Government & Politics

Government & Politics news from 90.5 WESA.

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Pennsylvania’s multi-billion dollar public and municipal pension issues have long been cited by lawmakers as an obstacle to economic growth. To address pensions, Senator Judy Schwank (D-Berks) has introduced a bill that would create the Public Pensions Review Commission.

“To examine the current systems, and to recommend statutory or regulatory changes needed to achieve and maintain a sound, stable public pension structure for both the state and for local governments,” said Schwank.

The 25-member group would be authorized to conduct hearings and receive appropriate information and analysis. Some of the questions to be addressed, said Schwank, are what does Pennsylvania’s future workforce like? How can the state attract and retain talent, and how can the state achieve retirement security?

Flickr user Mary Helen Cochran Library

The Pittsburgh Department of Permits, Licenses, and Inspections has a nice little chunk of change—a bit more than $300,000—set aside for storage of records.

But the catch is the work must be done on microfilm.

The Microfilm Permit Plans Trust Fund was set up in 1986 with strict parameters about how the money could be spent, and nearly thirty years later, the city has finally decided it’s time to broaden those parameters.

Mark Nootbaar / 90.5 WESA

Governor Tom Wolf is facing another legal challenge to his gubernatorial authority, less than a month into his term.

The Philadelphia district attorney’s petition to stop Wolf’s effective moratorium on the death penalty comes weeks after state Senate Republicans hauled the new administration to court for firing the Open Records director appointed by Wolf’s predecessor, Tom Corbett.

Each case has brought indignant legal filings accusing Wolf of gubernatorial overreach, but legal experts say the disputes wade into unsettled questions. 

Matt Rourke / Associated Press

Gov. Tom Wolf, who ran last year with the backing of environmental groups, will soon be giving a first glimpse at how his administration will approach the powerful Marcellus Shale natural gas industry.

Next week, Wolf's Department of Environmental Protection is preparing to release its plans to update various rules over the drilling industry, including how it must prevent methane leaks and how it must handle toxic wastewater.

Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board

By a vote of 114-87, the state House has passed a proposal to take apart the state’s liquor system, though the measure is heading to an unenthusiastic Senate and an opposed governor.  

The measure would phase out most state-owned wine and spirit stores and put the state in charge of selling licenses to private retail and wholesale vendors.

House debate went for hours on the merits of the bill – despite the fact that it’s headed for almost certain changes in the Senate.

When she stepped out of the Waterworks Theater Thursday afternoon, Pittsburgh Student Achievement Center 8th grader Denay Clemons called the movie Selma “an awesome portrayal.”

Denay was among approximately five hundred students from several Pittsburgh schools who were taken to see the movie about the marches in Alabama that preceded the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

“I only knew a little bit from school work and history but I learned a lot more about what happened actually like with conversation with the people who actually led the movement,” Denay said.

pittsburghpa.gov

With two weeks to go before the deadline to file nominating petitions, Pittsburgh City Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak has officially announced her candidacy for City Controller. 

Governor Tom Wolf's plans to reduce corporate taxes are getting a cool reception from Republican legislative leaders who are waiting for more details.

On Wednesday, Wolf pulled back the curtain on a few of the "nice surprises" for pro-business groups in his budget proposal. He wants to bring the state's much-maligned 9.99 percent corporate net income tax down to 4.99 percent over two years.

Kumar Appaiah / Flickr

For the third time in as many sessions, State Rep. Tony DeLuca (D-Allegheny) will introduce legislation putting a limit on outside income for legislators.

House Bill 566 would cap outside earned income for representatives and senators at 35 percent of their base salary as a member of the general assembly. In other words, a legislator with a salary of about $84,000 will be able to bring in as much as $29,400 in outside income.

Gage Skidmore / flickr

Florida Governor Rick Scott came to Philadelphia this week to meet with company heads, to try to lure business to the Sunshine State. Scott campaigned on the promise of growing private sector jobs in Florida and one of his tactics has been to visit other states – including California, Illinois, and Maryland – to recruit job creators.

Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell said it’s a bit unusual for a governor to show up like Scott did in Philadelphia “but it is not unusual at all for that state government to make calls into other businesses to urge them to relocate into their state. I did it very very often when I was governor.” States, and even municipalities, are competing for companies everyday. 

Matt Rourke / Associated Press

Governor Tom Wolf says he could’ve picked his words better when he said that Pennsylvania’s biggest problem is “low self-esteem.”

At a recent meeting of the National Governors Association in Washington, D.C., C-SPAN recorded Wolf’s response to the question: what is the biggest economic issue facing Pennsylvania?

“This is going to sound strange, I mean I agree with everybody – education, we gotta build out the infrastructure, we have to make investments to make sure the economy can function,” said Wolf. “But I think the biggest problem in Pennsylvania is low self-esteem.”

pahouse.com

The largest purchaser of supplies and services in Pennsylvania is the state itself. But, for small businesses, particularly those owned by minorities and women, getting contracts to fulfill those needs can be difficult. Rep. Jake Wheatley (D-Allegheny) has introduced a bill to help address that.

“House Bill 85, which enables minority and women-owned and disadvantaged businesses to compete with larger businesses for state contracts,” said Wheatley.

Among other things, the bill would provide the state authority to waive employee limits; give alternative certification when needed; establish a surety bond guarantee program and the Surety Bond Guarantee Fund; and, in contracts for public works, further provide for contractors' and subcontractors' payment obligations.

A consortium of student government representatives from nine local colleges and universities will have an audience with Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto Tuesday evening.

Student leaders from Carlow University, Carnegie Mellon University, Chatham University, the Community College of Allegheny County, Duquesne University, La Roche College, Point Park University, Robert Morris University, and the University of Pittsburgh comprise the Pittsburgh Student Government Council (PSGC).

Harvey Barrison / flickr

Pennsylvania may be staring down a $2 billion chasm in next fiscal year's state budget, but the Legislature is doing just fine for cash.

The legislative surplus stood at $161 million as of last June, according to an annual audit report released Monday after a couple of delays.

The report was prepared by private firm Mitchell & Titus. The Legislature isn't subject to the state auditor general's oversight. For years, private auditors have used these reports to urge lawmakers to put a maximum on how much can be kept in reserve.

This year was no different.

Flickr user Brice Hutchinson

In the past, Pittsburgh residents have had a voice in the capital budgeting process, through a series of public hearings usually held in October and November.

The problem with that model, according to Budget Director Sam Ashbaugh, is that the budget is already drafted and has been presented to City Council and the Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority by that point.

Courtesy Almono LP

City planning and urban development experts from all over the country are in Pittsburgh this week, taking a look at the proposed development plan for the Almono site in Hazelwood as part of the Daniel Rose Center for Public Leadership fellowship program.

Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner will pursue enforcement of three subpoenas against county officials who did not attend a meeting Monday morning that would have officially begun an audit of the county Police Department.

Duquesne University

The withdrawal of one state Supreme Court nominee might have sunken both picks made by the governor’s office in consultation with the state Senate.  The move potentially will leave two vacancies on the high court for the rest of the year.

Centre County President Judge Thomas Kistler said Monday morning he is dropping out of the confirmation process.

 “[S]everal circumstances have developed here, at home, in Centre County, which have dramatically altered the legal system, and require my full attention,” said Kistler in a written statement. “I cannot with a clear conscience abandon my responsibilities to Centre County in this time of uncertainty.”

His withdrawal comes days after the Philadelphia Inquirer reported criticism of a 2013 e-mail he sent, which features a photo of a black man and woman, apparently during a prison visit, below text that reads: “Merry Christmas from the Johnsons.” Kistler is white.

Tim Lambert / WITF

As Governor Tom Wolf prepares to introduce his first budget as Pennsylvania’s governor, two state lawmakers have introduced a bill that would limit state spending – with the ultimate goal of leaving the issue up to the voters. The bill, introduced by Senator Camera Bartolotta (R-Greene) would tie the spending limit to the growth of the population and inflation.

