State Capitol Fountain

Lawmakers Cast Unanimous Votes for UC Reforms

State Senator John Gordner (R-Columbia)

State Sen. John Gordner (R-Columbia)

State lawmakers passed the bill just in time to ensure that the federal extended benefits program continues.  “We are getting it done literally under the wire, but it’s an important fix to do for the 45,000 folks who would otherwise lose 13-weeks of unemployment compensation,” says State Senator John Gordner (R-Columbia).  Gordner chairs the Labor & Industry Committee, helped to broker a major compromise between chambers and joins us for this week’s Radio PA Roundtable program. 

The bill represents the biggest reforms to Pennsylvania’s unemployment compensation system in the last 20-years.  “We were the only state left without an enforceable work search provision,” Gordner tells us.  It also freezes the maximum weekly benefit at $573-dollars.  Gordner says that provision slows down the growth of benefits.  “So, those 20% that are at the top level are not going to be losing benefits, but we’ve basically put in a freeze for a year, and then a 1% cap on the growth of that system.”  The average weekly benefit is currently $310-dollars.   

Also, individuals who get severance pay beyond $17,853 (40% of the average salary) won’t be able to concurrently receive unemployment compensation benefits. 

The package will save the state’s unemployment compensation system $114-million dollars next year.  However, PA borrowed over $4-billion dollars from the federal government in order to meet its UC obligations during the recession.  Gordner calls it a “good start” in paying that money back.  “We still need to do a solvency measure.  The problem with this drill was that we were under a time element and we got to the last day in order to do it.” Gordner tells us he’ll work with State Rep. Ron Miller (R-York), who chairs the House Labor & Industry Committee, to come up with a long-term solvency package. 

The House approved the final version of SB 1030 on Thursday.  The Senate did likewise on Friday.  Both votes were unanimous.  Governor Tom Corbett is expected to quickly sign the bill into law.

State Capitol Facing North Office Building

Lawmakers Strike Unemployment Compensation Deal

The compromise ensures that some 45,000 unemployed Pennsylvanians won’t lose their extended federal benefits next week.  It will also save the unemployment compensation system about $114-million dollars a year.  “It is the most extensive unemployment compensation reform package that we have seen – it’s the only unemployment compensation reform package we’ve seen – in ten years,” says House majority leader Mike Turzai (R-Allegheny).  “There are significant reforms that are being brought to the table.”   

Chairman of the House Labor & Industry Committee, Ron Miller (R-York), says they will freeze next year’s maximum weekly benefit at $573-dollars a week.  “There will be a zero percent increase for next year, and then a five year sliding scale that will be one percent the year after, one point one the year after, that is the cap, it can’t go above that,” Miller says. 

Other savings would come from a new requirement that unemployment compensation recipients actively search for work, and new rules concerning severance pay.  The savings in the deal that was struck Wednesday evening are greater than the $60-million projected savings in the original Senate bill, but much less than the original House bill.  The legislative process is on pace for Senate concurrence this Friday. 

The statewide unemployment rate currently stands at 7.4%, according to data just released Thursday by the Department of Labor & Industry.  It’s much lower than the national average, which remains above 9%, but Pennsylvania owes the federal government nearly $4-billion dollars it has borrowed to cover unemployment benefits during the recession.

Capitol View from East Wing

Bath Salts Ban Heads to Governor’s Desk

Bath salts are dangerous – even deadly – yet legal.  The bath salts that state lawmakers are targeting aren’t what you bought mom for her birthday.  These are synthetic stimulants created to mimic the effects of cocaine and methamphetamine.  “They have a lot of psychotic effects and hallucinations and things like that,” says State Senator Elder Vogel (R-Beaver/Lawrence), the prime sponsor of SB 1006.  “We have enough drug problems now… let alone to have these fake drugs come along and be easier to buy.” 

The legislation cleared its final legislative hurdle Wednesday, earning unanimous support in the State Senate.  The House had earlier amended the bill to allow law enforcement to keep up with any future compounds the manufacturers may use.  “I think it will become one of the most forward thinking and progressive pieces of legislation regarding these synthetic substances in the nation,” State Rep. RoseMarie Swanger (R-Lebanon) said on the House floor.  Like the Senate vote, final House passage was unanimous earlier this week. 

