Voter ID Bill Blasted by State House Democrats, Defended by Sponsor

State House Democrats are attacking a Voter ID bill that may come up for a final vote this week in the house.   Representative Babette Josephs (D-Philadelphia) says the Republicans in the General Assembly are poised to suppress the votes of law abiding citizens.   

House Democratic Leader Frank Dermody (D-Allegheny) called it a smokescreen. He says there’s no evidence of widespread or any voter fraud in Pennsylvania.

Representative Dan Frankel (D-Allegheny), caucus chair, called it a blatant political play.  He says it would stop people who don’t have government-issued photo ID from voting, including many people who don’t have driver’s licenses such as senior citizens and those who ride the bus.

Democrats also say the bill could cost the state millions to implement, with costs for publicizing the change and providing valid photo ID to those voters who do not currently have them.  

The measure, House Bill 934, is scheduled for a final vote on Wednesday.

The sponsor, Representative Daryl Metcalfe (R-Butler), calls it common sense legislation. He says it’s a matter of ensuring that there’s integrity in the process.

Representative Metcalfe says costs should not be as high as some people claim. He says there’s a process that occurs every election cycle to notify people of changes at the next election. 

In response to criticism that there’s no evidence of voter fraud, Representative Metcalfe says if you don’t have a checks and balance system in place, it’s kind of hard to prosecute something that you’re not checking for at the polls.

He adds the Supreme Court has upheld a similar law in Indiana.

Several groups are on record as opposing the bill,  including the ACLU of Pennsylvania, the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Alliance for Retired Americans.

Teen Tanning Bed Legislation

Bill Would Bar Teens from Tanning Beds

Pennsylvania teenagers would essentially be barred from tanning beds, under legislation that’s being debated in the State House Judiciary Committee.  “What the bill would do is prevent any business from allowing persons under the age of 18 from using an indoor tanning bed,” said State Rep. RoseMarie Swanger (R-Lebanon) at a Wednesday news conference.  Swanger cites research published last year in Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention: “People who have ever used tanning beds were 74% more likely to develop melanoma than others.”

Earlier Wednesday, the State House Judiciary Committee heard a variety of testimony on Swanger’s bill.  Dr. Gavin Robertson from the Penn State Hershey Medical Center testified that the World Health Organization recommends completely banning tanning beds for kids under the age of 18, and classifying UV as a class one carcinogen.  In her own testimony, Swanger pointed out that she wants to amend the bill to make the penalties civil, not criminal.  “Violators should be fined and at some point lose their license, but I don’t intend for anyone to go to jail for such a violation.” 

Swanger’s bill would not stop teens from tanning, according to Joe Schuster from the Indoor Tanning Association, and industry trade group.  “It’ll send them outdoors into an uncontrolled environment with no supervision, no trained staff, no parental consent required, where they’re more likely to be overexposed or sunburned,” Schuster testified.  He argued that tanning beds are no more or less harmful than the sun. “Are you also prepared to ban these same teens from sun exposure at beaches at the various state parks and thousands of other pools, playgrounds and parks throughout the state of Pennsylvania?”

HB 369 currently awaits action in the Judiciary Committee, but it may get assigned to a different standing committee depending on the changes that Swanger wants to make to its penalties.


Another Good Revenue Month for PA

May’s tax receipts have been tallied, and the Department of Revenue reports that collections exceeded estimates by nearly $34-million, or 1.9%.  That means Pennsylvania’s revenues are outpacing estimates by a total of $539-million through 11-months of the fiscal year.  “It just points out once again how bad the Republican budget that was passed last month actually is,” says Bill Patton, a spokesman for House Democratic Leader Frank Dermody (D-Allegheny)A GOP-backed, $27.3-billion dollar budget bill passed the House last month with zero Democratic support.  It would not have used any of the current fiscal year’s excess revenue.  “We should use a good bit of this surplus revenue to restore cuts that were made in the House Republican budget, and we think we can do that in the month of June,” Patton tells us. 

