Mary Wilson

Capitol Reporter

Mary Wilson is the state Capitol reporter for Pennsylvania's public
radio stations, including WESA in Pittsburgh, WITF in Harrisburg and WHYY in Philadelphia. Mary came to the post after a year being a catch-all staffer for a Maryland politician.

Before that, she was a part-time show host and cub reporter at WFUV-FMin New York City. She covered the closing of the old Yankee stadium andnarrated the scene of Harlem on the night of the 2008 presidentialelection. Mary graduated from Fordham University in the Bronx withmajors in history and Italian.

Testimony in the second week of a trial of Pennsylvania's voter identification law is digging into the documentation of how the language of the law was finalized.

Two state agencies suggested in 2011 that the voter ID legislation then making its way through the Legislature should make it easier for elderly and disabled voters to cast absentee ballots.

A memo from the Department of Aging and the Department of State points out the change would provide a way for such people to vote even if they had trouble getting photo ID because of illness or limited mobility.

A recent state court ruling is forcing the issue of transparency at one of Pennsylvania's four state-related universities.

Penn State, Pitt, Temple and Lincoln universities are largely exempt from the commonwealth's 5-year-old open records law providing public access to government information. It was for that very reason that the Office of Open Records dismissed an appealed records request filed by Ryan Bagwell.

The first week in the trial of Pennsylvania's voter identification law wrapped up with testimony about the commonwealth's efforts to educate voters about the new requirement.

The $5 million informational campaign, paid for with federal funds, came under scrutiny with the testimony of Diana Mutz, a professor of political communication at the University of Pennsylvania. The campaign deployed ads, direct mail and a website, but Mutz questioned its effectiveness, saying the state refused tried-and-true techniques to test whether the message was getting through.

Brick-and-mortar store owners across Pennsylvania are trying to put pressure on Congress to make online retailers collect state sales tax.

Right now, such vendors don't have to collect sales tax from out-of-state purchases, and many customers are unaware they're required to report the tax on their own.

Pennsylvania-based retailers say it's a loophole that gives online-only vendors an unfair advantage, allowing them to undercut prices at brick-and-mortar stores.

The Pennsylvania Lottery saw record-high sales in the fiscal year ending last month. But the modest growth over the previous year's profits is part of the reason the Corbett administration's interest in privatizing the lottery is as strong as ever.

In past years, lottery revenues have jumped by as much as 10 percent in a year. The fiscal year that just ended saw growth of less than one percent in net revenue. Revenue Secretary Dan Meuser said a contract drafted to lease the lottery's operations to a British firm would yield much greater revenue growth.

The head of the state's open records agency is urging lawmakers to proceed with caution as they propose changes to the measure that created the office.

The 5-year-old Right-to-Know law could be in for some considerable tweaks. An effort is already underway in the Senate to address well-documented problems with the law, which governs public access to government information and records.

Office of Open Records Director Terry Mutchler said she's concerned the approach taken by the House could compromise Pennsylvania's Right-to-Know law in the spirit of improving it.

Gov. Tom Corbett says he's hiring his third chief of staff and his third secretary of legislative affairs in as many years as he struggles to improve his public image and his clout inside the Capitol.

Corbett made the announcement Wednesday.

Veteran Republican lobbyist and political strategist Leslie Gromis Baker will replace Steve Aichele as Corbett's chief of staff. Aichele was Corbett's chief counsel when he took office in January 2011, but became chief of staff last year in a separate shake-up.

The battle over numbers swells anew in the voter ID trial, headed into its third day in Commonwealth Court Wednesday.

Tuesday's testimony began with a statistician's analysis that more than half a million registered voters in Pennsylvania would have no valid ID issued by PennDOT or the Department of State in the upcoming general election.

Lawyers challenging the voter ID law say the governor knew it was trouble.

In the opening argument for the plaintiffs, attorney Michael Rubin, said he'll share a memo sent by state agencies to the Corbett administration warning the law would disenfranchise elderly and disabled eligible voters unless changes were made. The administration did not push lawmakers to make the suggested changes.

The memo, Rubin said, is from November 2011 — several months before the passage of voter ID.

A Republican state lawmaker says the next big focus of one House panel will be how poverty afflicts people across Pennsylvania and what can be done to make the problem better.

Rep. Dave Reed (R-Indiana), who chairs the House Majority Policy Committee, said he hopes his initiative is eye-opening to legislators on both sides of the aisle.

State House lawmakers are coming back to Harrisburg to finish up budget business Monday. A final concurrence vote is expected to approve what's called the fiscal code, a bill full of key fund transfers.

The summer vote was prompted when the Senate took language out of the legislation that suggested the Legislature intended to legalize payday lending.

Such loans are controversial, and Republican Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi said it didn't belong in a budget-related item.

State government reform activists are pointing to their annual update on the costs of Legislature-approved increases to their benefits as an illustration of why pension reform efforts are doomed.

Eric Epstein, founder of the group Rock the Capital, said the late-night pay raise lawmakers approved for themselves in 2005 has inspired the most ire among voters, but it's not the most costly thing lawmakers have done to boost their own benefits in the past 20 years.

Pennsylvania's voter ID law will be back in state court Monday after more than a year of legal limbo. A state judge will decide whether the 2012 law — which hasn't been enforced — violates the state's constitution.

The measure requires voters to show a particular state-issued photo ID before casting ballots. Last week, civil rights advocates like the NAACP's John Jordan railed against the requirement.

"It's a ploy to take votes away from people who deserve them — veterans, seniors, students, people with disabilities, people of color and hard-working folk," Jordan said.

Mary Wilson / 90.5 WESA

Groups opposed to the state's voter ID law are gearing up for Monday's trial of the law in Commonwealth Court.

