Pennsylvania Legislature

Government reform activists say they haven’t forgotten state lawmakers’ pledges to address the blind spots in Pennsylvania law on accepting gifts.

On Tuesday in a relatively deserted state Capitol, Harrisburg’s most avid gadflies renewed their push to ban public officials from accepting any gifts.

“This has to be statutory. It has to be legislation. It has to impact all three branches,” said Eric Epstein, of Rock the Capital.

Proposals to block minors from using tanning beds in Pennsylvania has been kicked around the Capitol for at least three years.

The key to final passage? Don’t mess with prom.

The state Legislature has passed a measure to ban anyone 16 years old and younger from tanning salons. 17-year-olds would be good to go with a parent’s permission.

Sponsoring Rep. Frank Farry (R-Bucks) calls it the “prom carve-out,” and he said it was necessary to get political support for the bill.

A decades-long debate over enforcing local speed limits is about to resurface. Pennsylvania mayors and local police chiefs have banded together to form the “Radar Coalition.”

Members united over their shared covetous feelings toward the radar guns used by state police to identify vehicles going over the speed limit. State law bans local police from using the same tool.

Jim Nowalk, mayor of Whitehall in Allegheny County, said his police officers tell him enforcing speeding laws on hills and curved roads is too difficult without radar.

A Philadelphia  state senator is proposing laws so people don’t get “slapped” with unfair legal fees while utilizing their Freedom of Speech.

Senator Larry Farnese (D-Philadelphia) proposed legislation to combat what he calls "frivolous" litigation known as  Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP).

According to Cornell University Law School, SLAPPs are lawsuits often filed by corporations against an activist or group of activists that disagree with the corporation’s actions.

State Senate supporters of a plan to replace school property taxes with higher personal income and sales levies are shopping their proposal around to colleagues.

It’s hard to tell for sure if popular support for property tax elimination has grown, but rallies and hearings on the issue tend to be packed with people who say their property taxes are so high they’re in danger of losing their homes.

A Senate Finance Committee hearing on the issue Wednesday was no exception. But even co-sponsors of the “tax shift” plan under consideration now would create new winners and losers.

Talk of low state revenues is prompting Republicans in the General Assembly to suggest new taxes could be under consideration, including the the ever-polarizing severance tax on natural gas drillers. But there are no clear indicators an extraction tax could pass anytime soon.

The state Senate’s most junior member is getting down to his first official matter of business: redecorating.

Portraits of past House and Senate leaders hang in the hallways just off the Capitol Rotunda. Three are of former lawmakers sentenced for corruption charges in 2012.

“I think it’s wrong,” said Sen. Scott Wagner (R-York), just three weeks into his term. “What message does that send – that we’re OK with corruption?”

The state Senate will vote on a proposal to restrict cash gifts to public officials, a measure that aims to change state law, not just the rules that govern the Senate or the House.

Proposals to change how suspected child abuse must be reported in Pennsylvania are nearing the finish line after stalling for several months.

Two measures are awaiting final votes in the House and Senate to clarify who must report child abuse and how they should do it. But a plan that originated in the state Senate would now exclude lawyers from the list of people who will be mandated reporters, after House lawmakers voiced concerns about breaching attorney-client privilege: should lawyers be mandated reporters if filing a complaint could violate the trust of their client?

That sound you hear is the stampede of lawmakers rushing to propose a ban on cash gifts. The calls for reform are following revelations that four Philadelphia House Democrats accepted money from an undercover lobbyist working with state prosecutors in a quashed sting.

Pennsylvania’s ethics act is one of the weakest in the country, letting public officials accept gifts as long as they report those valued at $250 or more. The reporting trigger is $650 dollars if the gift is transportation, lodging, or hospitality.

Pennsylvania lawmakers are trying to decide if the states youth should have only limited access to tanning beds. Legislation that would regulate access to tanning salons for those under 18 is currently under consideration by the Senate. Pennsylvania would join 36 other states that have already imposed similar restrictions.

A non-partisan government reform group says investigations into a sting operation dropped by the attorney general’s office shouldn’t stop with the state House Ethics Committee.

Leaders from both parties in the House have assured the chamber’s Ethics panel it would be given the budget to do an investigation of members implicated in a sting that gave $20,000 to eight people. Attorney General Kathleen Kane says she dropped the case because it couldn’t be successfully prosecuted, despite recordings of public officials accepting money or gifts.

A state senator is calling on the commonwealth to make campaign finance reports more readily available to the public, but some say what’s needed isn’t new software, but new law.

Pennsylvanians shouldn’t have to wait days or weeks to see online who’s donating to a political candidate, or how much a candidate is spending, said Sen. Jake Corman (R-Centre) Wednesday. At a hearing with the Pennsylvania Department of State, he used the example of making a deposit in a bank.

The state House and Senate may be headed for a standoff over an effort to crack down on prescription drug abuse.

