Government & Politics

Government & Politics news from 90.5 WESA.

A Pennsylvania state lawmaker made it public that he's gay while at a news conference with other Democrats to urge passage of legislation that adds sexual orientation and gender identity to the state's hate crime law.

Tuesday's announcement by Allegheny County Sen. Jim Ferlo makes him the first sitting Pennsylvania state senator who is openly gay, and the third state lawmaker.

Ferlo isn't running again, and he'll leave the Senate on Nov. 30 after 12 years. Ferlo also notes that he's never denied being gay.

In the state of Pennsylvania, it’s technically legal for employers to refuse pregnant workers accommodations like a place to sit, access to water and more frequent breaks.

State lawmakers in March attempted to change that by introducing a bill to require such accommodations, but that bill has languished in the Senate Labor and Industry committee ever since.

Now, city of Pittsburgh lawmakers are moving to codify such protections for pregnant city workers.

Matt Rourke / The Associated Press

The stakes were high for Republican Gov. Tom Corbett going into his first debate with Tom Wolf, his Democratic challenger.

An averaging of recent polls shows the governor trailing by double digits.

It’s not easy being a city in Pennsylvania.

But Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Wolf said part of the problem is inside our own heads.

“We now think cities are sort of basket cases,” said Wolf on Monday. “They’re not. Cities are the wave of the future. Dense population centers are what people really want ... one of the things that we have to start with is the assumption that cities really have a strong future.”

Liz Reid / 90.5 WESA

“We’ve been through a lot.”

That’s how Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto began Monday’s press conference, where he unveiled his 2015 budget proposal, as well as a five year plan to solve the city’s financial problems.

The theme of the morning was “truth in budgeting,” something Peduto and budget director Sam Ashbaugh said had been missing from previous administrations’ approach to revenue and spending.

Senator Richard Alloway (R) has sponsored a bill in the state legislature that would allow certain counties to increase their hotel taxes. If enacted, Senate Bill 838 would open the door to raising the tax visitors pay for hotel stays from 3 percent to 5 percent in applicable counties. And that’s in addition to the tax the state levies.

 This Week in PA Politics

Government reform advocates have long pushed for tighter ethics laws, and indignation was in abundant supply this year after state lawmakers were dogged by scandals.

But after much talk, the leader of the Senate GOP is pledging to support a full gift prohibition — next year.

The ban, proposed by a couple Senate Republicans, would apply to public officials and public employees across the state.

Permitting School Officials to Carry Concealed Weapons

Sep 19, 2014
Paul Weaver / Flickr

State Senator Don White wants Pennsylvania school districts to be able to permit their staff to carry firearms in school buildings and on the grounds.

Supporters say his proposal would make schools safer but critics are arguing for more police. We talked with Senator White and Shira Goodman, Executive Director of Cease Fire Pennsylvania.

Here is what Essential Pittsburgh listeners on Twitter had to say about Senator White's decision to propose this legislation in response to the stabbings at Franklin Regional High School last spring.

On a recent summer day, Bob Bridges inflated a boat called the shredder, loaded it on a trailer, took it to an inconspicuous pull off, and launched it into the Stonycreek River.

The state’s top fiscal watchdog says an ongoing audit of the state Department of Education will now also look into certain employees, including Ron Tomalis, the former secretary and special advisor to the governor who resigned under a cloud of criticism this past August.

Democratic Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said the in-progress audit will review special advisors, contractors and short-term employees.

“It’s not just about Mr. Tomalis,” DePasquale said. “It’s an issue broadly about are people being hired and they don’t have an actual role to play?”

A bill to eliminate school property tax in Pennsylvania was advanced by the Senate Finance Committee Tuesday on a 6-5 vote.

The “Property Tax Independence Act” would replace property taxes by increasing the state income tax from 3.07 percent to 4.34 percent; sales tax would jump from 6 to 7 percent (8 percent in Allegheny County), together generating an estimated $12 billion for public schools annually.

But, Sharon Ward, director of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, said the numbers don’t add up.

Pittsburgh Views as the Scottish Independence Vote Approaches

Sep 17, 2014
Màrtainn MacDhòmhnaill / Flickr

Tomorrow, Scots will vote on possible independence from England, one of the most important issues facing the Scottish people and their heritage. We talk with Ron Linden, director of the European Studies Center and professor of political science at the University of Pittsburgh, as well as with John Kelman, one of the many natives of Scotland living in the Pittsburgh area, who talks about which way he'd like to see the vote go.

Congressman Keith Rothfus (PA-8) has come out strong against a proposed expansion of the Clean Water Act -- the act which regulates quality standards for all of the surface water in the United States.

Rothfus referred to the proposed CWA expansion as “federal government overreach” and backed up his words by voting in favor of the Regulatory Overreach Protection Act (House Resolution 5078). The resolution is designed to block any attempt to expand the Act’s definition of “waters of the United States.”  

Two weeks into the implementation of Pennsylvania's new law to crack down on human trafficking, supporters took a victory lap in the state Capitol rotunda.

The law clarifies what constitutes labor and sex trafficking, sets harsher penalties, and allows law enforcement to differentiate offenders from victims.

