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Preliminary Injunction Denied for Voter ID Law

A Commonwealth Court judge has denied opponents’ request for a preliminary injunction against Pennsylvania’s new Voter ID law.  In his 70-page opinion, Judge Robert Simpson says the petitioners did an excellent job of “putting a face” to those burdened by the photo ID requirement.  However, he writes that he cannot decide the issue based on sympathy for the witnesses.

Judge Simpson also indicated that he’s convinced the law is being implemented in a non-partisan, evenhanded manner so that no qualified voter should be disenfranchised.

The plaintiffs have previously indicated that they would take the case to the state Supreme Court if necessary.

Study: Shale Land Concentrated Among Few Landowners

Researchers at Penn State sought out public records in 11-counties that account for most of the state’s natural gas drilling, and they found that the majority of landowners have little voice in leasing decisions.

Overall, 13% of the land is owned by the state and 27% is owned by nonresidents.  That leaves 60% which is owned by county residents.  “But of that 60%, the majority of that is owned by the top 10% of landowners,” says Timothy Kelsey, professor of agricultural economics.  “So the majority of landowners in the counties collectively own a relatively small proportion of the land area in those counties.”

Nonresidents actually own more than half of the land in the key natural gas-producing counties of Lycoming, Sullivan and Tioga.  “The questions about what happens in that community – if it’s based simply on who’s going to lease and who’s not going to lease – the local residents have less voice than the people who don’t live in the community,” professor Kelsey tells Radio PA.

He says the data is important because it helps us to understand how loud of a voice local residents have in drilling decisions, and how broadly distributed royalty & lease dollars may be.

Pennsylvania’s recent Marcellus Shale impact law preempts local zoning authority over oil and gas wells in order to provide uniformity for the growing industry in the state; however Commonwealth Court recently struck down those provisions of the law.  The Corbett administration has already indicated it will appeal to the state Supreme Court.

New Teacher Evaluations Won’t Apply to Charter Schools

Something is missing from Pennsylvania’s new teacher evaluation law… charter schools.  The new teacher evaluation system approved in the late June budget rush will, for the first time, take student performance into account and provide assistance to educators who fall into the bottom two categories of a new four-tier rating system.

However, during House debate, state Rep. Michael O’Brien (D-Phila.) said he and others were surprised to see that publicly-funded charter schools were ultimately removed from the final product.  “What happens to get in the way of a kum-ba-ya moment?  The devil is in the details,” O’Brien said of the changes to language that previously earned unanimous support.

“We are spending public dollars that are not being accounted for,” lamented Minority Education Chair Jim Roebuck (D-Phila.) during House debate, as he emphasized the fact that charter schools are public schools.

But supporters of proposed charter school reforms say they will contain sufficient accountability and performance measures, which will make the teacher evaluations unnecessary.  Like teacher evaluations, many in Harrisburg expected the charter school reforms to be finalized as a part of a budget season education reform package.  That did not happen.

While time ran out to finalize the charter school reform language, Governor Tom Corbett says he will keep pushing for one of the key items on his education reform agenda.  “We still have more time in September.  You know me, I don’t stop.  I keep coming,” Corbett told reporters during a recent q&a.

Corrections Secretary Optimistic About Prison Reforms

Pennsylvania’s prison population increased by 40% between 2000 and 2011, driving General Fund spending up by 76% over that same time.  State prisons currently house more than 51,000 inmates, and nearly 45% of those released will be back behind bars within three years.

These were just a few of the trends confronted by the “Justice Reinvestment Working Group,” which got all of the stakeholders together to discuss ways to create a more efficient and effective prison system. State Corrections Secretary John Wetzel is optimistic their recommendations will not only drive down the prison population, but reduce crime too.

“At six months out we should start seeing some progress in the numbers; 18-months out we should be seeing some strong population reduction, and improved outcomes.” says Wetzel.  “More people in to programming, shorter waiting lists, people being processed faster and people being successful when they get out.”

The reforms included in the bill will, in part, keep low-level offenders and technical parole violators out of state prisons.  It will also help officials to better match offenders’ needs with the appropriate treatment programs.

Pennsylvania is the 16th state to take the Justice Reinvestment Approach.  “It’s been a real range of states – large & small, red & blue – that have gone through this process,” explains Marc Pelka, senior policy analyst with the Council of State Governments Justice Center.

The savings could amount to $350-million dollars over the next five years, and some of that money will be earmarked for reinvestment in programs that prevent crime.

SB 100 has already received unanimous support in the General Assembly and now awaits Governor Tom Corbett’s signature.  The reinvestment language is pending in separate legislation.

You can hear our entire interview with Corrections Secretary John Wetzel on this weekend’s Roundtable program.

