Online Voter Registration Bill Clears Committee

Pennsylvanians would be able to register to vote online under a bill that has earned unanimous support in the Senate State Government Committee.  The modernization effort would increase access to voter registration, which ACLU of PA legislative director Andy Hoover says would lead to increased access to voting.  “That’s what voting rights are all about,” Hoover says.  “It’s making things easier for people rather than putting up barriers.”

In addition to allowing more convenient and timely access to the voter registration process, supporters say online registration would significantly reduce taxpayer costs.  “When Arizona went to this system, it was costing them about 83-cents to process a voter registration, now it costs them about three cents,” explains Barry Kauffman, executive director of Common Cause PA

Arizona was the first state to allow for online voter registrations, but at least 13-states offer it today and Pennsylvania is one of many states considering it for the future. 

Kauffman and Hoover each say that online registrations would also lead to reduced data entry errors when paper voter registration forms are processed.

Traditional voter registration would still be available, but SB 37 would add the option of online registrations.  Up next for the bill is the Senate floor.

Is Penn State’s Board of Trustees Too Big?

Governance changes are ongoing at the Penn State Board of Trustees.  It’s already added a public comment period at meetings and imposed new 12-year term limits on members.  In May, trustee James Broadhurst tells lawmakers the board will take up the recommendations of the Committee on Governance and Long-Range planning that he chairs.  Those plans include changes in the status of the university president and governor, making both non-voting members of the board.  But Broadhurst says they are not recommending a change in the size of the board at this time.

“There is no model or best practice that speaks to the optimal size or makeup of a university board of trustees,” Broadhurst testified before the Senate State Government Committee this week.  Penn State’s board has 32-voting members.  If it votes to change the status of the president and governor, there would be 30-voting members. 

But trustee Anthony Lubrano fears the can will get kicked down the road until governance reforms are no longer a priority.  “Membership should be reduced to a number that allows for the inclusion and active engagement of the entire board,” Lubrano testified before the committee. 

For comparison, other Big Ten universities have much smaller boards (Ohio State 19, Michigan 9).  “They have to be actively engaged… this is a $4.3-billion dollar enterprise… this is serious business,” says Lubrano.    

Senate State Government Committee chairman Lloyd Smucker (R-Lancaster) will call additional hearings as he tries to find consensus on whether, where and what legislative action is warranted when it comes to Penn State governance.

Governance Discussion to Include All State-Relateds

Former Auditor General Jack Wagner’s special report on Penn State’s governance will be the subject of a state Senate committee hearing later this month.  “It will be a look at whether there should be changes, and then whether the legislature should have a role in that,” says State Government Committee Chairman Lloyd Smucker (R-Lancaster), who adds that the talks will eventually be broadened to include the other three state related universities as well. 

Smucker, who is also a member of the Appropriations Committee, got the ball rolling with a few questions for the universities’ leaders this week. 

Penn State President Rodney Erickson says their committee on governance & long-range planning will offer some suggested changes to the Board of Trustees later this month.  “Much has already changed with the structure and operations of the board, and there’s surely more to come.” 

None of the leaders of PSU, Lincoln and the University of Pittsburgh expressed concern over one possible reform, which would remove the president’s voting powers on their respective boards.  Temple’s president did not offer an opinion because he’s only been on the job two months, and hasn’t even attended his first trustees’ meeting. 

University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Mark Nordenberg did weigh in on another big recommendation in Jack Wagner’s Penn State report – reducing the size of the board.  “I don’t know how a small board could exercise proper oversight over an institution the size of Penn State or Pitt or Temple, unless they were going to be full-time board members,” says Nordenberg, noting that smaller is not always better. 

Penn State’s Board of Trustees has 32-members.  Pitt’s board has 36-voting members; Temple’s has 36-voting members; and Lincoln’s has 39.  For reference, Ohio State’s board has 19-members (2-non-voting).  The University of Michigan has 9-board members (1-non-voting).

Committee Advances Bill to Reduce Size of State House

Some say the 203-member state House is too big for its own good, and HB 153 would slash membership by 50 following the 2020 Census.  It received some bipartisan support in the House State Government Committee on Tuesday.  Its next stop is the House floor. 

Knowing that similar bills have never seen the light of day, State Rep. Seth Grove (R-York) called it a historic day.  “We get to send a message to the residents of Pennsylvania that we are serious about looking at the foundation of our General Assembly, we are serious about cutting our costs, we are serious about right-sizing government,” Grove said prior to the vote. 

HB 153 is sponsored by Speaker of the House Sam Smith (R-Jefferson) and capitol observers say that kind of clout gives this measure a better shot at passing than previous efforts. 

Critics, however, contend that larger House districts would create a whole new set of problems.  “You are making us more dependent on special interest group money if you do decrease the size of the legislature,” says Delaware County Democrat Greg Vitali, who also questions whether such an effort would actually save taxpayers money. 