“That percentage is all that the budget can grow,” said Bartolotta, “when there’s an excess in that, 25 percent of that will go back to the taxpayers, 25 percent will go to Rainy Day Fund and 50 percent of that excess will go to pay down the pension problem.”

The change is needed, according to Bartolotta, because general fund spending has more than tripled over the past 30 years.

“The population’s only grown by 7.7 percent and unfortunately the budget has grown to over 1,010 percent in that amount of time,” she said.

JMR_Photography / flickr

A proposal to sell off most of Pennsylvania's state-owned liquor system and its wholesale distribution network moved ahead with a vote on the Legislature on Monday, although its prospects to become law remain uncertain.

The state House Liquor Control Committee voted 15-to-10 to advance a Republican-backed proposal that was very similar to a bill that passed the House but stalled in Senate during the last legislative session.

At first, the senator thought she had made a mistake.

Legislation to expand Pennsylvania's prescription drug monitoring system had been signed by the governor last fall. Powerful painkillers and other drugs would be tracked by the new and improved system. Doctors and law enforcement would be able to check the database for suspicious prescription activity.

The changes were slated to cost $1 million. But the full sum hadn't been incorporated into the state budget.

About 35 Allegheny County constables attended the first of three mandatory training sessions Thursday designed to teach the officers how to properly process their payments.

An audit by County Controller Chelsa Wagner’s office last year found some constables received payments from the courts and the county for the same job. There were 33 duplicates between January 2012 and June 2013, totaling $1,618.02.

National Institutes of Health / Flickr

Vaccines have garnered lots of national attention lately, due largely to a measles outbreak tied to Disneyland and an Illinois day care center.

In particular, more attention is being paid to anti-vaccination groups, those opposed to vaccines for reasons that are not religious or medical in nature.

Gov. Tom Wolf is holding off on a search for a permanent director of the Pennsylvania Office of Open Records while a state court considers whether he had legal authority to fire the last one.

Wolf's lawyers said in court filings this week, ahead of a Commonwealth Court hearing next month, that he has delayed the national search "out of respect for the expedited judicial process."

Another new filing, by the Office of Open Records, argues the court should remove it from the case brought by Erik Arneson and the state Senate Republican caucus against Wolf.

Left-Leaning Groups Offer Tax Policy Suggestions

Feb 19, 2015
Courtesy Photo/ Better Choices for Pennsylvania

The Better Choices for Pennsylvania Coalition released a set of 19 tax recommendations Wednesday aimed at making the state’s tax system “fairer,” according to Mike Wood, Research Director of the left-leaning Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, a member organization of the coalition.

AP Photo/Matt Rourke

Last Friday, Governor Tom Wolf announced a hold on all executions in Pennsylvania, due to ongoing questions about the effectiveness of capital punishment.

While the death penalty is on hold, State Senator Daylin Leach is taking steps to repeal the practice in PA altogether.

Rob McCord website

Former Pennsylvania Treasurer Rob McCord pleaded guilty Tuesday to two federal counts of attempted extortion, admitting that he tried to use the position of his office to strong-arm state contractors into donating money to his failed gubernatorial campaign.

WESA's Capitol correspondent Mary Wilson joins us to discuss McCord's steep and fast fall from public office.

Liz Reid

A bill that would change the rules governing Pittsburgh’s youth commission sparked an intense discussion in City Council Wednesday, with some members of Council expressing concern about whose voices are being heard, and whose are not.

With the help of Code for America fellows and a consultant from the National Institute of Governmental Purchasing, or NIGP, the city is set to review the policies that govern how the city purchases everything from software to road salt to architectural services.

According to Pittsburgh Budget Director Sam Ashbaugh, the current protocol is murky.

AP Photo/Matt Rourke

Ex-Pennsylvania Treasurer Rob McCord pleaded guilty Tuesday to two federal counts of attempted extortion, admitting that he tried to use his office's position to strong-arm state contractors into donating money to his failed gubernatorial campaign.

The plea capped a steep and fast fall from public office for the once-promising candidate for governor. During the hearing in a federal courtroom in Harrisburg, McCord acknowledged the plea agreement that prosecutors filed Feb. 2. He declined comment to reporters afterward.

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