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.

The state is rolling out its first public-private partnership since a 2012 law allowed such joint efforts for transportation infrastructure and services.

A nearly 20-year-old highway safety truck service now has a private sponsor in State Farm, which is paying 11 percent of the annual $4 million cost for the roving patrols on highways in and around Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, the Lehigh Valley and Harrisburg.

The federally-approved waiver for Medicaid expansion in Pennsylvania is set to begin covering hundreds of thousands of newly eligible Pennsylvanians in January. Depending on who’s governor-elect at that point, there may be some changes.

Democratic nominee Tom Wolf has said he would implement a full Medicaid expansion if elected governor in November.

Pennsylvania State Police tasked with enforcing the commonwealth's liquor code say a new proposal to make it OK to buy booze across the state border misses the point.

A new state House plan would allow Pennsylvanians to buy alcohol across state lines and bring it back for personal consumption — or to be reimbursed for the now-contraband beverages they buy for friends and family.

Mary Wilson / 90.5 WESA

At a campaign stop in Dauphin County, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Wolf said he’s not concerned about the prospect of working with a Republican-dominated Legislature.

“It’s leadership. It’s bringing people together,” he said. “It’s actually getting up out of your chair, getting out from behind your desk, walking down, bringing people together, giving people a compelling vision about what we need to do to make Pennsylvania better, and working with them to come up with solutions – not just sitting back at your desk.”

The General Assembly's fall session doesn't begin until Sept. 15, but the state's leading advocacy group for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Pennsylvanians is already closing the book on an anti-discrimination measure that picked up unprecedented, bipartisan support.

"At the current moment, with nine days left in the session, I don't hold out a lot of hope that the bill will pass this year," said Ted Martin, head of Equality PA.

It seems that every few months Pennsylvania’s famously underfunded public pension systems receive some new low ranking or grade. The latest reproach takes issue with the way pension payouts are determined – based on age and years worked.

A report by the nonpartisan Urban Institute calls the rules setting state retirement benefits arbitrary. It restricted its analysis to employees hired in 2013 who will receive pension benefits through the State Employee Retirement System, or SERS:

For about a year, state lawmakers have considered how to make it easier to track prescription drug abuse in Pennsylvania. Supporters say a plan to expand a patient database may be close to final passage.

The commonwealth already has a database to track the drugs most prone to abuse. Pending legislation would expand the tool to include prescriptions that treat migraines, seizures, and anxiety, as well as some cough medicines. Once in the database, those prescriptions would be subject to a dragnet by doctors, pharmacists, and (to an as yet unknown degree) law enforcement.

Policy analysts are staying tuned for additional changes to Medicaid benefits for current enrollees in Pennsylvania.

Federal officials set aside Gov. Tom Corbett’s proposal to curb Medicaid benefits when they considered his overall plan to expand health care coverage for the working poor by using private insurance plans. But the changes still under negotiation could limit things like wheelchairs, homecare visits and physical therapy for Medicaid enrollees.

Another Republican, this time a candidate for state Senate, is voicing support for a tax on Marcellus Shale natural gas drillers, largely a pet issue of Democrats.

Tom McGarrigle, running for a Delaware County seat, joins several sitting GOP senators who also support an extraction tax  to raise money for schools, infrastructure or pension obligations.

But it doesn’t mean an extraction tax is imminent.

Slapping natural gas drillers with a new tax is something more frequently proposed by Democrats.

A tragic car accident that claimed the life of a teenage girl in Lancaster County has moved Sen. Lloyd Smucker (R-Lancaster) to call on his colleagues to help toughen up Pennsylvania's laws against drunk driving.

"The consequences for offenders still seem far too slight in contrast to the pain of the families who lose loved ones, or who must deal with those whose lives are forever changed and limited by the kind of serious injuries that have been sustained," Smucker said.

The state owes about $50 billion to its two public pension funds, which pay out retirement benefits to state and public school employees.
               
But the debt would be larger if one little figure were adjusted: the rate of return.

It’s what the pension funds assume they’ll make on investments. The higher it is, the less the commonwealth must pay up front for retirement benefits.

The current rate is seven-and-a-half percent, and some economists say it would be more realistic if it were lowered.

Matt Rourke / The Associated Press

The federal government has approved Gov. Tom Corbett’s alternative to Medicaid expansion, the culmination of a roughly year-long negotiation to use federal money to subsidize private insurance plans for low-income Pennsylvanians.

A report compiled by the state’s largest teachers union is linking education funding cuts to lower student achievement.
 
The Pennsylvania State Education Association says standardized test scores dropped in reading and math for third through sixth graders from the 2010-11 through 2012-13 school years, according to state data.
 
The examined period includes the year before Gov. Tom Corbett took office and the first two years of his term.
 

The Pennsylvania gubernatorial race hasn’t tightened, despite a summer of campaigning and a steady stream of television ads for both candidates.
 
A new Franklin & Marshall College poll shows incumbent Republican Gov. Tom Corbett trailing his Democratic challenger Tom Wolf by 25 points.
 
Forty-nine percent of registered voters surveyed said they’d vote for the York County businessman, with 24 percent favoring Corbett. Responses among likely voters, said Poll Director Terry Madonna, showed no difference. Nor has the needle moved much since F&M’s June poll.

Charter schools in Pennsylvania are defined by their flexibility and freedom from many state regulations.