The banning of bath salts was one of the top legislative priorities of the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association.  “They have a stimulant in them that causes this violent, paranoid behavior, and it’s really dangerous for the individuals using them, as well as for the community,” PDAA president Ed Marsico tells us.  In addition to bath salts, Vogel’s bill would prohibit synthetic marijuana and salvia divinorum.  

Synthetic drugs are currently sold in hemp shops, smoke shops and even convenience stores.  Numerous counties have taken matters into their own hands and sought injunctions to ban the sale of bath salts.  Lawmakers call them a statewide epidemic.  The bill’s next stop is Governor Tom Corbett’s desk.

State Capitol Facing North Office Building

Senate Approves Drivers Cell Phone Ban

Texting While Driving

Texting While Driving Would be a Primary Offense Under SB 314

Texting while driving would be a primary offense.  Talking on a hand-held cell phone while driving would be a secondary offense, under legislation that passed the State Senate Wednesday afternoon.  It started out as a simple secondary offense texting ban, but Tommy Tomlinson’s bill was amended in committee to include hand-held cell phones and other language.  On the floor, Senator Jim Ferlo (D-Allegheny) was successful in changing the texting violation to a primary offense, which means it can be the sole reason a driver is stopped by police.  Violators would face a $100-dollar fine.    

“I personally argue that the whole bill should be a primary offense,” Ferlo tells us, “But I’m in the minority on this issue, so I thought it was tactically appropriate to try to win majority support… on the issue of text messaging.”  The Senate vote was 41 – 8 on the bill, as amended.  Senator Tomlinson (R-Bucks) supports the bill in its current form, but knows the process isn’t over.  “I don’t believe this is the final version of this bill.  I still think there will be continued negotiations and compromise,” Tomlinson said on the Senate floor. 

Up next for the bill is the State House, where a tougher distracted driving bill was amended with bipartisan support last month.  However, that legislation has not yet been brought up for final votes.  33-states currently ban texting while driving.  9-states have banned talking on hand-held cell phones behind the wheel.

Under the Capitol Dome

What Should Lawmakers Do With Unanticipated Revenue?

Sen. Jay Costa

Sen. Jay Costa

Almost everyone expects an on-time budget, for a change.  But there’s no consensus on how to handle state revenues that have come in $540-million dollars above estimate through the first 11-months of the fiscal year.  Senate Minority leader Jay Costa (D-Allegheny) says it should be used to mitigate proposed education budget cuts for the new fiscal year, which starts on July 1st.  “It’s very hard to defend – given the nature of the reductions in expenditures that are being proposed – that we can squirrel away $600-million dollars,” Costa says, as he predicts the state will end the fiscal year with a $580 – $600-million dollar surplus.

“We will ultimately use about half of the budget surplus, or somewhere in that vicinity, is sort of my prediction in terms of where we are going,” Costa tells us.  He adds that it’s still not enough for Senate Democrats’ liking, but that the cuts won’t be as “draconian” as they are now.  Earlier in the week, a Senate Republican spokesman told us they will seek to use “some” of the surplus to soften the impact of education and hospital cuts. 

House Republicans, however, passed a $27.3-billion dollar budget that would not spend this year’s higher-than-expected revenues.  During last month’s budget debates, Appropriations chair Bill Adolph (R-Delaware) stressed that we don’t know if this revenue is sustainable.  “Calls for increased spending, based upon a few months of bringing in more money than expected, are irresponsible in our current economic climate.” 

That’s long been the stance of the Corbett administration, and it seems they have at least one Democrat on their side.  “I think Governor Corbett is right to say that the majority of the surplus needs to be kept in reserve for the unknown,” says Auditor General Jack Wagner, who finished second in the 2010 Democratic gubernatorial primary.  Asked about the budget battle at an unrelated news conference, Wagner cautioned that Pennsylvania’s liabilities dwarf any surplus.  He cites additional pension obligations, money owed to the Pennsylvania Employee Benefit Trust Fund and a pending labor contract, just to name a few.        

The state budget deadline is June 30th.  Senate Republican Appropriations chair Jake Corman (R-Centre) recently told us that he expects to have an “action plan” by the end of the week.