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.

Pennsylvania Chief Justice Ron Castille on Friday will find out more about whether bawdy e-mails traded among current and former state employees went all the way to the state judiciary.

Jim Koval, a spokesman for Castille, said the chief justice will meet with an agent from Democratic Attorney General Kathleen Kane's office. Castille requested more information specific to any "top jurists" who sent or received sexually explicit e-mails in a letter to Kane two weeks ago.

State lawmakers could send to the governor a plan to make doctors test for hepatitis C among patients most likely to have it – baby boomers.
 
The mandatory screening for people born between 1945 and 1965 would address another medical issue contributing to rising health care costs.
 
Hepatitis C causes liver failure if left untreated. Most people don’t know they have it.
 

State House lawmakers plan to hold at least one hearing on medical marijuana, which will likely put off any final votes on legalization until next year.
 
House GOP leaders say a Senate-backed plan to allow certain kinds of medical marijuana in Pennsylvania needs to be more thoroughly vetted before it’s lined up for a vote.
 
“What exactly does it do? Do you guys know what it does?” said House GOP spokesman Steve Miskin, addressing reporters. “Do you know it sets up a whole new bureaucracy and industry?”
 

A comprehensive and rational drug policy in Pennsylvania may be elusive for some time, warns one academic.

State lawmakers have considered a few different remedies to the spiking rates of heroin overdoses in Pennsylvania. In the next few weeks, they'll turn their attention to the abundance of painkillers. If abused, such opioids can turn people on to heroin.

For the past week, Democratic Attorney General Kathleen Kane has released information in a piecemeal fashion about bawdy e-mails exchanged by current and former state employees years ago. Some say the office has done little to quell criticism that the bit-by-bit disclosures show political motive.

Chief Justice Ronald Castille called it a “show and tell” last week — the way the attorney general revealed raunchy images sent or received by eight men who worked under Gov. Tom Corbett when he helmed the AG’s office. All the men named by Kane’s office are Republicans.

Gov. Tom Corbett heads into his second debate with Democratic challenger Tom Wolf with renewed energy, after a strong performance in the candidates’ first debate last week.

But Wednesday morning’s debate will air on radio and TV stations in the Philadelphia area, where most of the state’s Democratic voters reside.

“The geography of this certainly favors Wolf,” said Terry Madonna, director of the Franklin & Marshall College Poll and a political science professor.

It’s not clear how much debates can shake up a statewide gubernatorial election in Pennsylvania.

State lawmakers are working out the details of a plan to overhaul Act 47, shorthand for the much-maligned program that to rehabilitate municipalities with money problems.

Cities lingering in the state program would be given deadlines to exit. The state would expand early intervention efforts for municipalities sailing toward fiscal cliffs. Smaller communities would have new ways to disband if residents agree they’re just not viable.

A bill to legalize medical marijuana has passed the state Senate with overwhelming support and now heads to an uncertain future in the House.

The GOP House majority leader opposes the measure.

But one Republican in House leadership is on the record in favor of medical marijuana. And within the past week, Rep. Mike Vereb (R-Montgomery) has scaled up his ambition for pushing the plan. It used to be a next-year priority. Now, Vereb is trying to send it to the governor within the next month.

Gov. Tom Corbett has signed a long-awaited measure to let Philadelphia levy a tax on $2-per-pack tax on cigarettes to raise money for its schools.

Supporters heralded the bipartisan effort required to pass the tax authorization. The tax, along with a city sales tax increase and borrowing, will help the Philadelphia school district bridge an $81 million deficit.

A proposal to legalize certain kinds of medical marijuana will go to the full Senate for consideration Wednesday.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi said he expects the measure to pass after it received overwhelming and bipartisan approval from the Senate Appropriations Committee Tuesday afternoon.

The panel's lengthy debate revealed concerns that there hasn’t been sufficient medical research on marijuana. But supporters said their sympathies are with parents of children afflicted with seizures who are desperate for a better treatment.

Matt Rourke / The Associated Press

The stakes were high for Republican Gov. Tom Corbett going into his first debate with Tom Wolf, his Democratic challenger.

An averaging of recent polls shows the governor trailing by double digits.

It’s not easy being a city in Pennsylvania.

But Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Wolf said part of the problem is inside our own heads.

“We now think cities are sort of basket cases,” said Wolf on Monday. “They’re not. Cities are the wave of the future. Dense population centers are what people really want ... one of the things that we have to start with is the assumption that cities really have a strong future.”

Government reform advocates have long pushed for tighter ethics laws, and indignation was in abundant supply this year after state lawmakers were dogged by scandals.

But after much talk, the leader of the Senate GOP is pledging to support a full gift prohibition — next year.

The ban, proposed by a couple Senate Republicans, would apply to public officials and public employees across the state.

The state’s top fiscal watchdog says an ongoing audit of the state Department of Education will now also look into certain employees, including Ron Tomalis, the former secretary and special advisor to the governor who resigned under a cloud of criticism this past August.

Democratic Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said the in-progress audit will review special advisors, contractors and short-term employees.

“It’s not just about Mr. Tomalis,” DePasquale said. “It’s an issue broadly about are people being hired and they don’t have an actual role to play?”

Two weeks into the implementation of Pennsylvania's new law to crack down on human trafficking, supporters took a victory lap in the state Capitol rotunda.

The law clarifies what constitutes labor and sex trafficking, sets harsher penalties, and allows law enforcement to differentiate offenders from victims.

With a judge considering whether to release allegedly inappropriate e-mails circulated by attorney general employees, Gov. Tom Corbett said he's still not positive the e-mails exist as they've been described.

The state House may not snuff out a medical marijuana legalization plan, after all.

A top House Republican is supporting an effort to legalize medical cannabis in Pennsylvania, in the first indication that the opposition of the chamber’s majority could thaw.

At a rally on the Capitol steps Monday, Rep. Mike Vereb (R-Montgomery) said his change of heart on the issue came after seeing footage of seizure-stricken children whose severe epilepsy could be treated with cannabis.

For the second year in a row, the state will have to borrow money from its treasury to cover basic operating expenses.

The Corbett administration’s budget office has taken out a line of credit with the state’s Treasury Department, authorizing transfers of as much as $1.5 billion.

Gary Tuma, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Treasury, said the state hasn’t resorted to this kind of maneuver so early in the fiscal year before.

Matt Rourke / The Associated Press

A Quinnipiac University poll of likely voters in Pennsylvania finds Gov. Tom Corbett is 24 points behind his Democratic challenger, Tom Wolf.

Fifty-nine percent of respondents said they would vote for the York County businessman, with 35 percent supporting Corbett. The figures include people leaning toward voting for either candidate.

Fifteen percent of respondents said they could change their minds.

A plan to legalize medical marijuana could be taken up by the full state Senate in the four weeks the Legislature is scheduled to be in session this fall.

The measure to create a regulatory framework for growing and prescribing medical cannabis got a key Senate committee vote in June.       

GOP Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi said Wednesday that his caucus will discuss next week whether they can pass the plan.

“It has broad support in the caucus,” Pileggi said. “I haven’t counted heads, and I can’t tell you if it’s 13 or 23.”

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.

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.

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