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.

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.

It was fun while it lasted, but call this rumor bunk: Leaders and aides say the Republican-controlled House and Senate will not try to push bills to Gov. Tom Corbett’s desk before Democratic Gov.-elect Tom Wolf is sworn in.

“If you’re talking about something to get to Governor Corbett’s desk, there’s not even enough days now, at this point, unless we were in this week,” said Republican Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman as he walked to his office following Tuesday’s swearing-in ceremonies.

Pennsylvania’s state lawmakers will make a short visit to Harrisburg for their swearing-in Tuesday.

The House will elect a Speaker, the Senate will elect a President Pro Tem, and both chambers will adopt rules for the coming two-year session.

“This is all pretty much routine – scripted,” said House Chief Clerk Tony Barbush.

Sometimes people go off-book.

AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

The Pennsylvania Farm Show is set to begin the second weekend of January, giving public officials a chance to tout agriculture as the state's leading industry. But the data behind this oft-heard claim is fuzzy.

Agriculture isn't the state's top industry based on any ranking from the Department of Labor & Industry (L&I). The purported ranking is rooted in an assessment of the industry's economic impact: $75 billion, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture.

Pennsylvania’s money problems go beyond its pension debt.

The commonwealth could face a $2 billion spending gap this year, a hole attributed to rising public sector pension costs and an over-reliance on one-time funding sources in the budget. But the state does have a revenue problem – or rather, several problems. Its tax policies aren’t keeping pace with demographic changes and new technologies, leaving the commonwealth with a shrinking tax base.

Would-be reformers are already coming together to try to reform how Pennsylvania's congressional and legislative district boundaries will be drawn seven years from now.

"Believe it or not, for the 2021, we're already starting to get a little bit late," said Barry Kauffman, head of Common Cause Pennsylvania.

New district lines were only recently put into effect for this decade, but it would take so long to reform the process that a bunch of advocacy groups are gearing up now to push for changes.

Whatever he’s doing after moving out of the governor’s residence, Tom Corbett says, he’ll probably be holding a grandson. The governor says he’s looking forward to more family time as he returns to his Pittsburgh-area home – but he’s not closing the door to an encore in public service. 

Lower phone rates for state prison inmates this holiday season are presenting the state Department of Corrections with a classic lesson in economics: what happens when pent-up demand meets low supply.

The agency announced a drop in phone rates right before Thanksgiving. Costs for a 15 minute call (including taxes) went from about six bucks to less than one dollar.

One of state Attorney General Kathleen Kane’s fiercest critics in the state House is renewing his resolution for her impeachment.

“Despite the passage of time and the evolution of this issue, the core concerns regarding her performance in office remain the same,” writes Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R-Butler) in a co-sponsorship memo. “The Attorney General has failed to perform the duties of her office on a number of occasions and she has engaged in misbehavior in office.”

The second proposal for Kane’s impeachment comes in the wake of scathing criticism from within her own party.

A new state report puts to bed the notion that merging all of the school districts in York County would save taxpayers' money.

York County state lawmakers asked the Independent Fiscal Office to consider the issue, frequently cited as a possible solution to climbing property tax rates to support schools.

"Generally, every town hall meeting we had people ask, 'Why not consolidate school districts?'" said Rep. Seth Grove (R-York).

A report by the state’s auditor general finds that some counties are losing hundreds of millions of dollars from organizations defined as charities and are therefore exempt from property taxes.

Governor-elect Tom Wolf is on a statewide tour of sorts, though not exactly spreading a message of cheer as he lays the groundwork for his budget proposal in about three months.

Wolf’s Thursday stop in Kingston, Luzerne County marked the third news conference he’s held this month to talk to reporters about the state’s looming deficit, projected to be about $1.85 billion. Wolf has held similar Q&A sessions in Philadelphia and York.

Gov. Tom Corbett said Wednesday that he's pleased charges have been filed against two additional public officials ensnared by a sting operation that began under his tenure as attorney general.

"It's satisfying to see when there appears to be enough evidence to charge somebody and let a jury make the decision as to whether they're innocent or guilty," said Corbett, speaking on Radio Pennsylvania's Ask the Governor program.

It appears the tensions have subsided, at least for the moment, between the state Department of Education and the commonwealth’s fiscal watchdog.