Reducing the size of the state House would require a constitutional amendment, which means this bill would have to pass two consecutive sessions of the General Assembly before being put to a voter referendum.  HB 153 would not make any changes to the 50-member state Senate.

High-Profile Immigration Bill Reaches House Floor

Designed to keep public dollars out of the hands of illegal immigrants, SB 9 would require proof of citizenship before individuals can receive state welfare benefits.  Democrats on the House State Government Committee complained that it was drafted on anecdotes, not facts. 

Rep. Greg Vitali (D-Delaware) questioned Chairman Daryl Metcalfe (R-Butler) on whether there are any cost studies to justify the bill.  “My answer is we are spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year on illegal aliens in Pennsylvania, and we should stop spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year on illegal aliens,” Metcalfe shot back.  Metcalfe estimates there are 140,000 illegal immigrants currently living in the Keystone State. 

Committee debate got even more heated, Tuesday, when several Democratic members described the bill as “xenophobic.”  Metcalfe cut-off Democratic Chair Babette Josephs mid-sentence: “Representative Josephs, you’re out of order in using that term,” he chided. 

The committee amended and advanced SB 9 via a party line vote, with all Republicans voting for it.  The so-called ‘Proof of Citizenship for Receipt of Public Benefits Act’ passed the Senate (40 – 9) earlier this year, with some Democratic support.  It’s now poised for state House action.

Advocates: PA Can End “REAL ID”

Pennsylvania could become the 16th and largest state to enact a law that blocks implementation of the federal REAL ID Act.  “We believe that state resistance will lead to the demise of REAL ID, and that’s why it’s important for SB 354 to pass,” says ACLU of PA legislative director Andy Hoover.  He’s talking about a bill that has now earned unanimous approve in the state Senate. 

The federal REAL ID Act, if fully implemented, would place requirements on state driver’s licenses that critics say would essentially make them national ID cards.  It would also link all DMV databases across the country, potentially placing Americans’ personal information at risk.  “I believe it’s just one more encroachment on our individual liberty and freedom, which are slowly being taken from us in a very subtle way,” says Senator Mike Folmer (R-Lebanon), the bill’s prime sponsor. 

There are also financial concerns, as PennDOT estimates it will cost more than $100-million dollars to implement REAL ID.  “It’s one more mandate coming down from the federal government… and we all have our own economic scenarios going on as it is,” Folmer tells Radio PA. 

This has been a lingering issue under the state capitol dome.  The House passed an opt-out bill in 2008; the Senate passed one in 2010, but time ran out on both efforts.  “We’re hopeful this is the session we finally put REAL ID to bed,” Hoover says.  Folmer’s legislation passed the Senate 50 – 0, and is now awaiting action in the House State Government Committee.

First of 15 Immigration Bills Passes Committee

It took an hour for the House State Government Committee to advance the first piece of the National Security Begins at Home legislative package, via a party line vote.  The legislation (HB 439) would revoke the professional license of an employer who knowingly hires illegal immigrants.  “If you can hold somebody who has a professional license accountable to not employing illegal aliens,” State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe said after the meeting, “Then you start to shutdown some of that attractiveness of a professional licensee to undercut his competitor by hiring an illegal alien workforce.” 

Metcalfe, the committee’s Republican chair, tells us he doesn’t expect all 15 bills to move this fall, but he is working with the Senate in efforts to get as many as possible to the governor’s desk.  “This package of legislation seeks to shut down any attraction that might be in Pennsylvania for an illegal alien to reside here; access to jobs, access to public benefits,” Metcalfe explains.   

Metcalfe may appear to have the Republican votes to pass the bills, but the committee’s Democrats aren’t rolling over.  Minority chair Babette Josephs has been extremely vocal about the bills that she calls anti-immigrant.  “We’re in the position of scaring away the fastest growing minority in this country, which is Latino voters,” Josephs says.  “This is wrong.”

Another committee meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, when another of the 15-bills may be brought up for a vote.  For now, Metcalfe says he’s taking the process one step at a time.

Bills Would Make English PA’s Official Language

Two similar bills would ensure that English is the language of state government, and that polices don’t show preference for any language other than English.  State Rep. RoseMarie Swanger (R-Lebanon) says her bill (HB 361) would not force people to speak English, or outlaw any other languages.  “I consider my bill to be an encouragement… It’s encouraging those who come into the country legally, and want to function here, to learn English,” Swanger says.  “How could you function in a state where you couldn’t understand anything, you couldn’t read anything?  It just seems to me it’s very cruel that we don’t make more of an effort to get people to learn English and assimilate into our society.”