The notion of tapping into that money is a bipartisan one over in the Senate.  “We have proposed using some of the revenue surplus that exists to help soften the impact of cuts in the education area, cuts to hospitals,” says Senate Republican spokesman Erik Arneson.  “This gives us continued reason to think that it can be done in a fiscally responsible way.”  However, Arneson cautions that while the economy appears to be recovering, there are still “some serious soft spots.” 

Looking at how the state’s major revenue sources fared in May:  sales taxes and corporation tax receipts were above estimate.  Personal income tax revenue was below estimate for the month, but still 2.1% above estimate for the fiscal-year-to-date.  In an email to his colleagues, Wednesday, House Democratic Appropriations Chair Joe Markosek (D-Allegheny/Westmoreland) pointed out that May is one of the smallest revenue collection months.  He suggests that further surplus could be posted in June, which is a more significant month for state revenues.  Both the House and Senate are in recess until June 6th, but state budget matters will get top billing between then and the June 30th budget deadline.

State Capitol Fountain

PA Lawmakers Seek New Offices

A half-dozen State Reps. won primary elections for various local offices, last month, and will appear on the November ballot.  For instance, Republican Doug Reichley is on the ballot for a judicial post in Lehigh County.  Discussing the large number of lawmakers who may bolt Harrisburg, Reichley says it comes and goes in cycles.  “I think there were just two members in the ’09 elections that ran, so I think it is coincidence this year with the number of members who are running for other elected offices.” 

Reichley has served the residents of Lehigh and Berks Counties since he was first elected to the House in 2002, and admits he would appreciate a chance to serve closer to home.  “The amount of time away from home that is required by the job – both to be in Harrisburg and to be doing events in the district – really does take a toll on your family life,” said Reichley, who has two children at home. 

Also on the November ballot is Democrat Josh Shapiro, who’s campaigning for Montgomery County Commissioner.  He calls the opportunity too much to pass up.  “For me it was about helping people in a more direct way, about having the opportunity to affect more lives than I do now in a positive way,” Shapiro says.  He’s also drawn to the executive role of a county commissioner. 

Six State Reps in all could be voted into new jobs this fall: four Democrats and two Republicans.  Republican Dennis O’Brien and Democrat Kenyatta Johnson are each eying seats on Philadelphia City Council.  O’Brien, of course, served as Speaker of the House from 2007 to 2008.  Special elections would be called next year to fill any vacant seats.

Harrisburg's skyline

Pennsylvania House Passes $27.3 Billion Budget

    Over Democrat objections, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives has given it’s approval to a $27.3 billion, no-tax increase state budget that restores some proposed cuts in education. The House vote was 109-92 and the action leaves 37 days for the House and Senate to work out any differences before sending a final budget to Governor Tom Corbett’s desk.

    House Republicans say they have restored $200 million in basic education cuts and $300 million for higher education, compared to the governor’s original spending proposal unveiled in March. The GOP found the additional dollars for education by counting on savings in the Department of Public Welfare, and not by tapping into a projected half-billion dollar budgetary surplus this year. Governor Tom Corbett has made it clear that he wants that money to go into reserve funds or be used to pay down debt.

    Democrats argue that the surplus money should be used to offset some of the remaining education cuts, saying the House budget still cuts a billion dollars from existing education spending. They characterize the budget as “anti-middle class,” primarily because they say state cuts in funding for local services will result in increased county and local levies, including higher property taxes.

    The budget bill now goes to the state Senate and negotiations between the two chambers will determine the final spending plan, which is due by June 30th. It’s been nearly a decade since a governor has signed a budget before that fiscal year deadline.


Teen “Sexting” Bill Passes PA House

The State House voted overwhelmingly in favor of legislation that creates the offense of teen “sexting.”  The bill would apply to nude photographs distributed among teenagers, via cell phones and even computers.  The prime sponsor is State Rep. Seth Grove (R-York), who says the legislation will make teens think before they “sext.”  At the same time, Grove says, it would provide a more appropriate punishment than what’s allowed for today.  He says current law treats teens’ “sexting” as a serious felony under child pornography laws.  His bill (HB 815) would make the crime a second degree misdemeanor.  “It ensures that students don’t ruin the rest of their life because of making some childish decisions, and sending nude photographs of themselves or others,” Grove says. 

