Farmers would Reap Benefits of Vehicle Code Bills

Numerous vehicle code bills, designed to make it easier for farmers to use their equipment on Pennsylvania roads, have cleared the House Agriculture Committee with unanimous votes.  “The discussion on this multitude of transportation subjects has been ongoing for years,” says committee chairman John Maher (R-Allegheny).  “This is an important day of moving forward.” 

Farm equipment considered wide in the past is now standard industry size, according to Pennsylvania Farm Bureau spokesman Mark O’Neill.  “A lot of the vehicle codes that are on the books now are really outdated,” he says.   

One of the major changes would increase daytime width restrictions for farm equipment on Pennsylvania roads from 14.5-feet to 16-feet.  Likewise, the nighttime restriction would increase to 16-feet with the proper safety precautions.  Weight limits and restrictions on miles traveled are also addressed in the legislation.    

O’Neill says all of the would-be changes keep the safety in mind.  “[Farmers] want to be able to use this modern equipment to get into fields, to plant and harvest food, in order to feed people throughout Pennsylvania.” 

Based on this week’s votes it appears lawmakers agree that updates are long overdue.  HB 2371, HB 2372, HB 2373 and HB 2374 now await action on the House floor.

Capitol Rotunda - Facing House Chamber

State Rep. Puts School Districts on Notice

Department of Education data show Pennsylvania school districts had a combined $3.2-billion dollars in reserve funds as of the end of last school year.  Taxpayers deserve an explanation, according to State Rep. Mike Vereb (R-Montgomery).  “The people on these school boards that are holding on to these pots of money need to come clean with the taxpayers that they are about to jump into their pockets and raid one more time,” Vereb said at a capitol news conference on Monday. 

Vereb rattled off a list of the districts with the most cash in the bank.  He says it’s ludicrous for school districts to propose property tax hikes and point their fingers at Harrisburg while holding onto vast reserves.   

But much of the money represents school districts’ attempts to help smooth out the looming pension spikes that are legislatively mandated, according Dave Davare, director of research services at the Pennsylvania School Boards Association (PSBA). 

Speaking to Radio PA Davare rattled off his own list of school districts that are, in fact, tapping their reserve funds in order to balance FY 2013 budgets.  The PSBA advises school districts to use reserve funds as one-time revenue streams for one-time expenses.  “When a district uses its fund balance to pay for teachers’ salaries so they don’t have to lay off teachers this year, that just means next year when they don’t have that fund balance, they’re going to have to lay off teachers at that point,” Davare explains.   

Rep. Vereb says the rule of thumb is that schools’ reserve funds should be 5 -7% of their operating budgets.  He’s looking into possible legislative action.

Homes, Homeowners, Properties, Neighborhood

Property Tax Elimination to be Discussed at Capitol Hearing

Taxpayer groups from across Pennsylvania are rallying behind the latest attempt to abolish burdensome school property taxes.  The newly-introduced Property Tax Independence Act would replace homeowners’ most dreaded bill with a one percentage point increase in the state sales tax, a broadening of the sales tax base, and a hike of the personal income tax from 3.07 – 4%.

It’s a dollar-for-dollar tax shift, and the bill’s author says the number of losers is extremely small.  “What this does is shift the [school funding] burden off the backs of six million property owners, up to the shoulders of 12-million sales tax payers,” state Rep. Jim Cox (R-Berks) tells Radio PA.  “Everyone pays the sales tax.  How much is largely up to them, but everybody pays the sales tax.”

One difference between HB 1776 and previous attempts to thwart the local property tax is the unprecedented level of input it received from Pennsylvania taxpayers.  In fact, the Property Tax Independence Act has the backing of 72-taxpayer groups.

“This is about all homeowners who are suffering under the burden of school property taxes,” says Pennsylvania Coalition of Taxpayer Associations spokesman David Baldinger.  “In some areas of the state, the monthly property tax escrow can be equal to the mortgage itself.”

Baldinger is among the testifiers scheduled to address the state House Finance Committee on Monday morning.  While enactment of such a dramatic change would be nothing short of monumental, Rep. Cox believes he already has enough votes to advance the bill out of committee and to the House floor.

HB 1776 has 70-cosponsors, 50-Republicans and 20-Democrats.  There’s also a companion bill in the Senate.

