Government & Politics

Government & Politics news from 90.5 WESA.

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.

The Not So "Silent Cal," Discovering the Real Calvin Coolidge

Feb 16, 2015
Cliff / Flickr

What can you say about a man known for saying very little?

Our guest, New York Times bestselling author and journalist Amity Shlaes has quite a bit to say. She joins us for a look at the nation’s 30th president, Calvin Coolidge.

Shlaes argues that “Silent Cal” had more of a legacy than being a man of little words.

“People think that because Coolidge said little ---"Silent Cal"--- that he was worth little. And we at The Coolidge Foundation (and I do my research) have discovered that Coolidge is a wonderful president, a model for modern American.”

Shlaes goes on to comment on the idea that Calvin Coolidge was a “quaint” president.

“This way of making him quaint, depicting him as a throwback, something out of a Victorian story... is a way of reducing him. He played to type for fun in the media (he’s not unsophisticated and he was a type: a New Englander). [But] He also was extremely sophisticated in the way he operated to achieve his end, which was to reduce government and honor the office of the presidency.”

At least 19 state senators are supporting a proposal to tighten the strings of the Legislature's money purse. The plan would make lawmakers submit itemized receipts before being reimbursed for work-related expenses.

New Bill Would End Child Custody Rights for Rapists

Feb 16, 2015

“It’s an unbelievable thing,” said Kristen Houser, spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape, referencing current PA laws that allow a convicted rapist to maintain parental rights over a child conceived through rape.

State Senator Randy Vulakovich (R-Allegheny) and Representative Joe Hackett (R-Delaware) are introducing the Rape Survivor Child Custody and Support Act in the Senate and House, respectively. Under this legislation, courts can terminate the parental rights of a convicted rapist while maintaining the rapist’s obligation to pay child support.

Following a report last week that affordable housing is getting harder to come by for low and very-low income families, a bill being introduced in Harrisburg would expand a program that improves rental housing in communities.

The Pennsylvania Housing Trust Fund was established in 2010 and first funded in 2012 with Marcellus Shale impact fees. It’s only available in Marcellus areas, but the expansion bill would extend the program statewide, without raising taxes or fees.

The Code for America fellowship program has officially started in Pittsburgh. Fellows will look at city procurement, the process by which government buys everything, from pencils to bridges. They’ll look at how the government organizes public bids and requests for proposals.

“What it means for Pittsburgh is an ability to put us ahead of other cities around the world when it comes to the way that we spend taxpayer dollars,” said Mayor Bill Peduto.

The country’s second-largest insurer says customers whose information may have been compromised in a recent massive data breach will be offered credit monitoring and other services beginning this Friday.

Anthem says it plans to send individual letters “in the coming weeks” to customers whose information may have been accessed in a cybersecurity attack discovered late last month.

The Pennsylvania Senate Judiciary Committee held a public hearing in Pittsburgh Wednesday, where city and county officials called for amendments to state laws that limit the use of body-worn cameras by police officers.

According to Cole McDonough, chief of the Mt. Lebanon Police Dept., the state Wiretap Act requires officers to turn-off or remove their body cameras before entering a private residence without a warrant. McDonough said this creates safety and liability issues.

Flickr user ereyesleblanc

Rumors that the Beechview and Bloomfield farmers markets might be on the chopping block spurred a spirited discussion about food equity and market management in Pittsburgh City Council Wednesday morning.

Mayor Peduto Talks Community Policing, Snow Removal and More

Feb 11, 2015
Andrew Bardwell / Flickr

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto makes his monthly appearance on the program. We discuss the new 'Safer Together' initiative that the mayor hopes will increase public safety and improve community-police relations, raising the minimum wage and ways to make downtown more livable.

Irina Zhorov / 90.5 WESA

When Ian McMeans became Homestead’s borough manager three years ago the borough had only one email address and the secretary printed the messages and hand delivered them to everyone. “That stopped very shortly thereafter,” said McMeans. Then McMeans built a website. But progress has been slow. The borough is still entirely paper-run. 

A slightly higher age limit for Pennsylvania judges is two steps away from becoming a reality. The state House has passed a proposed constitutional amendment to bump the mandatory retirement age from 70 to 75 years.

“For a judge, the older you are, the more experience you have – life experience, courtroom experience, case law experience – the more experience you have, the better you’re going to be as a judge,” said sponsoring Rep. Kate Harper (R-Montgomery).

State House and Senate supporters of a bill aiming to curb drunk driving in Pennsylvania say they’re hoping this is the year the measure goes all the way to the governor’s desk.

“There’s an old saying, the third time’s the charm,” said Sen. John Rafferty (R-Montgomery), sponsor of a bill to let some first-time impaired-driving offenders keep their licenses as long as their cars are equipped with an ignition interlock. The restriction requires drivers to pass a Breathalyzer-type test before starting their vehicles.

Governor Wolf Begins Dismantling Corbett’s Healthy PA Program

Feb 10, 2015
Governor Tom Wolf / Flickr

When Tom Wolf was campaigning for Governor, he said he would do away with then-Governor Tom Corbett's Healthy PA plan, and replace it with a full Medicaid expansion supported by the Affordable Care Act.

This week Gov. Wolf officially announced plans to transition from Healthy PA to the Medicaid expansion. We'll talk about the implications of this change with Antoinette Kraus, Director of PA Health Access Network.

Kraus says that her organization is relieved to see that Healthy PA will be phased out and the Medicaid expansion will be implemented. The PA Health Access Network has worked to enroll hundreds of Pennsylvanians in Healthy PA, but she says that the program has been complicated and bureaucratic, with substantial limits on accessing care and benefits.

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