Government & Politics

Government & Politics news from 90.5 WESA.

Flickr user Ronald Woan

State Sen. Randy Vulakovich (R-Allegheny) said when he was a kid, people often warned him not to get to close to Pittsburgh’s three rivers. But the polluted industrial riverfronts of generations past have slowly been replaced by family-friendly recreational opportunities and big-ticket development projects such as PNC Park and South Side Works.

The state’s major doctors lobby is already gearing up to oppose plans to reduce or eliminate property taxes.

Plans to curb or kill the property taxes levied by school districts didn’t get very far last legislative session. Lawmakers are in the process of reintroducing those proposals.

But the Pennsylvania Medical Society said both proposals would stick medical doctors and their patients with a higher bill.

State Treasurer Rob McCord will plead guilty to federal charges he tried to compel two potential donors to give to his campaign or risk any business they had with the commonwealth, he said Friday.  

In a video statement distributed by his lawyer, McCord says his resignation planned for mid-February will now be effective immediately.

US Sen. Bob Casey (PA-D) will introduce this week an anti-bullying bill aimed specifically at schools.

The Safe Schools Improvement Act would require school districts to develop and implement locally-driven anti-bullying policies to protect children. It would also require states to report data on bullying and harassment to the US Department of Education.

Allegheny County has launched an online information portal that will put in one place information from various departments.

“You can go into the Health Department, look at their air quality index, you can look at the courts as far as their records, of course we have the property assessment records, there’s treasury data,” said William McKain, Allegheny County manager.

Such portals have been used in other cities, according to McKain.

On Thursday, City of Pittsburgh Controller Michael Lamb’s office released an audit of Schenley Park Skating Rink. The audit found poor cash management procedures and not enough internal controls – a problem Lamb said is pervasive across city owned facilities.

“We could pretty much do this audit in just about anywhere across the city where we are taking money across the counter,” said Lamb.

Is Medical Marijuana Coming to PA?

Jan 29, 2015
Dank Depot / Flickr

Efforts to pass a medical marijuana bill in Pennsylvania have received a boost with the election of a new governor.

But how can marijuana advocates sway skeptical House members who sat on the legislation last year?

Patrick Nightingale of the Pittsburgh office of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws talks about his work as part of a years-long public education program on marijuana decriminalization.

Following last year’s passage of a bill allowing licensed volunteer fire companies and social organizations to sponsor small betting pools, one state lawmaker spoke on the Senate Floor this week and said groups are still being punished for that with Superbowl or March Madness pools.

Senate leaders have postponed a vote on a proposed amendment to the state constitution, after calls for a hearing on the matter.   

The proposed amendment would restore the Legislature’s power to define non-profits known as purely public charities, which don’t have to pay local taxes. Right now, a court ruling establishes rules for the tax-exempt entities.

The amendment was poised for swift passage, but senators like Democratic Minority Leader Jay Costa voiced concern that it had never received a hearing in their chamber.

City Councilman Daniel Lavelle has spearheaded efforts to include affordable housing in the redevelopment plan for the lower Hill District, and is now broadening his focus to the city as a whole.

Lavelle has introduced a bill that would create an affordable housing task force, responsible not only for finding ways to preserve and improve existing units, but also to create new ones.

After much discussion, the bill received preliminary approval in City Council on Wednesday.

Flickr user Joseph Novak

Redevelopment of Pittsburgh’s lower Hill District is one step closer to becoming a reality, with City Council on Wednesday giving preliminary approval to a bill designating the area as a Specially Planned District or SPD.

“It took a while to get here … and now we’ve got to actually begin building,” said Councilman Daniel Lavelle, who represents the Hill District.

Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner Wednesday threatened to take four county agencies to court for refusing to comply with her requests and delaying audits launched by her office.

Wagner wants to examine the contracting processes used by the Allegheny County Airport Authority, Port Authority of Allegheny County and the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority (Alcosan), as well as the distribution of free tickets by the Pittsburgh-Allegheny County Sports and Exhibition Authority (SEA).

The squabble between state Senate Republicans and Governor Tom Wolf is ramping up. A Senate committee on Tuesday brushed aside Wolf’s recall of 28 nominations made by his predecessor.

Instead, the panel approved 13 of the 28 nominations made by former Governor Corbett in the twilight of his term, queuing up the names for a confirmation vote in the full Senate.

Senate GOP spokeswoman Jennifer Kocher said the same committee would eventually take up the remaining 15 Corbett nominations.

Governor Tom Wolf is pledging his support for medical marijuana, renewing a promise he made during his campaign.

Advocates for medical cannabis were invited up to the governor’s office Tuesday following a press conference on the reintroduction of a bill to let doctors prescribe such treatment in Pennsylvania.

“I didn’t mean to interrupt,” said Wolf as he entered the room, midway through lawmakers’ remarks to reporters. Parents lined up to take Wolf’s hand and tell him of the benefit medical marijuana would bring to their children. Wolf said he needed no convincing.

One of the challenges many veterans face when they re-integrate into civilian life is finding a job. Though many veterans operate heavy machinery, drive specialty vehicles or perform other specialized duties, additional training and testing is required before they can get a job outside the military. A bill introduced in the state House would change that.

Talk of liquor privatization all but disappeared from the legislative scene a year and a half ago, but the issue is back as state lawmakers discuss top priorities for the new session.

