Government & Politics

Government & Politics news from 90.5 WESA.

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."

Mary Wilson / WITF

Attorney General Kathleen Kane was all about the budget when she arrived in front of the state House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday, and lawmakers fired no questions her way about legal "bumps in the road" involving her office over the past year.

Pennsylvania Sen. David Argall (R-Schuykill-Berks) recently introduced a bill which would limit insurers to a year to challenge a bill to a provider.

The legislation would require insurance carriers to review treatment plans, claim forms and bills within a year. It would also require a written statement from the insurer explaining the basis for any retroactive denial so the physician understands what the denial is.

According to the Pennsylvania Medical Society, inefficient claim processing and payment can take up 10-14 percent of work time for a physician.

Tax Exemption Payback Could Stabilize PA Communities, Some Lawmakers Say

Mar 10, 2015
Lindsay Lazarski / WHYY

State Rep. Rob Freeman, D-Easton, wants to use liquor tax proceeds to make up for local government revenue lost to property tax exemption.

Freeman first pitched this to an enthusiastic House Local Government Committee in 2007, but the recession hit before it got any traction.

Matt Rourke / Associated Press

The state budget discussions are a week old, and lawmakers are mired in dueling numbers.

Governor Tom Wolf's administration has referred to a $2.3 billion budget deficit, but the state Independent Fiscal Office estimates the deficit to be a bit south of that figure.

"We would revise it down to something closer to $1.5 or $1.6" billion, said IFO Director Matthew Knittel, during his testimony before the House Appropriations Committee. Knittel said his agency's estimate accounts for lapses -- budget funds that were never spent.

Mark Nootbaar / 90.5 WESA

Two bills are sitting in the Senate Committee on State Government aimed at strengthening Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law.

Legislation introduced by Sen. John Blake (D-Lackawanna) would bring more transparency to state-related universities, while Sen. Dominic Pileggi’s (R-Delaware) bill would establish a fee structure for commercial requests and update definitions within the law.

Joseph / Flickr

The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board has clarified a container requirement rule – clearing the way for beer distributors to sell 12 packs.

This came after several requests for clarification by a beer distributor and brewery which asked if, under current PLCB regulations, they could “prepare a single large container of malt or brewed beverages consisting of twelve smaller containers, each holding approximately 12 ounces, designed to be sold as a single unit.”

Mary Wilson / 90.5 WESA

The tax shifts and additional spending proposed in Governor Tom Wolf's first budget are enough to keep state lawmakers arguing for weeks.

But, just days after the unveiling of his proposal, they can't even agree on how much the budget spends.

Wolf calls it a $29.9 billion budget.

But Republicans, including Senate Appropriations Chairman Pat Browne of Lehigh County, say it's more like a $33.7 billion plan, once you account for the billions being put into special funds to pay for pension costs and proposed property tax relief.

(Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY)

 

Cities are working hard to plow snowy streets. Sidewalks are an additional challenge. Property owners are generally responsible for clearing walkways and some cities issue fines for uncleared sidewalks.

But Reading has stopped fining residents for not shoveling snow from their sidewalks. Why? Because Reading Public Works crews haven’t been able to clear the mess from the 100 city-owned properties, either.

As a legal challenge to Governor Tom Wolf’s moratorium on the death penalty advances, state lawmakers are planning their own review of the capital sentencing system.

The state Supreme Court has agreed to hear arguments over whether the governor can issue reprieves in each death penalty case, effectively imposing a moratorium on state executions.

Wolf cited concerns over the costs and flaws of the capital sentencing system.

Matt Rourke / Associated Press

Former U.S. Representative Joe Sestak began a 422-mile walk across Pennsylvania Wednesday to kick off his campaign to capture the U.S. Senate seat occupied by Republican Pat Toomey.

Sestak announced his candidacy for the 2016 election outside Philadelphia's Independence Hall. He called for more government accountability and decried the "trust deficit" between politicians and the people who elect them.

"I want to earn, starting today, step by step, walking in the shoes of we Pennsylvanians, the trust of our people," Sestak said. "So join me. Walk with me."

Essential Pittsburgh: What's Next for Net Neutrality?

Mar 4, 2015
Gflores / wikipedia

The notion of regulating the Internet using public utility laws has been under consideration for the past year. Now that net neutrality rules have been adopted by U.S. regulators, how will this long-running battle play out in Congress and the courts? As a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and the Communications and Technology Subcommittee, U.S. Representative Mike Doyle (D-PA-14) explains how the proposed rules might benefit citizens and the Internet at large. 

Also today, Governor Wolf's budget proposal, and a delegation from PA travels to D.C. to convince senators and congressmen to renew the Export-Import Bank charter.

“It’s really not intented to protect the Googles and the Facebooks of the world. It’s really intended to protect the next big thing.” - Representative Doyle


Wolf Seeks Billions in Higher Taxes for Schools, Tax Revamp

Mar 3, 2015
Matt Rourke / Associated Press

In an ambitious first budget plan, Gov. Tom Wolf on Tuesday proposed more than $4 billion in higher taxes on income, sales and natural gas drilling to support new spending on schools and to cut property taxes as part of an effort to overhaul the way public education is funded.

Wolf, a Democrat, is also asking the Republican-controlled Legislature to cut corporate taxes by hundreds of millions of dollars, borrow more than $4 billion to refinance pension debt and inject new money into business loans, clean energy subsidies and water and sewer system projects.

AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File

Today 90.5 WESA presented live coverage of Governor Wolf's budget address to the Pennsylvania Legislature in Harrisburg from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Representative Dave Reed's office

Governor Tom Wolf is set to give his budget address to the General Assembly  Tuesday morning, and lawmakers are expecting proposals for significant tax changes, in addition to the plans already shared by the governor.

Wolf has said he’ll seek a five percent tax on natural gas drillers and rework the state’s corporate tax infrastructure.

http://www.senatorschwank.com/

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.

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