State Rep. Scott Perry (R-York) adds that by nixing all documentation and services provided in other languages, the state could save considerable money.  Perry sponsored the second bill (HB 888) knowing that polls show public support for making English the official language of the Commonwealth.  “People have their different reasons: whether it’s cultural, whether it’s for safety reasons or financial reasons, and some people have all of those reasons in mind.” 

The two bills were the subject of a near three hour hearing, Wednesday, in front of the House State Government Committee.  Executive director of the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians, Anne O’Callaghan, testified that the bills were both unnecessary and unwise.  “Passing these bills would announce to the world that Pennsylvania is more concerned with shutting people out than with incorporating them into our society,” O’Callaghan explained. 

In a statement, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Pennsylvania called it the theater of the absurd.  “The burden is on the supporters of these bills to prove why they’re needed and to prove that English is in some kind of danger,” says ACLU of PA legislative director Andy Hoover.

Controversial Bills Get 2 Days of Capitol Hearings

15-bills are up for discussion before the state House State Government Committee, most of which are included in a package called “National Security Begins at Home.”  The bills range from authorizing local police officers to conduct Arizona-style enforcement, to requiring government-issued ID to receive public benefits, to barring babies born to illegal immigrants in PA from automatic citizenship status. 

The Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) testified that this is a states issue too, and government can’t pick and choose which laws to enforce.  “They might be the nicest person in the world, looking for work, however we’ve got lawbreaking that starts here,” says FAIR’s Robert Najmulski.

Illegal Immigration Issues

Members and supporters of the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition rallied ahead of this week's committee hearings.

But the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition (PICC) contends that the bills being discussed are fueled by fear, and detrimental to all Pennsylvanians.  “Their goal: attrition through enforcement will weaken our commonwealth, which relies on immigrant workers and employers to keep our economy strong,” says PICC executive director Brian Baldia.  He spoke in the capitol rotunda, as critics lamented that the committee’s agenda was lob sided in favor of the bills’ supporters. 

Inside the hearing room, Chairman Daryl Metcalfe (R-Butler) defended his references to Pennsylvania’s “illegal alien” invasion.  “Personally, I take offense when somebody calls a foreign national who is here illegally an immigrant.  My wife is an immigrant.  My wife immigrated here legally.” 

Both sides of the debate are talking dollars and cents.  FAIR testified that taxpayers’ bill for illegal immigrant amounts to $1.3-billion dollars a year.  “That is broken down through education, Medicaid, criminal justice system, welfare and other benefits,” Najmulski says.  But, the ACLU of Pennsylvania contends that study can be debunked.  Legislative director Andy Hoover says most of the so-called cost is for the education of the children of undocumented immigrants, who are US citizens according to the Constitution.

“Two states that have passed these ‘papers please’ laws, these law enforcement bills, have lost hundreds of millions of dollars in business.  Arizona and Georgia have both seen economic disaster as a result of passing these laws,” Hoover adds.

Hearing to Kick-Start Legislative Downsizing Debate


State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R-Butler)

State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe chairs the House State Government Committee.

There are seven bills before the House State Government Committee, each with a different approach to reducing the size of the General Assembly.  “There’ve been many stories written about this issue; there’ve been citizens across the state – at various times – talking about this issue,” says committee chairman Daryl Metcalfe (R-Butler), who will convene a public hearing, Tuesday afternoon, in the House Majority Caucus Room.

Efforts to reduce the 253-member General Assembly have not gotten far in years past, but this year one of the bills is sponsored by Speaker of the House Sam Smith (R-Jefferson).  Smith’s bill (HB 153) would amend the state constitution to reduce House membership from 203 to 153, following the 2020 Census.  The Smith bill would only affect House districts, but others would trim the size of both chambers.  For instance, HB 183 would result in 121 House seats and 30 Senate seats. 

Pennsylvania’s cast of 253 lawmakers is the second only to New Hampshire’s 424.  However, when population is factored in, Pennsylvania has the 7th most constituents per Senator and the 18th most constituents per State Rep. 

Beverley Cigler, professor of public policy and administration at Penn State Harrisburg, says there’s no research showing that a smaller legislature is more efficient.  She points to California.  “It is an extremely large state.  It has a House of 80-members and a Senate of 40, so it is a very small legislature, and I think by anybody’s measure they’re a mess.”  Cigler is scheduled to testify before Metcalfe’s committee on Tuesday, and will suggest that other reforms are more promising for improving the legislature than downsizing. 

For chairman Metcalfe, finances are top of mind.  “I think it’s a prime opportunity to take a look at the plusses and minuses of reducing the size of the legislature, especially as it relates to the cost of our legislature, and ultimately the cost of our state government,” Metcalfe says.  Most state spending falls under the executive branch and Metcalfe says that’s where the fat needs to be cut.  “But the legislature needs to lead by example, and I think that’s what these proposals are trying to do.”