Auditor General Eugene DePasquale blasted the agency earlier this month for being uncooperative with a performance review.

But he said more recently that the department has begun sending timely responses – beginning with one that was due last Tuesday.

“For the first time in the history of our audit of the Department of Education they met a deadline of supplying information,” said DePasquale.

You can put another thing to the list of reasons drafting the next state budget won't be a cake walk: the commonwealth's labor costs are likely to go up next year.

In recent years, new governors have had to revisit contracts for most of the state's roughly 73,000 employees within their first year in office. The same is true this time.

Most contracts will be up next July, and renegotiation means pay raises and potentially higher costs for employee health care and leave.

The state’s top fiscal watchdog says job-creation programs need more accountability to ensure taxpayers are getting the best bang for their buck.

An audit covering 2007 through 2010, before the Corbett administration was in place, found squishy jobs figures among businesses that received nearly $213 million in grants and loans.

Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said that while nearly 97 percent of promised jobs were delivered by all the state-assisted businesses, the count relies on affidavits from the participating companies, not their actual payroll records.

Governor-elect Tom Wolf plans to publicize some of the private donations that'll cover the costs of his inauguration day and transition team.

On Tuesday, the transition team scheduled two disclosure dates - January 15 and March 30 - when Wolf will share who ponied up to pay for his inauguration day festivities and his transition team's costs.

It's typical for governors to get private sponsors to underwrite inauguration day, but Wolf said he didn't want to burden taxpayers with his transition, either.

If there's anything you need to call your state lawmaker about, try to do it before Thursday.

That's the day marking the start of this year's annual Pennsylvania Society weekend, a four-day-long retreat centered in Manhattan that attracts the commonwealth's political elite.

Reception hosts and the people on their invite lists defend the weekend as a way to see most of the state's movers and shakers in one convenient location.

In a break with recent history, Governor-elect Tom Wolf's transition will be paid for by private donations, not tax dollars.

A spokesman said Wolf will not take the $250,000 estimated by the state budget secretary to cover the costs of setting up offices for the changeover.

Instead, private donations will be accepted and disclosed on the Wolf's transition website by inauguration day, January 20. Late donations will be disclosed 30 days after the fact, said spokesman Jeff Sheridan.

Lottery players have been sitting on the sidelines for games like Mega Millions and Powerball, and state bean-counters can tell.

"We're seeing some weakness in our lottery fund revenues, where sales are not keeping pace to projections," said state Budget Secretary Charles Zogby at his mid-year budget briefing Wednesday. "That's certainly a risk that's out there that we need to be mindful of and potentially plan for."

The announcement came as a bit of a surprise, since lawmakers earlier this year made a technical tweak to maximize game profits.

A mid-year progress report on the state's budget outlook is giving the outgoing Gov. Tom Corbett and incoming Governor-elect Tom Wolf a chance to put each other on notice, becoming the latest chapter in what's becoming a rocky gubernatorial transition.

With his legally mandated mid-year budget report Wednesday, Budget Secretary Charles Zogby confirmed what independent agencies have said for months: Next year's budget situation will be tough, due to rising mandated costs, weak revenues, and the amount of one-time funding sources used to balance this year's spending plan.

State lawmakers are spending the next month getting ready for the new legislative session beginning this month, lining up committee assignments and preparing the proposals they’ll introduce.

A bird’s eye view of the two-year session that just wrapped up in November finds that a total of 369 proposals were enacted.

House lawmakers introduced 3,610 measures (and 1,091 resolutions), and senators introduced 1,981 proposals (and more than 500 resolutions).

A bipartisan duo of state senators is looking to make it a bit more painful for lawmakers to pass a late state budget — by putting top officials’ pay on the line.

Under the measure backed by Sen. Randy Vulakovich (R-Allegheny) and Sen. Rob Teplitz (D-Dauphin), a budget passed after the end of the fiscal year on June 30 would trigger a suspension of pay for state lawmakers, the lieutenant governor, the governor and his cabinet. A similar measure introduced in the latest legislative session suspended pay for only the governor and state lawmakers.

Advocates for assisted suicide are promoting legislation that allows doctors to prescribe life-ending drugs to terminally ill patients who request it.

The national debate was set off earlier this month with the death of 29-year-old Brittany Maynard. She publicized her decision to take drugs to end her life after learning she had terminal brain cancer.