Bill Could Pave the Way for Higher Turnpike Speed Limits

Turnpike speed limits max out at 65-miles per hour.  The limit is set by state law, but the House Transportation Committee has advanced a change that would give the Turnpike Commission the authority to raise speed limits up to 70. 

“It doesn’t mean that it has to,” says Rep. Joe Preston (D-Allegheny), the bill’s prime sponsor.  “But to be able to give the latitude, if it so chooses in the different areas that have changed or improved, they can raise it from 65 to 70.”

The Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission doesn’t have an official position on the bill, but spokesman Carl DeFebo says roadway improvements – like wider medians and shoulders – do tend to be more conducive to higher speed limits. 

Driving 70-miles-an-hour on the Turnpike wouldn’t be unprecedented either.  When the Turnpike opened in 1940 there was no speed limit.  The first speed limit imposed in 1941 was 70-miles-per-hour for passenger cars, but it was soon lowered.  DeFebo says the majority of the toll road has been under a 65-miles-per-hour speed limit since 2005. 

Preston’s bill received an 18 – 4 vote in committee this week.  All four negative votes were cast by Democrats.

Casinos, Cards

Taking Bets on the Future of the Foxwoods Casino License…

Even after this week’s House vote the fate of Pennsylvania’s only revoked casino license is still up in the air.  HB 65 would remove the restrictions that tie the license to Philadelphia and open it up to a statewide auction.  “By doing this the state stands to increase its revenue,” says State Rep. Curt Schroder (R-Chester), the bill’s prime sponsor and chairman of the Gaming Oversight Committee.  His bill passed with a bipartisan vote of 140 – 48. 

But it’s no sure bet in the Senate.  A spokesman says the Republican leader is among those wondering if the gaming market is already saturated and whether the license should be eliminated altogether. 

The state Treasurer released a study last year, which indicated market maturation and even saturation on the opposite ends of the state.  He suggested that central PA may be the place to maximize revenues. 

Governor Tom Corbett notes that plans have always called for the license to be awarded.  “I always think that we need to look at property tax relief,” Corbett says.  He acknowledges there have been discussions about the license within the administration, but did not offer many details while speaking with the media this week.  

Pennsylvania is home to 11-operating casinos, where slot machines raked in more than $214-million in gross revenue last month.  That translates into $116-million worth of tax revenue, according to the Gaming Control Board.  The lion’s share of slot machine tax revenue is used for property tax relief.  Table games tax revenue currently ends up in the General Fund. 

The Gaming Board rolled the dice on the Foxwoods casino project in 2006.  After four years of delays and financing woes, the license was revoked in late 2010.  It’s been in limbo ever since.

Legislative Reapportionment Commission Okays Preliminary Plan… Again

Pennsylvania’s latest set of redistricting maps is now available for public comment.  The redrawn House and Senate maps put more emphasis on reducing municipal splits, and less emphasis on population deviation, per the direction of the state Supreme Court.  The high court threw out the Legislative Reapportionment Commission’s first attempt early this year.

The House maps reduce the number of municipal splits from 108 to 68, according to GOP Leader Mike Turzai (R-Allegheny).  “Population deviation however – in particular reason to reduce splits – did increase from 5.97% to 7.76%.” 

Rep. Turzai notes that five House seats were moved based on the new population data, but he says it was to nobody’s partisan advantage. 

The court-appointed chairman of the five-member panel made waves when he insisted on a change in the proposed Senate map.  Population shifts dictate that a Senate seat be moved from western PA to the northeast.  Senate Republican Leader Dominic Pileggi (R-Delaware) contends the data dictates that Democrat Jim Brewster’s seat be moved, but he acquiesced to Chairman Stephen McEwen who wanted to move Republican Jane Orie’s seat instead.  Orie was recently convicted on public corruption charges, which means her seat is vacant. 

The Commission voted 4 – 1 in favor of the preliminary maps, with Senate Democratic Leader Jay Costa (D-Allegheny) casting the lone dissenting vote.   House Democratic Leader Frank Dermody (D-Allegheny) stressed that this is not the end of the redistricting process.  “I am hopeful and confident that, as we listen and consider public comments, more will get done to improve the final plan,” Dermody said at Thursday’s meeting. 

A public hearing is set for May 2nd.