A new study shows they’re also marked by their lack of diversity.  

Penn State researchers found “de facto patterns of school segregation along racial and ethnic lines” in a study of brick-and-mortar charter schools.

“They’re sorting themselves into homogenous schools,” said Erica Frankenberg, a member of the research team and an assistant professor at Penn State’s College of Education.

The new president of Penn State is staying mum on proposed reforms to the school’s Board of Trustees.

Legislation to whittle down the current board from 30 to 23 voting members cleared a state Senate committee in June, but Eric Barron, named president in February, refused to offer his own opinion of such a move.

It doesn’t look like lame ducks will vote in the state Legislature this year.

Of course, that could change. House leaders say they haven’t discussed whether they would hold votes after the November election. Senate leaders have said they may call a lame-duck session for some kind of emergency.

Traditional public schools and charter schools don't have the same rules when it comes to teacher certifications, but one new proposal would bring the two types of schools a little closer together.

State certification is required for 100 percent of professional staff at traditional public schools in Pennsylvania. Contrast that with charter and cyber charter schools, which are only required to have 75 percent of their teachers state-certified.

Forthcoming legislation from state Rep. Thomas Murt (R-Montgomery) would hike that level to 80 percent.

The head of Pennsylvania's Office of Open Records says state transparency laws are out of step with modern communication technology and are long overdue for an update.

The call to action comes after Gov. Tom Corbett shared his own technique for evading certain record requests from the public.

Corbett recently told reporters that he tries to avoid using e-mail, and deletes his e-mails about once a week. Otherwise, he said, reporters would be able to see e-mails requested under the state's Right-to-Know law.

One state lawmaker is taking Philadelphia’s idea for a cigarette tax and applying it statewide.

Republican Rep. John Lawrence of Chester County is proposing an additional 80-cents-a-pack tax on cigarettes. The revenue would go into a property tax relief program for seniors.

The House and Senate have been at odds over a plan to let Philadelphia levy a $2-a-pack cigarette tax to help fund its schools.

Lawrence said if lawmakers can pass that, they should approve a broader effort to help low-income seniors pay for rising school property taxes.

The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board is not considering boosting its markup on wine and spirits, an assurance from the board’s chairman which comes after a leaked memo suggested the 30 percent markup get its first increase in roughly 20 years.

The memo shared with The Associated Press was penned by the LCB’s financial department and suggests a 5 percent increase to the agency’s 30 percent markup on wine and liquor.

An education adviser to the governor is stepping down from his post, weeks after a newspaper report found little evidence he was working.

Ron Tomalis’ resignation letter includes a list of his accomplishments as a special adviser on higher education. Those accomplishments were called into question by a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette report last month that found little in schedule documents, phone logs or interviews to suggest Tomalis had been doing much in his job paying nearly $140,000 a year.

Despite years of criticism of the state’s asset forfeiture laws, Pennsylvania lawmakers approved a new human trafficking law that expands law enforcement’s ability to seize assets of the accused, without any statutory oversight of where seized property and proceeds end up.

State lawmakers have given themselves another year to address what counties are calling a funding crisis for the commonwealth’s 911 call centers.

A key revenue source for the county-managed centers was set to expire in June, but lawmakers extended its life by one year. That gives the Legislature until next July to consider more comprehensive changes to the emergency service system.

Not everyone thinks schools in Pennsylvania are hurting for money.

For years, Republican lawmakers and officials have insisted that school districts have more money than they're letting on — in the form of rainy day funds. According to the state Department of Education, school districts reported having $4.27 billion leftover in their fund balances as of the 2012-13 fiscal year.

A natural gas extraction tax in Pennsylvania has been regarded at times as a silver bullet, and lawmakers have proposed shooting it every which way to solve financial woes. Perhaps it was only a matter of time before someone suggested aiming it at the state's pension problems.

New technologies that could aid or impede hunting are giving state policymakers reason to revisit the Pennsylvania's game laws.

Measures before the state House and Senate aim to allow things like electronic calls to attract deer, or ban the use of drones by hunters and people suspicious of hunters.

For decades, Pennsylvania hunters — and their regulators — have debated the fine line that separates acceptable hunting aids and being fair to animals being pursued.

Gov. Tom Corbett on Wednesday asked state lawmakers to end their vacation early to address legislation concerning a Philadelphia schools funding gap that threatens to delay the school year in the state's largest school district.

"I'm calling for the Legislature though to come to Harrisburg before school starts," Corbett said at a news conference with Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite at his side. "And I expect them to address this issue as their first and number one order of business."

Gov. Tom Corbett is entering the fourth week of a town-hopping expedition discussing his plan to overhaul the state’s public pensions.

At a July visit to a coffee shop near Hershey Park in Dauphin County, Corbett repeated his refrain that the state’s pension debacle is a bipartisan issue.

“I do not view this as a Republican-Democrat issue,” he said. “Taxpayers, homeowners, property-owners — we don’t look at the R and the D.”

But the events on the governor’s barnstorming route haven’t been bipartisan.

Education funding cuts are front and center once again in a tiff between Pennsylvania’s candidates for governor.

A recent television attack ad highlights the issue, which has dogged Republican incumbent Gov. Tom Corbett in the polls for years.

In the spot, a narrator says Corbett “cut nearly a billion dollars from education, forcing schools districts to fire 20,000 teachers and staff.”

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