RadioPA Roundtable

Radio PA Roundtable 05.24.13

On this week’s Radio PA Roundtable, Matt Paul discusses new legislation that would create letter grades (A – F) for all of the state’s public schools, and examines a new law designed to expand community health clinics in the state.  Also, have you ever wanted to actually see your doctor’s notes?  Many Geisinger patients are alreading doing it.

Please have a happy & safe Memorial Day weekend, and remember to take some time to consider the true meaning of the holiday.

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

Click the audio player below to hear the full broadcast:


Senate Leader Discusses Accomplishments, Goals

With the 2011-2012 legislative session set to expire at the end of the month, Radio PA’s Matt Paul took a look back at the past two years with state Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R-Chester/Delaware) in a wide-ranging interview.  Calling it an extremely productive session, Pileggi says jobs were the top legislative issue and the most important jobs bills are the ones that will have long-lasting effects. 

“The continued phase out of the capital stock and franchise tax, in both the 11/12 & 12/13 [fiscal] years, we continued that phase out,” Pileggi says.  “Just in this past year we eliminated the death tax on family farms.  We’ve also updated the film tax credit program and actually added a new tax credit for historic buildings.”

Pileggi also cites Pennsylvania’s Fair Share Act and expanded Keystone Opportunity Zone program as important jobs bills from this past session. 

Looking ahead to the 2013-2014 legislative session, Pileggi the biggest jobs issue is transportation funding.  It would obviously provide short term jobs in the form of construction projects.  “Longer-term I think every serious observer agrees that an effective transportation infrastructure – both for cars & trucks and mass transit – is necessary for a competitive environment for job creators,” Pileggi explains. 

He also tells us the Senate will be ready to move forward with a package of bills to address the state’s pension crisis within the first six months of 2013. 

Earlier this month, newly-elected and returning Republican senators tapped Pileggi for his fourth term as Senate GOP Leader.

PA Bans Gas Chambers for Dogs, Cats

Pennsylvania has become the 20th state to ban the use of gas chambers to put down shelter animals.  It’s named “Daniel’s Law,” after a resilient beagle that spent 15-minutes inside an Alabama shelter’s gas chamber, only to walk out with his tail wagging.  “Daniel” now has a new family, and is said to be doing well. 

“Quite frankly, we need to solve the problem of why we have so many healthy and adoptable animals that need to find homes first.  But we’ve considered, for a very long time, euthanasia by injection as the only acceptable and humane means of euthanasia at animal shelters,” President & CEO of the American Humane Association Robin Ganzert tells Radio PA. 

She lauds Pennsylvania’s overhauled Animal Destruction Method Authorization Act.  It bans the gassing of dogs & cats, ensures injections are given by licensed technicians and requires groups to disclose the specifics of their euthanasia method. 

The bill passed both chambers of the General Assembly with bipartisan support, and  Governor Tom Corbett signed it this week.  Pennsylvania reportedly had only three rural shelters still using carbon-monoxide.

Gov. Signs Scores of Bills

Lawmakers’ late session flurry of activity is yielding dozens of new laws, as Governor Tom Corbett signed nearly 50 of them on Wednesday.  Here’s just a small sampling:

One will limit the number of hours a child performer can work, and defines reality TV, to make sure those children are protected just like they would be on a movie set.

Another will authorize local governments to create “land banks” to combat blighted and abandoned properties.

A series of bills will help farmers move their larger equipment safely

Veterans will now receive a special designation on their Pennsylvania driver’s licenses.

Small-scale beekeepers will be exempt from costly regulations that were threatening the hobby.

A Veterans Trust Fund will be established, funded in party by new “Honoring Our Veterans” license plates. 

Corbett was also signing a series of law-enforcement bills on Thursday morning.  They include the second half of Pennsylvania’s Justice Reinvestment initiative, and a new offense for gang recruitment.

Gov’s Signature to Complete Justice Reinvestment Initiative

Structural prison reforms are already being put into place, designed to produce better outcomes and save the state up to $350-million dollars over five years.  That was the first half of the Justice Reinvestment initiative (SB 100), which was signed into law in July. 

