Government & Politics

Government & Politics news from 90.5 WESA.

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There are currently 19 cities and boroughs in Pennsylvania designated as “distressed” municipalities under Act 47, including Pittsburgh, Braddock, Rankin, Duquesne and Clairton in Allegheny County.

A State House bill meant to help those municipalities identify ways to make their operations more efficient may end up not doing that at all.

Courtesy Photo/ ADI

Pennsylvania Sen. Daylin Leach (D-Montgomery) is finalizing a bill that would ban "exotic animals" from circus performances in Pennsylvania.

The bill follows an announcement by Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus that “The Greatest Show on Earth” will phase out use of elephants by 2018. Leach said this was a step in the right direction, but his bill goes further.

A Democratic state senator says a racist, anonymous letter sent to the Cumberland County home of the acting State Police commissioner raises troubling questions.

Sen. Vincent Hughes (D-Philadelphia) is denouncing a letter sent to Acting Commissioner Marcus Brown that used a racial slur and referred to his decision to wear the Pennsylvania State Police uniform. The letter was delivered to Brown's mailbox Monday evening.

The Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority for the city of Pittsburgh met on Wednesday afternoon for its regular quarterly meeting. Among the topics discussed were efforts by City Controller Michael Lamb to move paper invoices to an electronic format.

Lamb said this project would save the city $115,000 annually. Of the $25,000 they originally had for this project, he said they had spent $18,000 on the E-Docs system, had $7,000 remaining and requested an additional $16,000. The ICA agreed to grant them this money.

The state’s Right-to-Know law is growing up.

The seven-year old statute giving citizens greater access to government records is yielding more complex cases as record requests are appealed and challenged in the courts.    

“Despite a decrease in the number of appeals that were filed with our office, we’ve seen an increase in the actual work that we have to do,” said Open Records Acting Director Nathanael Byerly in a hearing before the House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday.

AP Photo/Keith Srakocic, File

When Gov. Tom Wolf was campaigning, he said if elected he would place a severance tax on Marcellus shale gas in the commonwealth, and now he’s moving forward on a plan to do just that. The County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, however, doesn’t agree with some changes.

A top Republican in the state Senate said Monday that he's prepared for a late budget.

The commonwealth's spending plan is due June 30, and in recent years the GOP caucuses followed the lead of former Gov. Tom Corbett and his priority to meet that deadline.

This year, Senate Republicans have insisted their top priority is passing a public pension overhaul that reaps short-term and long-term savings for the state's deeply indebted retirement systems.

Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman said if pension talks stretch into the fall, so will the budget process.

Mary Wilson / WITF

Col. Marcus Brown is an outsider wearing an insider’s uniform, and it’s threatening to sideline his career with the Wolf administration.

Erika Beras / 90.5 WESA

Righting the wrongs of the past appeared to be the theme at a groundbreaking for the Lower Hill redevelopment infrastructure, which will be a 28-acre mixed-use development.

“This project will directly benefit our local economy and residents of the Hill District for decades to come through additional development and job creation,” state Sen. Wayne Fontana said at Monday's groundbreaking.

Liz Reid / 90.5 WESA

Alcosan rates are set to increase 11 percent in 2016 and again in 2017, and activists with the Clean Rivers Campaign and Action United are calling on the sanitary authority to implement a Customer Assistance Program, or CAP, to help low-income rate payers.

Activists held a rally in Market Square Monday afternoon, handing out fliers alerting passers-by to “skyrocketing sewer rates.”

AP Photo/Matt Rourke

For weeks, state lawmakers have been asking for more details about how Gov. Tom Wolf's tax proposals will affect their constituents. They recently got an answer from the state House GOP.

Veterans courts go above normal courts, offering veterans charged with non-violent crimes options for treatment for drugs and alcohol or other issues that could have led them to being charged with a crime. Legislation introduced in Harrisburg would increase the number of veterans treatment courts.

“Right now about 16 counties have those courts, but 50 do not. We would like to require it,” said Sen. Rob Teplitz (D-Dauphin).

Mary Wilson / WITF

A state police uniform and a couple of yard signs are locking state Senate Republicans and the governor’s office in another standoff over the man picked to lead the Pennsylvania State Police.

AP Photo/Matt Rourke

Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. Mike Stack is in Washington, D.C. Friday attending his first meeting as co-chair of the Military Affairs Committee of the National Lieutenant Governor’s Association.

Stack was asked to accept the appointment last month by NLGA chair Nancy Wyman, the lieutenant governor of Connecticut. Not only is this Stack’s first appearance as co-chair, but also his first meeting since being sworn in January.

The city of Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership announced Envision Downtown on Thursday, a public-private partnership that aims to create more “complete streets” downtown. That means a better experience for pedestrians, improved transportation and better use of land.

The state attorney general is asking state lawmakers for a budget boost.

Attorney General Kathleen Kane is asking for $97 million dollars — above and beyond the $95.5 million proposed by Gov. Tom Wolf in his spending plan.