Child Abuse Bills Await Governor’s Signature

Under current law teachers are “mandated reporters” of child abuse, but state Senator Pat Vance (R-Cumberland) says only 15% of school districts provide any kind of training to help them recognize it.  Vance is the prime sponsor legislation that will require school employees, who have direct contact with children, to receive at least three hours of training in child abuse identification every five years.

“It’s always been important but since the recent publicity coming out of State College it has become even more vitally important,” says Vance, who has introduced this bill before.

The reference to “recent publicity,” of course, refers to the Jerry Sandusky trial.  Vance’s bill received unanimous House votes on June 18th (day five of testimony in the child sex abuse trial).  The Senate unanimously concurred in House amendments on June 25th (the first session day following Sandusky’s conviction on 48 charges of child sex abuse).

Jerry Sandusky is currently locked up in the Centre County Correctional Facility. He will appeal the conviction.

Jerry Sandusky is currently locked up in the Centre County Correctional Facility. He will appeal the conviction.

Also awaiting the governor’s signature is legislation that will allow expert witnesses to put sexual assault victims’ behavior into context at trial.  “We have seen how the defendant in the sexual assault case being heard in Centre County was permitted to provide an expert witness to explain the defendant’s behavior but Pennsylvania case law prohibits the prosecution from presenting expert witnesses,” Rep. Cherelle Parker (D-Philadelphia) explained in a June 21st statement.  That was also the date the Sandusky jury began its deliberations.

The changes to Pennsylvania’s child abuse statutes may not stop with these two bills.  A Task Force on Child Protection was tapped in the wake of the Sandusky grand jury to review the state’s child abuse policies and procedures.  The task force’s final report is due by November 30th.

Final Marcellus Shale Legislation Headed to Gov’s Desk

Even after years of debate, opinions are mixed on the so-called compromise bill that emerged from a conference committee this week.  The Senate voted 31 – 19 on Tuesday, and the House followed suit with a 101 – 90 vote on Wednesday. 

The legislation will allow counties to authorize a per-well impact fee (between $40,000 – $60,000 in year one) that will generate needed revenue, according to County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania government relations manager Lisa Schaefer.  “We’ve been talking for quite some time about the broad nature of the impacts that are facing our local communities from Marcellus Shale Drilling,” Schaefer tells us.  “Without a direct revenue stream coming back to help offset that, the impact’s been falling back on our local taxpayers.” 

The most obvious local impact from Marcellus Shale is the wear and tear on roads and bridges, but the behind-the-scenes effects include greater demand for county services.  60% of an imposed impact fee would stay local; the other 40% would be used for a variety of statewide environmental programs, like hazardous site cleanup or flood control. 

Should a county decide not to impose a fee, its municipalities would still have the chance to band together and force their hand under the law. 

The bill would also impose stricter new drilling standards and environmental safeguards, but PennFuture President & CEO Jan Jarrett says there are too many waivers and exceptions.  “What we need in Pennsylvania are world class drilling standards, and these regulations that are contained in HB 1950 are woefully short of that goal,” Jarrett explained in a telephone interview. 

The issue of local zoning was hotly debated on the House floor, as critics balked at standardized rules that would require local governments to allow drilling in all zones – including residential.  But State Rep. Garth Everett argued that you’re not going to see a well pad in the middle of a neighborhood.  “All that we’re requiring in this legislation is that this industry be regulating just like any other industry with respect to zoning.”    He says it’s an industrial use that will be zoned like an industrial use. 

Governor Tom Corbett released a statement Wednesday afternoon that said he looks forward to signing the measure into law.  “This legislation reaffirms our strong commitment to safe and responsible natural has development here in Pennsylvania.”  He says it contains 24 of the legislative recommendations made by his Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission.

Governor Signs Bicycle Bill into Law

The legislation codifies the rules of the road so that police, motorists and bicyclists all understand their rights and responsibilities.  “I’ve had a lot of close calls and a lot of misunderstandings,” says Joe Stafford, executive director of the statewide Bicycle Access Council. “We want to address those issues in the statutes, rather than just trying to do a little PR work.”

One high-profile provision directs motorist to give four feet of clearance when passing a bicyclist on the road.  “No one’s going to be out there with a tape measure, but as long as the motor vehicle driver is attempting to make good on approximately four feet, that will guarantee the margin of safety that bicyclists need,” Stafford explains. 

HB 170 clarifies that motorists can cross a double yellow line to pass a bicyclist with the adequate berth – if it is safe to do so.  Stafford uses the mattress tag analogy.  “No one’s gone to jail for ripping those mattress tags off, and very few people are cited for crossing the double yellow line, unless they’re doing something else wrong.” 