Like the first bill, the second piece of the Justice Reinvestment effort (HB 135) has cleared the General Assembly with bipartisan support.  It will reinvest a portion of the prison system savings into the front lines of the justice system, like local law enforcement and county probation & parole departments. 

“An effective probation system can lower recidivism among people on probation and can also manage growth in your prison system because of more effective management of offenders,” explains Marc Pelka, program director with the Council of State Governments Justice Center. 

The CSG Justice Center has worked with 16-states on Justice Reinvestment, and Pelka says each strategy is tailored to the issues driving growth in those states prison systems.  “So although the individual policies are different for each particular state, the overall outcome is reduced spending on corrections and reinvestment in areas that increase public safety.” 

A Justice Reinvestment working group first met at the Governor’s Residence in January.  Radio PA spoke at length with Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel about their progress in June.

Teen “Sexting” Bill Heads to Gov’s Desk

Sexting involves the electronic transmission of nude or sexually explicit photos.  It’s all too common among teens, and this bill ensures that the penalty matches the crime.  State Rep. Seth Grove (R-York) says the only way to deal with juvenile sexting under existing law was through a child pornography charge.  “Kids within that age cohort, it wasn’t about abuse or trying to take advantage of children,” explains Grove, the bill’s prime sponsor.    

“A felony charge will ruin your life, period.  On every [job] application, a 14, 15 or 16 year-old will have to put ‘convicted child pornographer’ for the rest of their lives.” 

The new offense will carry penalties that range from a summary offense to a 2nd degree misdemeanor, depending on the details of the case.  But supporters say it will still send a clear message to Pennsylvania’s youth that sexting is something to avoid.  “Once it’s done – especially in electronic format – there’s not retracting that picture,” Grove tells Radio PA.    

The bill earned broad bipartisan support, passing the House 188 – 3, and the Senate 37 – 12.  Grove says it also has the support of all the statewide law enforcement groups.

New Law Gets Tough on Drivers’ Unpaid Restitution

Previously, Pennsylvanians who owed restitution for a driving-related offense would only have to pay half in order to get back their license.  “So a lot of them were paying the 50% and then not paying the residual; they were just not owning up to their responsibilities and paying the full amount,” explains state Rep. Keith Gillespie (R-York). 

That was before Governor Tom Corbett signed Gillespie’s HB 1617 into law.  Once it takes effect, in 90-days, Gillespie says offenders will be subject to the loss of their driver’s license if they don’t pay the full restitution. 

York County’s Clerk of Courts first brought the problem to Gillespie’s attention.  “I think he’s facing about $3-million dollars in unpaid restitution,” Gillespie says.  Statewide, it’s a $90-million dollar problem. 

The bill received bipartisan support in the legislature before being signed this week.  It does allow for offenders with a large restitution tab to set up a payment plan, and keep their license as long as their account is current.

High Court Hears Voter ID Arguments, Decision Pending

Six months after it was signed into law, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was hearing arguments over the state’s controversial new Voter ID law in its Philadelphia chambers.  The entire session was broadcast live, statewide via PCN TV

The appellants’ lawyer David Gersch argued that the new photo identification requirements violate Pennsylvanians’ right to vote by disenfranchising many and burdening others.  “On Election Day, if Act 18 is not enjoined, then voters will be faced with the serious threat of losing the right to vote,” Gersch argued.  “By contract, if the injunction is entered, the harm to the Commonwealth is negligible.”

Gersch contends Voter ID is no mere election regulation because it does not guarantee that all qualified electors will be able to get the identification they need to cast a ballot.  Gersch did, however, acknowledge that all Voter ID laws are not necessarily unconstitutional.  “The vice is not requiring photo identification; the vice is in requiring photo identification that people do not have, and have a hard time getting.”      

The appellants are seeking a preliminary injunction so that the status quo remains in place through the November 6th General Election.  A full trial on the merits of the statute would then be held at a later date. 

A Commonwealth Court judge has already denied the preliminary injunction, writing in his opinion that he sees no reason why Pennsylvania voters need be disenfranchised. 