The Senate Appropriations Chairman Pat Browne (R-Lehigh) asked whether he should take it that Kane approves of higher sales and income taxes that figure so prominently in Wolf's budget proposal.

"Are you willing to say you support his revenue package?" said Browne.

Kane didn't bite.

The city of Pittsburgh is looking for interns, and unlike in years past, all prospective interns must apply through the Department of Personnel and Civil Service Commission.

“It was not a centralized process or program at all," said Todd Siegel, director of the city's Department of Personnel and Civil Service Commission. "Each individual department should they have had a need for interns whether they be paid or unpaid went about securing their interns on their own.”

If they were paid, the personnel department was involved to process the paperwork.

The state's acting treasurer says the amount of money slated to pay the interest on borrowing is going up under Gov. Tom Wolf's budget, showing a growing reliance on short-term financing.        

Pennsylvania's cash flow problem has arguably worsened over the past year.

The Wolf administration got the OK to borrow $500 million from the state treasury to pay its bills. The latest round of borrowing builds on a $1.5 billion line of credit established by the Corbett administration last September.           

A former state lawmaker acquitted of charges stemming from the legislative corruption case known as "Bonusgate" is back on the commonwealth’s payroll.

Sean Ramaley was the first person to go to trial after being charged in the legislative graft case pursued by former Gov. Tom Corbett when he was the state’s attorney general. He is now with Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration, as was pointed out during a budget hearing Tuesday.

Liz Reid / 90.5 WESA

Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner on Tuesday announced she has filed legal action against four county authorities that she said are refusing to allow her office to conduct performance audits.

Wagner is seeking to audit the Allegheny County Airport Authority, the Sports and Exhibition Authority of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County (SEA), the Allegheny County Port Authority, and the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority (ALCOSAN).

AP Photo/Matt Rourke

Gov. Tom Wolf wants to cut property taxes and keep them low, but not just by shoveling more state aid toward school districts – his proposal would also attach more strings to their taxing power.

Irina Zhorov / 90.5 WESA

Municipal pension funds in Pennsylvania are underfunded by a combined $7.7 billion, and many local lawmakers are pointing to state-level reforms as the solution. 

The State House of Representatives’ Urban Affairs Committee met with local leadership in Pittsburgh Monday to learn about what exactly municipalities want to see happen in the state Legislature.  

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto compared the municipal pension problem to a sinking boat.

The relatively new product Palcohol, or powdered alcohol, has many concerned with its safety, including a Pennsylvania state senator who is looking to have the intoxicant banned.

Sen. Shirley Kitchen echoes the concerns of many that this product will lead to more problems with teen drinking. They believe the product would be easier to conceal and transport. Also some are concerned drinks could be spiked with the power, making them much stronger than intended.

There are laws in Pennsylvanians making it illegal to discriminate against someone for a wide array of reasons, from sex to ancestry, but the LGBT community remains unprotected.

A senate bill that will be introduced by Sen. Larry Farnese (D-Philadelphia) could change that.

“Right now Pennsylvania is one of few states where discrimination is legal based solely upon who you love, and many of us on both sides of the aisle are ready to put an end to this,” said Farnese.

On Thursday, Attorney General Eric Holder announced that Pittsburgh is one of six cities designated as a pilot site for a national initiative to strengthen and improve the relationship between law enforcement and the community.

It's called the National Initiative for Building Community, and it’s a partnership between the Department of Justice and legal experts from institutions such as the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and Yale Law School.

Flickr user Joseph A

“A child's zip code should never determine her destiny; but today, the community she grows up in impacts her odds of graduating high school, her health outcomes, and her lifetime economic opportunities.”

So reads the U.S. Department of Housing Urban Development’s web page on its Promise Zone program, which aims to counteract the effects of poverty.

AP Photo/Matt Rourke

The state Commonwealth Court must decide whether to consider a lawsuit filed by schools and advocates that attempts to force the state Legislature to boost education funding.

Mary Wilson / WITF

The dispute over Gov. Tom Wolf’s decision to fire the state’s Open Records director is in the hands of a state court.

A Commonwealth Court panel will consider whether Wolf had the power to dismiss Erik Arneson, appointed by former Gov. Tom Corbett.

Wolf’s lawyers say the Open Records director is an at-will employee of the governor’s administration.

But Matt Haverstick, a lawyer for Arneson, says the law creating the office clearly intends to insulate it from the whims of the governor.

David Trawin / flickr

Support for legalizing medical marijuana is growing in Pennsylvania, according to a poll conducted by Robert Morris University.

The survey showed 67.5 percent of Pennsylvanians are in favor of legalizing medical marijuana, up from 56.1 percent in a similar RMU poll last year.

The state's acting treasurer has said the commonwealth spent about $100,000 complying with the federal investigation into former Treasurer Rob McCord.

McCord pleaded guilty last month to two federal charges that he tried to shake down potential donors to give to his gubernatorial campaign or risk losing business or perks with the commonwealth.

"No agency chief counsel wants to spend funds on an investigation," said Christopher Craig, executive deputy state treasurer and chief counsel. "However, these matters have to be and demand to be taken extremely seriously."