A plan to expand alcohol sales and phase out state wine & spirits stores passed the House nearly two years ago, only to die unceremoniously in the Senate a few months later. But the coming months hold promise for the proposal’s supporters, who say it should be part of any big policy compromise with the Senate and Governor Tom Wolf’s administration.

Since he launched his mayoral campaign in 2013, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto has been promising residents a more efficient and cost-effective style of governance.

The Allegheny County Controller is hoping a little preventative legislative action could stave off a scandal like the one involving lewd emails sent among members of the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office and at least one State Supreme Court Justice. 

The measure being promoted by Controller Chelsa Wagner would create a zero-tolerance policy for any “misuse” of the county email system.

“When you look at the scandals that have really rocked Pennsylvania … I think there is a clear need,” Wagner said.

The race for the three open seats on the seven-member Pennsylvania Supreme Court is expected to be intense this year, and there is no doubt it is starting earlier than normal.

All six Democratic Supreme Court candidates will be in Pittsburgh at 2 p.m. Sunday for a forum at Chatham University. In total there are 18 announced candidates.

But little is known and will be known about them. 

Allegheny County Controller Chelsa Wagner is threatening to withhold nearly $682,000 from VisitPittsburgh until the nonprofit tourism promotion agency explains why it allocated public funds to Mayor Peduto’s “Undercover Boss” appearance last month.

As part of the CBS reality show, Peduto promised $155,000 to four city employees for college tuition, mortgage payments and startup costs for a new church. Peduto said no public funds would be used, but according to Wagner, VisitPittsburgh was asked to contribute $25,000 toward the gifts.

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf said Thursday he would void 28 last-minute nominations made by his Republican predecessor, Gov. Tom Corbett, as well as the "midnight appointment" of Erik Arneson as director of the state's Office of Open Records.

Arneson, a former top aide in the state Senate GOP, was selected to run the OOR less than two weeks before Wolf's inauguration.

Wolf criticized the appointment at the time.

A grand jury report made available by a special prosecutor looking into allegations that state Attorney General Kathleen Kane leaked information from a separate grand jury has called for a narrowing of the state law protecting reporters.

Pennsylvania’s so-called Shield Law exempts reporters from having to disclose confidential sources, even in the course of a governmental investigation.

Melissa Melewsky, counsel for the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association, says she’s never heard of a past effort to scale back the statute.

Before he took the oath of office, Gov. Tom Wolf said that as governor he would push for legislation that would implement paid sick leave for employees of businesses with 50 of more employees. That has some business groups in the state concerned.

“We’ve gone through this issue before,” said Gene Barr, president of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry. “The problem isn’t in having people get sick time, it’s in government mandating or dictating exactly what that structure needs to look like.”

AP Photo/Matt Rourke

Court documents released Wednesday show a grand jury has concluded there are reasonable grounds to charge the state's top prosecutor with perjury, false swearing, official oppression and obstruction after an investigation into leaks of secret investigative materials.

The records made public by the state Supreme Court say the grand jury's Dec. 18 presentment regarding Democratic Attorney General Kathleen Kane has been sent by the supervising judge to the district attorney in Montgomery County to decide whether to file charges.

What’s the Right Rhetoric for the State of the Union?

Jan 20, 2015
Blatant World / Flickr

Tonight at 9 p.m., President Barack Obama will deliver the State of the Union address to Congress, the Senate and the rest of the country. But his office has already put forth many plans for the year.

Before the president gives his address, we'll get some perspective on what he'll propose, from University of Pittsburgh presidential rhetoric and political communication professor Jerry Shuster.

AP Photo/Matt Rourke

Gov. Tom Wolf has taken his oath of office, using his inauguration address to call for a statewide transformation.

“As you know, I laid out a plan during the campaign to give Pennsylvania a fresh start, and we will debate those ideas, I know, in the days and months and years to come,” said Wolf, turning to his left, where Republican House and Senate leaders chuckled.

When Pennsylvania’s junior senator sits at his desk for the State of the Union Address tonight, he will have a specific list of items he would like President Obama to address.

The second-term senator would like to see the president focus on the economy and national security, not broadband speeds and net neutrality as he has already previewed in stops around the country this month.

“The fact is, the average working family in Pennsylvania is not getting ahead,” he said. “That’s the reality. We need a stronger economy and we change that reality.”

The Pennsylvania General Assembly will go back into session Jan. 20 with new leadership at the helm. But much of the committee leadership is from outside of the Pittsburgh area. Of the 23 House committees, only two Republicans from the southwestern corner of the state are committee chairs.

“Committee chairs are very important positions,” said House Speaker Mike Turzai (R-Allegheny). “It is driven by seniority. The chairs in both parties are the most senior folks.”

Gov.-elect Tom Wolf’s transition team says Pennsylvania is in the throes of an all-out budget crisis.

Pennsylvania is facing a $2.3 billion shortfall for the fiscal year beginning in July, according to a report by the governor-elect’s transition team.

The projected shortfall is even bigger than they expected — big enough to sink existing state programs, not to mention all of the additional spending Wolf proposed during his campaign.

Gov.-elect Tom Wolf says his transition team's examination of the state's fiscal situation didn't turn up any surprises, merely confirming the presence of a roughly $2 billion deficit for the fiscal year beginning in July.

Key findings from the group's report are expected to be released Friday.

"We have a mess. I knew that going in," Wolf told reporters Thursday before heading into a tour of the Pennsylvania Farm Show. "The mess is as big as I feared it was, so I have a lot of work to do — we all do."

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