With a judge considering whether to release allegedly inappropriate e-mails circulated by attorney general employees, Gov. Tom Corbett said he's still not positive the e-mails exist as they've been described.

Pennsylvania’s general fund is empty – so it’s borrowing money from itself.

With operating funds at a 10-year low, Gov. Tom Corbett’s administration has asked Treasurer Rob McCord to loan money to the commonwealth’s main bank account.

“The good news is that we have a credit line, the credit line is working, the credit line is allowing people to get paid, schools to get their revenue, etc., and government is functioning, and we have an elegant financial solution and financial instrument,” McCord said.

Flickr user dfirecop

Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner said Tuesday she is concerned that the county does not know how many vehicles it has and how many of those go home with employees each night.

In a letter sent to County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and County Manager William McKain Monday evening, Wagner reiterated a request for complete information about county vehicles and their usage for a pending audit.

The state House may not snuff out a medical marijuana legalization plan, after all.

A top House Republican is supporting an effort to legalize medical cannabis in Pennsylvania, in the first indication that the opposition of the chamber’s majority could thaw.

At a rally on the Capitol steps Monday, Rep. Mike Vereb (R-Montgomery) said his change of heart on the issue came after seeing footage of seizure-stricken children whose severe epilepsy could be treated with cannabis.

For the second year in a row, the state will have to borrow money from its treasury to cover basic operating expenses.

The Corbett administration’s budget office has taken out a line of credit with the state’s Treasury Department, authorizing transfers of as much as $1.5 billion.

Gary Tuma, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Treasury, said the state hasn’t resorted to this kind of maneuver so early in the fiscal year before.

This Week in PA Politics

Kate Lao Shaffner / WPSU

State College's Highlands residents are used to sounds of partying on weekend nights. The neighborhood borders Penn State's University Park campus and downtown.

It's made up of fraternities and apartment buildings, but also single-family homes ranging from grand stone and brick historic mansions to more modest mid-century houses. The residents are quite the mix—college students, retired professors, and young families all call the Highlands home.

But it's not hard to tell who lives where.

Monday marks the end of summer’s legislative recess – but with elections in less than two months, can much be accomplished?

State Representative Dan Frankel (D – Allegheny) is not optimistic, saying he finds it “doubtful” they will be successful with getting any significant bill passed.

“I don’t think you’ll see any legislation that is ‘big idea’ legislation,” he said. “I think you’ll see mostly legislation that is not controversial – I’m hoping most of it won’t be controversial.”

The legislative calendar only shows 12 voting days remaining this session.

Matt Rourke / The Associated Press

A Quinnipiac University poll of likely voters in Pennsylvania finds Gov. Tom Corbett is 24 points behind his Democratic challenger, Tom Wolf.

Fifty-nine percent of respondents said they would vote for the York County businessman, with 35 percent supporting Corbett. The figures include people leaning toward voting for either candidate.

Fifteen percent of respondents said they could change their minds.

A plan to legalize medical marijuana could be taken up by the full state Senate in the four weeks the Legislature is scheduled to be in session this fall.

The measure to create a regulatory framework for growing and prescribing medical cannabis got a key Senate committee vote in June.       

GOP Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi said Wednesday that his caucus will discuss next week whether they can pass the plan.

“It has broad support in the caucus,” Pileggi said. “I haven’t counted heads, and I can’t tell you if it’s 13 or 23.”

Inside the Halls of Government, Gas Industry Makes its Pitch

Sep 11, 2014
Reid R. Frazier / The Allegheny Front

Greg Vitali has been a state representative for more than 20 years. He saw the rise of the natural gas industry in Pennsylvania mainly through the lens of the state Capitol. About five or six years ago, he says, lobbyists for the industry began showing up. And they’ve never left.

“Drillers have this constant presence in Harrisburg  You go to any committee meeting, related to drilling, you see representatives from American Petroleum Institute, you see lobbyists from Range Resources,” Vitali says. “They’re just always here.”

Courtesy Allegheny County Department of Human Services

According to 2010 census data, 7.5 percent of Penn Hills residents live below the federal poverty line. That’s about a third of the rate in Pittsburgh, and a little more than half of the rate in Pennsylvania as a whole.

In McKees Rocks, on the other hand, more than a quarter of residents live below the poverty line.

Based on that data, one might conclude that county services like summer food programs and job training should be concentrated in and around McKees Rocks and not in Penn Hills.

Ryan Loew / 90.5 WESA

Like any new city mayor, Bill Peduto has a whole lot on his plate, and room for creative decisions. This month we talk with him about some of his most recent plans for the city, from selecting a new police chief, to improving pre-k education and developing bike lanes on some of the city bridges.

The state is rolling out its first public-private partnership since a 2012 law allowed such joint efforts for transportation infrastructure and services.

A nearly 20-year-old highway safety truck service now has a private sponsor in State Farm, which is paying 11 percent of the annual $4 million cost for the roving patrols on highways in and around Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, the Lehigh Valley and Harrisburg.

The federally-approved waiver for Medicaid expansion in Pennsylvania is set to begin covering hundreds of thousands of newly eligible Pennsylvanians in January. Depending on who’s governor-elect at that point, there may be some changes.

Democratic nominee Tom Wolf has said he would implement a full Medicaid expansion if elected governor in November.

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