Drivers License, PennDOT

PA Poised to Opt Out of REAL ID

Pennsylvania could soon become the 16th and largest state to opt out of the federal REAL ID Act.  Under REAL ID, state-issued drivers’ licenses would have to meet certain federal criteria.  PennDOT would also be required to store copies of its license holders’ identifying documents, and link its databases with those of DMVs across the country. 

“REAL ID, with the nationwide database, would really create a gold mine for identity thieves,” says ACLU of Pennsylvania legislative director Andy Hoover.  He also complains that the federal law would turn state-issued drivers’ licenses into de facto national ID cards. 

Congress enacted the REAL ID Act of 2005 in response to the 9/11 Commission’s recommendations for more secure standards for identification.  The report cites that, “All but one of the 9/11 hijackers acquired some form of US identification document by, some by fraud.” 

The Department of Homeland Security has extended the implementation deadline to January 15th, 2013, but the ACLU of PA’s Andy Hoover says REAL ID cannot function without state participation. 

REAL ID is not a new issue under the state capitol dome. The House passed a bill to block REAL ID in 2008; the Senate passed one in 2010, but time ran out in both of those legislative sessions.  This year’s bill (SB 354) passed both chambers with broad, bipartisan support.  Governor Tom Corbett is expected to sign it.

Lawmaker: One Ridiculous Bill Deserves Another

The Women’s Right to Know Act would require Pennsylvania women seeking abortions to receive an ultrasound within 24-hours of the scheduled procedure.  It’s sparked a new health care debate at the state capitol.  Supporters say women deserve to be informed; critics call it a legislative overreach. 

Philadelphia Democrat Larry Farnese has added a new twist to conversation by introducing a bill he calls similarly invasive and unnecessary.  Senator Farnese’s bill deals with men seeking treatment for erectile dysfunction.  “Men who seek to have this medication will have to watch a video enumerating the side effects of ED medication, they’ll have to undergo a cardiac stress test, we’ll have to make them undergo a prostate exam,” Farnese says.  

Farnese says his point is that Republicans’ attack on women’s health care has to stop.  “Whether it’s ultrasounds or erectile dysfunction medication, I think that we should stay out of people’s lives.” 

Democrats seized on governor Tom Corbett’s comments about the ultrasound bill last week.  Here’s the entire exchange with WGAL-TV reporter Matt Belanger during the governor’s media availability:ultrasound

While Corbett’s ‘close your eyes’ reference received national media attention, we asked Sen. Farnese about the last portion of those comments.   Would it make any difference to him if provisions in the bill ensured a more traditional external ultrasound as opposed to a transvaginal procedure? 

“It’s absolutely positively unnecessary, at least in my opinion, whether it’s internal or external,” Farnese replied. 

House leaders tabled the ultrasound legislation (HB 1077) earlier this month, prior to both Corbett’s comments and Farnese’s bill.

Pennsylvania Lottery Turns 40

The Pennsylvania Lottery is the only lottery in the nation that designates all of its proceeds to help senior citizens.  That’s what state officials are highlighting as they celebrate the Pennsylvania Lottery’s 40th anniversary.  “Since then we’ve been able to generate $21.5-billion dollars to fund programs for our older Pennsylvanians, and that’s something we’re very proud of,” says lottery executive director Todd Rucci. 

Some of the programs funded by the Pennsylvania Lottery include the Property Tax / Rent Rebate Program, PACE & PACENET and the 52 area agencies on aging.   “It’s very important to Pennsylvanians because the lottery supports older Pennsylvanians,” says Secretary of Aging Brian Duke.  He joined Todd Rucci to mark the anniversary at a Dauphin County senior center this week. 

During recent appropriations hearings officials told state lawmakers the lottery’s new strategic plan seeks to broaden the player base, in part by better explaining where the proceeds go. 

The new plan also means the retirement of ‘Gus,’ Pennsylvania’s 2nd most famous groundhog, and a longtime lottery spokes-animal.  “The robotic nature of Gus… added about $140,000 dollars to the production costs of a commercial,” Revenue Secretary Dan Meuser explained to the House Appropriations Committee.  “So we thought we’d save a little bit of money and put him out to pasture for a little while.”   

The Legislative Budget & Finance Committee recently took a comprehensive look at the Pennsylvania Lottery.  It noted a looming spike in the state’s senior citizen population compared to the modest growth that’s being projected for state lottery revenues.