bill Kortz (D-Allegheny) — attended Monday’s motorcyclists’ rights rally.  Kortz used the occasion to unveil legislation that would make Harley-Davidson the official state motorcycle in Pennsylvania.  Kortz notes that Harley has a plant in York, PA, that they use American steel and American workers. 

Lt. Governor Jim Cawley also attended the rally to present Governor Tom Corbett’s proclamation proclaiming May 2011 as Motorcycle Safety Awareness Month in Pennsylvania.

Lawmaker wants to Reinstate Pennsylvania’s Motorcycle Helmet Law

A state lawmaker is introducing three motorcycle safety bills, including one to reinstate the helmet law for all riders.    

Representative Dan Frankel (D-Allegheny) says since the motorcycle helmet law was repealed in 2003, there have been an increase in deaths and injuries and a decrease in the number of riders wearing helmets, including those under 21 who are still required to wear them. Frankel says youth compliance with helmet laws plummets when the law only applies to them.

Under current law, riders age 21 and older who have been licensed to operate a motorcycle at least two years, or who have completed a motorcycle safety course approved by PennDOT or the Motorcycle Safety Foundation are not required to wear a helmet.

Frankel says when people don’t wear helmets, they’re more likely to lose their lives or suffer head trauma that could leave them incapacitated. He says people who have a traumatic brain injury bear those costs for an entire lifetime.

 Frankel says while “preventing tragedies is the most important reason to restore the helmet law, there are several other reasons to fix this mistake, including the cost to taxpayers and insurance ratepayers of preventable deaths and head injuries”.

Frankel announced the bills at a Capitol news conference on Monday morning. He was joined by several others, including Christopher Hart, vice chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.

Hart says because impact trauma to the head is the most common single cause of motorcycle deaths, helmets save lives and helmets prevent injuries.  He added that helmets also save untold dollars in health care and rehabilitation costs.

Representative Frankel says research by the University of Pittsburgh estimates that just the additional head injuries suffered since the repeal of the mandatory helmet law have cost the Commonwealth approximately $18 million in hospital charges and $55 million in long-term care annually.   

The other two bills would require special license plates for motorcyclists under age 21, so they could be more easily identified and require  proof of sufficient insurance and long term disability coverage for those riders who choose not to use a helmet.

Marcellus Shale

Study Projects Economic Impact of Marcellus Shale Tax, Fee Proposals

A new study from Penn State’s Institute for Research in Training & Development treated the Marcellus Shale severance tax and impact fee proposals as added production costs to the gas producers.  Professor David Passmore says the four proposals they considered differed based on how they handle exemptions, and how high the tax rate is over time.

“I think what’s important here, even though there’s variation in the impact, the impact of any of these would be relatively small compared to the size of the Pennsylvania economy,” Passmore says.  For example, he points to the potential impact on employment.  He says the highest tax year proposal would have an impact of about 3,200-jobs.  “Now this is at a time when we’re talking about 7.5-million project jobs.” 

When projecting the impact on gross state product, the four proposals range from a ten million dollar hit (using State Rep. Kate Harper’s HB 1406) to a $272-million dollar hit on GSP (using State Rep. Greg Vitali’s HB 33).  Those numbers are mere fractions of a percent of Pennsylvania’s projected $598-billion dollar gross state product in 2015.    

 While the overall economic impact of the plans is small, professor Rose Baker points out the impact could be significant to a small company or to an individual who doesn’t land a job because of them.  Passmore and Baker hope their numbers are considered in relation to the decisions policymakers must make in terms of imposing a tax or a fee on the Marcellus Shale industry.  “We need to begin working together with the industry to reap some of these benefits that are flowing in, and kind of get past the tax question,” Passmore says. 

In addition to the Vitali and Harper plans, which were referenced earlier, Passmore and Baker studied Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati’s SB 1100 and Senator John Yudichak’s SB 905).  State Rep. Greg Vitali (D-Delaware) will attempt to force a State House vote on his legislation on Tuesday, according to a statement.  Vitali says Pennsylvania is the only natural gas-producing state that does not have a drilling tax or fee.