The state’s lawyers stressed the findings of the lower court throughout their arguments, stating that the plaintiffs failed to show either that they will succeed on the merits of their claims or that they would suffer irreparable harm.  Attorney John Knorr also pointed out that all of the plaintiffs named in the lawsuit have either obtained a valid photo ID or have the means to do so.  “They couldn’t come up with one plaintiff, one actual human being, who would be harmed by this statute.” 

“Mr. Gersch said we should have a process in place so that everybody has the chance to get this ID, and we have that,” Knorr told the court as he praised the efforts of PennDOT and the Department of State. 

A panel of six justices must decide the law’s fate with just over 50 days to go until the election.  With one justice currently suspended, the court is comprised of three Republicans and three Democrats.  In the event of a deadlock, the Commonwealth Court decision would be upheld and the new photo ID requirements would be in place on Election Day.

PA Supreme Court to Hear Voter ID Arguments

Nearly a month after a Commonwealth Court judge rejected Voter ID opponents’ plea for a preliminary injunction, the state Supreme Court is prepping to hear oral arguments on appeal.  Governor Tom Corbett has read Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson’s opinion, calling it well-reasoned.  “His opinion would have to be in error for [the Supreme Court] to overturn it,” Corbett said on Radio PA’s Ask the Governor program. 

With one justice currently suspended, the high court is comprised of three Democrats and three Republicans.  Corbett believes they will make their decision based on the law, not partisanship.  “That being said, as you know, if it’s three to three… then the opinion of Judge Simpson stands,” Corbett explained. 

PCN will provide live coverage of Thursday’s session in Philadelphia per a recent broadcast agreement with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. 

As the state presses forward with voter education efforts and implementation of the Voter ID law, the NAACP is working to get people the photo IDs required to vote on Election Day through of series of statewide Voter ID clinics.  “We try to help work through all the questions, provide the answers,” says Pennsylvania Civic Engagement Coordinator John Jordan. 

Jordan says about 75% of the people who attend the clinics actually have a form of photo ID that meets the law’s requirements, but they are happy to identify and assist the other 25%.  The NAACP opposes the Voter ID law and is participating in the lawsuit, but Jordan says the group’s outreach efforts will continue as long as necessary. 

Complete details on what types of ID are to be accepted under the new law, and how to obtain one for free, can be found online. 

Gov. Corbett sees no reason for confusion this November.  “It has been in the newspapers, it has been on the radio, it has been on television, it has been on the Internet.  If you don’t know that you need to show up with photo ID, than I don’t know where you’ve been.”

PA Chamber: Poor Legal Climate Affects Job Growth

More than a year after enactment of the Fair Share Act, a new study has renewed the battle over lawsuit reforms in Pennsylvania.  The US Chamber Institute for Legal Reform ranks Pennsylvania’s legal climate 40th among the 50-states; down six spots from the last Lawsuit Climate study.

“We’re looking to grow and make Pennsylvania attractive, and when Pennsylvania has such a bad litigation environment, businesses won’t come here and the jobs will go to other states,” says PA Chamber of Business & Industry VP for Government Affairs Sam Denisco.  “That’s problematic.”

With the Fair Share Act, Denisco says Pennsylvania is just starting to catch up with the rest of the nation.  He says the state needs further reforms in order to lead the pack.

The Fair Share Act was written to ensure that the percentage of damages leveled against a defendant, in civil lawsuits, does not exceed their level of determined responsibility.  It was touted as an economic development tool, but critics say it has not correlated to a single new job.

“They want to cap damages.  They want to have their cake and eat it, but they’re not going to pass it onto the Joe Consumer.  It’s just really to increase profits at the expense of the everyday person,” says Scott Cooper, President of the Pennsylvania Association for Justice.

Cooper tells Radio PA the Lawsuit Climate 2012 study is not worth the paper it’s printed on, saying it’s no surprise that business groups oppose the ability of individuals to sue their members.

However, the PA Chamber will be using the new report to strengthen its call for additional lawsuit reforms.  Denisco wants the General Assembly to pass venue reform, which would place limits on where civil suits can be tried.

Venue reform is another issue the Pennsylvania Association for Justice plans to fight when it re-emerges in the new session.  Cooper points out the existing legislation would only apply to personal injury cases, not business-to-business lawsuits.