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.

Mary Wilson / 90.5 WESA

A bill to legalize medical marijuana in Pennsylvania is getting a second look Wednesday in the state Senate. It’s been about a year since the matter had its first hearing in the Legislature, and since then, it’s gone from a fringe issue to a center-stage policy debate.

Most people have attributed that progress to a group of mothers known as “mama bears,” who want medical marijuana to treat their very ill children.

Among them is Latrisha Bentch.  There was a time when her oldest daughter Anna was not sick but she was still just a little different.

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.

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.

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.

AP Photo/Matt Rourke

Governor Tom Wolf has announced a moratorium on the death penalty, calling the state’s capital sentencing system “riddled with flaws.”

“The only certainty in the current system is that the process will be drawn out, expensive, and painful for all involved,” said Wolf in a written statement released Friday.

The moratorium will remain in effect until Wolf has reviewed the forthcoming report of the Pennsylvania Task Force and Advisory Commission on Capital Punishment.

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.

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.

The governor’s nominees selected to fill two vacancies on the state Supreme Court appear poised for easy approval by the state Senate.

On Wednesday, Gov. Tom Wolf selected Democrat Ken Gormley, dean of Duquesne Law School, and Republican Thomas Kistler, Centre County President Judge.

A proposed constitutional amendment to change the way tax-exempt entities are defined won’t make it onto the spring ballot.

State Sen. John Eichelberger (R-Blair) said lawmakers have run out of time to pass the amendment and send it to a voter referendum.

“I think we’ve already missed that deadline,” said Eichelberger, “so it’ll be in the fall.”

He added that it’s also possible lawmakers will study the matter further, and even revise the proposed amendment, restarting the three-part process of changing the state constitution.

The case over whether Gov. Tom Wolf can remove the head of the Office of Open Records will go before a panel of seven Commonwealth Court judges next month.

Both sides of the dispute struck a deal after a hearing Wednesday. Senate GOP lawyers arguing on behalf of Erik Arneson, the fired Office of Open Records director, said they would withdraw their request that he be immediately restored to the director’s post. In exchange, the Office of Attorney General, arguing for the Wolf administration, said that Arneson could not participate in any Open Records business.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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."

A new report finds Pennsylvania remains on a list of the “Terrible 10” — states with the most regressive tax policies.

The non-partisan Institute for Taxation and Economic Policy finds that the poorest residents pay nearly three times what the wealthy pay in taxes as a share of income. Middle-income earners pay twice as much as the richest residents.

Pennsylvanians can now check out the broad strokes of their school districts’ finances using a state website.

The Department of Education’s PA School Performance site now displays things like school districts’ general fund balances, tuition rates paid to charter schools, and average teacher salaries.

The pieces are starting to fall into place for one of the hottest parts of state government for the incoming administration.

The state House and Senate GOP leaders have named the chairs of their education committees. Lawmakers expect the panels to see a lot of action in the coming legislative session, since Gov.-elect Tom Wolf has underlined education funding as his top priority upon entering office.

In the House, the education chairman is Rep. Stan Saylor (R-York), who said he hopes to work on a new funding formula for schools.

The state's incoming transparency official doubts his appointment will have any effect on pending revisions to the state's Open Records law.

Proposed updates to the seven-year-old law are still being hashed out by lawmakers. The tweaks would expand the law's scope to bring college campus police records into the public eye. Other changes would clarify parts of the law that have led to a deluge of record requests from groups like prison inmates and commercial interests.

Advocates supporting medical marijuana legalization in Pennsylvania ran out of time and political good will last year, but people on both sides of the debate expect the issue to remain hot in 2015.

The health community is divided, with the state nurses' association supporting legalization, but the commonwealth doctors' group urging caution.

Pennsylvania Medical Society (PAMED) legislative counsel Scot Chadwick said, for now, marijuana remains far too mysterious.

The new state Senate leadership isn't looking eager to clamp down on gifts to public officials.

The coolness to such ethics reform comes in spite of recent criminal charges against two lawmakers for allegedly taking cash from an undercover informant.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman said, in this case, he's not sure how far ethical reforms can go to restore public confidence.

Mary Wilson / WITF

Farmhands and dairy princesses watched Thursday as the Pennsylvania Farm Show's traditional centerpiece was unveiled: a massive butter sculpture.

Blinds obscuring the piece rose, revealing a butter boy having his butter cup filled with butter milk as a butter cow looks on.

The half-ton of butter was donated by Land o' Lakes in Carlisle, Cumberland County.

"I wanted to thank the dairy farmers of Pennsylvania because without their butter, we couldn't have done this sculpture," said Jim Victor, who made the piece in just over 10 days with his wife Marie Pelton.

Governor-elect Tom Wolf joked frequently on the campaign trail that he started his career in the Wolf family cabinet-making company in a warehouse, driving a forklift. So maybe he’ll feel at home outside the Capitol complex on inauguration day in less than two weeks.

The Democrat will take his oath of office in a construction zone.

The Capitol complex is in the midst of a years-long project to make roof and lighting replacements, as well as fountain repairs.

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