Additional language in the bill states that no turn by a driver shall interfere with a bicyclist who’s proceeding in a straight line.  Stafford calls it a “right hook,” a term that describes a driver passing a bicycle just before cutting them off at an intersection or driveway.    

The legislation passed the House with a vote of 197 – 1 back in May; it passed the Senate 45 – 5 in late January.  Governor Tom Corbett signed it on Thursday.

(photo credit: Elvert Barnes)


Corbett Administration Eyes Capital Budget Reforms


Budget Secretary Charles Zogby

Budget Secretary Charles Zogby addressed capital debt in his mid-year budget briefing.

On the same week that Governor Tom Corbett signed a capital budget bill, his budget secretary was vowing to reduce the commonwealth’s capital debt.  “The level of capital issuance that the commonwealth was doing from the prior administration was unsustainable,” says Budget Secretary Charles Zogby. 

The Corbett administration’s goal is to reduce spending on public improvement projects at commonwealth-owned buildings and facilities by 50%.  While the Rendell administration averaged $415-million dollars in new commitments per year, the Corbett administration’s goal is in the $150 – $200 million dollar range.  “I think as you watch the budget you’ll see debt service continue to climb in the coming years,” Zogby says.  “But with these reforms, we think we’re going to start to bend that cost curve and bring those costs down.” 

Things like leaky roofs, leaky pipes and broken down HVAC systems will be prioritized under the new approach to capital budgeting.  “If you’re a homeowner, and you’re watching all of that fall down or fail around you, those are important things.” 

Also primed for a 50% reduction is the level of new-project releases that the commonwealth provides to the State System of Higher Education.  Zogby’s mid-year-budget briefing indicated that the Rendell administration was averaging $310-million dollars per year in state system capital project commitments; the Corbett administration’s goal is roughly $155-million dollars annually.

Flurry of Bills Signed

In the wake of all the yearend legislative activity, Governor Tom Corbett signed 23 bills on Thursday.  Perhaps the most controversial new law (SB 732) will hold abortion facilities to the same standards as ambulatory surgical centers throughout the state.  “It is extremely disappointing that Governor Corbett signed this politically-motivated bill into law,” Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania Advocates Executive Director Sari Stevens said in a statement.  “Make no mistake, this new law has everything to do with politics.”

The bill was drafted in response to a grand jury’s tragic and filthy discoveries at one Philadelphia abortion clinic.  Supporters say it’s about safety.  But critics say the costly new regulations will actually close down safe abortion facilities, and ultimately jeopardize women’s health.  This new law takes effect in 180-days. 

Another new law will provide a boost to Pennsylvania’s one-million family caregivers.  The Pennsylvania Caregiver Support Act will increase the maximum monthly reimbursements from $200 to $500, and for the first time open up the program to caregivers who do not live in the same household.  “Here in Pennsylvania we had such restrictive eligibility requirements – one being that you had to live under the same roof – we were leaving about a million dollars on the table every year because families could not qualify,” says Vicki Hoak, executive director of the Pennsylvania Homecare Association.  The Caregiver Support Program is funded through Lottery dollars; it requires no new state spending.   

It’s going to be easier to buy beer on Sunday, with the enactment of HB 242.  Beer distributors will be allowed to be open from 9am until 9pm on Sundays, compared to the previous noon to 5pm restrictions.  “The legislature recognized that consumers are shopping at different hours, outside of traditional hours,” says Pennsylvania Malt Beverage Distributors Association President Mark Tanczos.  HB 242 will also allow restaurants to start serving alcohol earlier on Sundays, in order to accommodate the Sunday brunch crowd. 

Some of the other bills signed on Thursday will reauthorize Philadelphia’s Automated Red Light Enforcement System, enact a capital budget for the current fiscal year, and codify the new congressional maps.

State Capitol Facing North Office Building

Words Do Matter

Demonstrating that ‘words do matter,’ Governor Tom Corbett has signed legislation that updates Pennsylvania’s Mental Health and Mental Retardation Act of 1966.  The new law changes the words “mental retardation” to “intellectual disability.”  The bill passed both the state Senate and House with unanimous support.

This is the result of a self-advocate movement, according to Maureen Wescott, Public Policy Advocate at The ARC of Pennsylvania.  “This is what they choose to be called and identified by, and refuse to be identified by a negative terminology.” 

Executive Director of The ARC of Pennsylvania Maureen Cronin says Pennsylvania is joining the federal government and other states in striking ‘the R word’ from its statute.  “Because retarded, as you know, has turned into a derogatory, slang insult,” Cronin explains. 

The bill was sponsored by state Senator Andy Dinniman, a Chester County Democrat, who says it makes the language changes in all 34-pages of the act.  “Words do matter,” Dinniman said in a statement.  “They can either convey disrespect and ignorance or respect and understanding.” 

The new law takes effect immediately.