Pennsylvania lawmakers have ended the 2011-12 legislative session and won't return to vote on any bills after the November 6 election. The House and Senate gave approval to several bills but took no final action on many others including charter school reform, funding for special education, and property tax reform.
Senator Wayne Fontana (D-Allegheny) said it was ridiculous that the legislature had to rush to get things done when there are so many days left in the year.
“This is how the majority party wanted to handle it, so we rushed to get some things finished, and some minor things, or some things that we had hoped to get done but others that didn’t get done, so, you know, left some things hanging that we’re going to have to get done next year,” Fontana said.
Legislation not acted upon will have to be reintroduced after the new session starts in January. “We didn’t really deal with transportation issues, we didn’t deal with much when you talk about job creation, which is I think a big deal,” Fontana said. “And so, we left some things I think we should have been talking about-especially the transportation part, we didn’t even get to that part in this session.”
Charter Schools Reform
A measure to rewrite Pennsylvania's charter school law and toughen oversight of the publicly funded, privately run charter schools, passed the Senate this week. However, House Speaker Sam Smith (R-Jefferson) said there wasn't enough time to deal with the complicated bill, and funding was a sticking point.
The bill would subject school officials to tougher ethics rules, limit how much surplus cash the schools could keep and require annual audits and performance standards. Gov. Tom Corbett supports the bill.
Juvenile Life Sentences
One the other hand, a bill that would give Pennsylvania judges options other than life in prison when sentencing juveniles in murder cases is on its way to the governor's desk. The Senate okayed the measure 37-12; the governor's office says he's likely to sign it.
The measure was spurred by the U.S. Supreme Court's decision that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for juveniles constitute cruel and unusual punishment. The bill would create a new set of sentencing options, with penalties that depend on the age of the defendant and whether they're convicted of first- or second-degree murder.
Defendants 14 or younger would serve at least 20 years for second-degree convictions and 25 years for first-degree convictions. Convicted killers, who are 15- to 17-years old, would face at least 25 or 35 years in prison.
Sexting by Minors
Another bill headed to Gov. Corbett is intended to discourage juveniles from "sexting."
The House and Senate voted overwhelmingly to approve legislation that creates criminal penalties for minors who transmit nude or sexually explicit images of themselves or other youths. It would impose a summary offense or a misdemeanor, depending on the facts. The bill would also punish a kid 17 or younger who knowingly posseses or views sexually explicit images of another youth who is 12 or older.
Under the legislation, punishments would be tougher if a juvenile creates a nude image of another minor without consent and distributes it as away to intimidate or harass the victim.
Minors charged under the law could be referred to a diversionary program and potentially have their records expunged.
Illegal Gun Purchases
Legislation designed to ensure that offenders who illegally buy guns for criminals will face at least five years in prison is closer to becoming Pennsylvania law.
The bill passed the state Senate unanimously Wednesday after overwhelmingly being passed by the House last year. Gov. Corbett's office says he's likely to sign it.
Under the bill, an offender who is convicted of multiple "straw purchases" of firearms in one case would be treated as a repeat offender and face a mandatory 5- to 10-year prison sentence. Under current sentencing guidelines, such an offender does not face a minimum prison sentence.
In this election year, the Pennsylvania Senate has met 58 times since January 1. That's down from 74 times in 2011. The House had a similar decrease-- meeting 88 times in 2011 compared to 64 in 2012.
Senator Fontana said he was frustrated with the speed at which things got done, but he wasn’t surprised.
“It’s typical where... you’re trying to get all of these things through and amendments come flying and... you have to try to... analyze the amendments at the last second,” Fontana said. “So a lot of this isn’t done in a process that I think is good for the public.”