Teens wouldn’t be thrown in jail under Grove’s bill.  “The judges have the ability to order community service, some form of educational program and a fine if they want to go that route,” Grove says.  The bill would allow a teen’s record to be expunged, and Grove says that compared favorably with the alternative in current law.  He tells us felony convictions would follow a young offender for life, and even affect their future job applications.   

The Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association (PDAA) supports the bill.  Executive director Richard Long says it provides a penalty that’s more in line with the actual conduct that’s occurring with these teen “sexting” incidents.  “The current law is not adequately tailored to reflect what’s going on… just ten years ago there was no such thing as sexting,” Long tells us. 

The bill only applies to teens; adults would still be prosecuted under child pornography laws if they’re involved in the sending or receiving of nude photos of minors.  HB 815 passed the House with a 178 – 20 vote.  It now heads to the State Senate for consideration.

PA School Districts

Survey Projects State Budget’s Impact on Schools

More than 70% of PA school districts are planning to cut educational programs, according to a new survey conducted by the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials (PASBO) and Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators (PASA).  Music, the arts, physical education, social studies, health and more would no longer be available or be greatly reduced, according to PASA executive director Jim Buckheit.  “Not only will the things that students particularly enjoy… be reduced, but elective courses and even some core instructional programming will be reduced.” 

The survey results are based on responses from 263 of Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts.  Among its other findings: 86% of districts plan to reduce class sizes, 70% plan to lay off staff, and 31% plan on nixing full-day kindergarten.  Buckheit says these numbers show that education is not the place to cut.  “If we want to improve our economic chances in the future, we need to education our children because they’re the workforce of tomorrow.” 

The survey was conducted largely prior to the introduction of House Republicans’ budget plans.  The majority caucus expects to vote this week on a budget bill (HB 1485) that would restore about $210-million dollars to public schools, compared to the billion-dollar cuts initially proposed by Governor Tom Corbett in March.  “It’s a step forward, but it’s still a big hole to fill for school districts across the state,” Buckheit says.  Even if additional state revenue comes in, Buckheit tells us, it may not alleviate the cuts described in the survey.  The state budget deadline is June 30th.

Capitol Building

State House Republicans’ Budget Bill is Positioned for Debate

State House Republicans’ budget bill is positioned for floor debate the week of May 23rd. Like the plan laid out by Governor Tom Corbett in March, the House GOP budget would spend $27.3-billion dollars and raise no new taxes. Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R-Allegheny) says the goal is to have “an on-time, no-tax increase budget” that prioritizes spending within the framework of the governor’s blueprint.

House Republicans have restored $210-million dollars to basic education line items and about $380-million dollars to higher education funding, when compared to Governor Corbett’s proposed cuts. They plan to find the money primarily through targeting a 4% error rate in public welfare programs; it’s a rate they call “conservative.” Rep. Turzai feels confident that they can find $470-million dollars in Department of Public Welfare (DPW) savings. In fact, Turzai suggests it may be the “tip of the iceberg” when it comes to waste, fraud and abuse.

Wednesday, the House Appropriations Committee approved the GOP-backed budget plan — along party lines — after nearly three hours of debate. Around that same time, a Senate committee was holding its confirmation hearing with Governor Corbett’s nominee for DPW Secretary. In that hearing, Senators asked Acting Secretary Gary Alexander if the projected savings were viable. Alexander says, “there’s definitely savings. I don’t know if its $400-million at this point. It could be a lot more, it could be less.” He also suggested it will take time to thoroughly review the entire department.

What’s not included in House Republicans’ budget is use of the $500-million dollars in unanticipated tax revenues the state has collected fiscal year-to-date. Rep. Turzai notes that it’s not clear whether the economy will continue to grow, or whether the revenues will continue to come in. However, House Democrats are making this a big budget issue. Minority Leader Frank Dermody (D-Allegheny) says there is no rational reason for making Pennsylvania’s working and middle class families suffer, “when we can avoid much of the pain in this budget.”

The budget process is currently on pace to meet the June 30th deadline. If the budget bill passed the House during the week of the 23rd, it could set the stage for negotiations with the Senate and Governor Corbett’s office after Memorial Day.