The full panoply of liberal political interests filled the Capitol rotunda Thursday. Roughly 150 people turned out — union members, environmental advocates and civil rights activists — all to protest Pennsylvania's law requiring people to have certain state-issued IDs to cast ballots.

The NAACP's national president Ben Jealous called Pennsylvania "ground zero for the fight for voting rights in the north."

So-called "canned hunts" of wild hogs aren't coming to an end in Pennsylvania, due to a new state law signed by the governor last month.

You might say state lawmakers came to the rescue of the roughly 20 wild boar hunting preserves in Pennsylvania — they passed a law taking away the state Game Commission's regulatory authority over the animals.

The agency had been trying to establish a statewide prohibition of feral swine, which have been known to rip up wild habitats and farmland and have been difficult to eradicate after they escape fenced-in preserves.

Private schools will be able to compete for state grants to pay for armed security guards in Pennsylvania under a law recently signed by the governor.

Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati introduced the proposal in the wake of the school shootings in Newtown, Conn. His spokesman, Drew Crompton, said the state already gives money to private schools, so allowing them to compete for the grants isn't so far removed from current practice.

Republican state lawmakers are insisting the budget for this year was delivered on time, but a key companion bill called the fiscal code is missing, and no timetable has been set to send it to the governor.

The House has gaveled out for the summer, and a spokesman for the governor said Monday the House hasn't scheduled a day to come back to Harrisburg. For the time being, the earliest session day is September 23.

Mary Wilson / 90.5 WESA

The American Civil Liberties Union is filing a federal lawsuit in Pennsylvania to make the state recognize gay couples.

The suit comes two weeks after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the federal ban on gay marriage but left state prohibitions intact. Lawyers say this is the first federal case since to be filed challenging a state's gay marriage law.

The state could put weight limits on aging bridges across Pennsylvania as early as this fall as a direct result of the failure in Harrisburg to pass a transportation funding plan.

The limit would require certain vehicles to find detours around bridges.

State Senate lawmakers are sending a budget-related bill to the governor’s desk, after a committee went along with a House move to remove Medicaid expansion from the measure.
    
Republicans say adding the Medicaid plan back to the bill would have been wasted effort, since neither the House nor the governor is open to an expansion right now.
    
But Democratic Senator Vincent Hughes of Philadelphia said he’s disappointed, since the earlier Medicaid expansion language passed in the Senate with bipartisan support.  

Pennsylvania's state-related universities have received mostly flat funding from the commonwealth for the second year running. With the struggle for their state aid long settled, some lawmakers are noting a tangential issue has been overshadowed: the level of transparency at the schools.

Mary Wilson / 90.5 WESA

Gov. Tom Corbett has signed an on-time budget, but without any victories on his other top three legislative priorities.

Liquor privatization, transportation funding and pension overhaul will have to wait until the fall for further legislative action.

A transportation funding plan got stuck in the House. A bid to change how alcohol is sold in Pennsylvania stalled in the Senate. Pension overhaul is a plan neither chamber is ready to advance.

An effort to require tattoo artists in Pennsylvania to be licensed serves as an example of the kind of tug of war between those who support government regulations and those who see many of them as a threat to market competition.

Pennsylvania doesn't regulate tattoo parlors — something that Paul Garrison, owner of the Ink Splat tattoo shop in East Stroudsburg used to find quite strange.

After days of negotiations, a plan to expand alcohol sales in Pennsylvania has the preliminary approval of the state Senate.

An amended proposal passed the chamber along party lines in the wee hours Saturday morning, with all 27 Republicans voting in its favor (the Senate voted to override its 11 p.m. curfew to pass the bill).

The proposal must clear another full Senate vote before it goes back to the House.

The fizz hasn’t settled among state Senate Republicans over changes to a plan to expand the sale of beer, wine and liquor in Pennsylvania.

There are rumors — there are even bullet points of what Senate Republicans might change about an alcohol sales overhaul plan. Nothing’s solid.

After days of false starts, a plan to fund Pennsylvania’s roads, bridges and mass transit has cleared a state House committee vote.
    
The roughly $2 billion proposal has received bipartisan support, though many Democrats say they still have concerns it contains too little money for mass transit.
    
Republican Transportation Committee Chairman Dick Hess said he’s open to more changes to the plan when it’s up for a vote before the full House.

State lawmakers are one step closer to wresting control over tax-exempt charity decision from the courts.

The House has passed a constitutional amendment to put the Legislature in charge of deciding whether an organization qualifies as what's called a purely public charity. The distinction excuses title-bearers from paying property taxes.

A recent state court ruling limited lawmakers' power to broaden the definition. House Republicans argued Wednesday the proposed amendment is a simple way to reassert legislative authority.

When it comes to money for fixing roads, bridges and mass transit, state House lawmakers are struggling to even get a plan out of committee.

What's clear is House Republican leaders want a transportation infrastructure funding plan that spends less than the $2.5 billion the Senate proposed. What's not clear is how they'll make the bill palatable to enough Republicans and Democrats to pass the bill out of committee, let alone the full chamber.

State lawmakers and the governor's office don't seem to be in agreement about when they'll break for the summer.

Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati said Tuesday he's not open to the idea of scheduling session days in July.

"We still have before us the ability and, I think, the will to get issues done," Scarnati said. "We will clearly be able to have the budget done and the accompanying bills before June 30."

A plan to expand access to wine, beer, and booze is advancing in the state Senate, though more changes are likely, and Republican support is far from certain.

The Senate's counter-offer to the House's bid to privatize the state's liquor system cleared a key committee by a close vote. Technically, the panel signed off on two bills — identical twin proposals that would allow certain retailers to sell beer, wine and liquor, and allow for the Liquor Control Board to discern when to shut down state stores due to anemic profits.

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