A Senate committee approved a measure Wednesday for an expanded state database to track prescription drugs that would also give law enforcement greater access to the information. The amended measure would not require law enforcement to have a search warrant before accessing the system – something the House voted for last fall.

A rural community college based in western Pennsylvania is one step closer to becoming a reality. The proposal to start setting up a 15th community college passed with just four votes cast against it in the state Senate Wednesday.

The bill, proposed by Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati (R-Jefferson), aims to provide educational and job-training opportunities in a region that has been historically underserved, according to a 2011 study by the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee.

Gun owners and groups like the National Rifle Association would be able to take municipalities to court over local gun restrictions under a measure that passed a House committee with overwhelming support Tuesday.

The bill would give challengers of local gun restrictions the legal standing necessary to ask for court review of an ordinance. Successful challengers could be reimbursed by municipalities for legal costs and other expenses.

A proposal to dismantle the state background check system used to determine if someone is eligible to buy a gun or a gun license is set for a committee vote Tuesday.

The measure, referred to the House Judiciary Committee, would bypass and defund the state background check in favor of using the national background check system.

Supporters say it would reduce redundancy and free up state funding currently going to the state background check system, established in 1998.

The Corbett administration is still cautioning lawmakers against uncapping a tax credit for the film industry.

Several Republican legislative leaders, along with Democrats, have voiced support for increasing the state’s annual $60 million in tax credits. Supporters say it would attract more big-budget films to the commonwealth and support a growing industry.

But Alan Walker, secretary of the state Department of Community and Economic Development, said there are complications to consider.

Pennsylvania’s state House Speaker says he won’t run for re-election this year, after 27 years serving in the Legislature.

Sam Smith, a 14-term Republican legacy from Punxsutawney, said he just stopped enjoying the job.

“I wasn’t putting 100 percent into it, in the sense that I used to always say – no matter how bad and crazy things were around here – I could say, ‘Yeah but I still really enjoy my work, I really love the fights, the battles, the political wrangling that goes on,’” Smith said. “You need to really want to be doing it.”

State Democratic lawmakers are taking issue with how Gov. Tom Corbett is proposing to increase funding for public education.

The governor proposed a $240 million block grant which would come with spending restrictions and be doled out according to a formula.

But Chester County Sen. Andy Dinniman, ranking Democrat on the chamber’s education committee, said the formula differs from the one used under an existing block grant.

The chairman of a state House committee says he’d like to move a proposal this spring to criminalize what’s been called "revenge porn."

The measure would make it a crime to post nude images of someone online with intent to harass the person pictured.

It has passed in the Senate, though its sponsor, Democratic Sen. Judy Schwank of Berks County, said she’s not sure how speedily the bill could advance in the House.

State Senate Republicans have a tentative plan to move legislation by July to expand the Pennsylvania Lottery.

Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi says the goal is to hold a vote on a measure to legalize terminal-based games like keno, a fast-paced drawing, before the Legislature’s traditional summer recess.

Revenue Secretary Dan Meuser skirted the question of whether legislative approval is needed to add such games, but he said the Corbett administration is seeking some statutory changes.

A rhetorical battle is brewing over a proposal to end the automatic deduction of union dues and voluntary political contributions from the pay of public employees in Pennsylvania.

Unions representing public workers say it’s an attempt to kill organized labor and shrink their political spending.

The bill’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Bryan Cutler of Lancaster County, says he’s not refuting the rights of public employee unions to make contributions to political campaigns and political action committees.

State senators are taking the next formal step to making changes to the Pennsylvania Lottery.

At an upcoming hearing, they plan to hear from national researchers and state officials on issues related to expanding the lottery to include more games and outsourcing its management.

The original push to add to game offerings came from the Corbett administration during its effort to privatize a portion of the lottery.

But Erik Arneson, spokesman for the Republican Senate Majority Leader, said lawmakers are interested in the face of a potential budget deficit.

The implications of a federal law on flood insurance rates will be the topic of an upcoming hearing in Harrisburg.

A 2012 law designed to make property owners pay for the risk of living in high flood hazard areas has resulted in swift increases to flood insurance premiums.

Republican state Sen. Gene Yaw of Lycoming County said it’s likely many Pennsylvanians living near a river have already seen the higher rates.  

State House Passes Plan to Redevelop School Funding Formula

Jan 16, 2014

The state House has passed a plan that could bring lawmakers back to using a funding formula when doling out money to school districts across Pennsylvania.

The legislation would create a commission to review education funding and make recommendations for a new formula--something education advocates have urged for years.

Some state lawmakers are pushing for a study of homelessness in the commonwealth in order to get a better understanding of what advocates say is a growing problem.

The effort would look at the occurrence of homelessness, and its effects and trends in Pennsylvania.    

Dale Lanigan, who helps coordinate volunteers at an emergency overnight men’s shelter in Harrisburg, says it would answer important questions.

Republican state lawmakers are in talks to keep the issue of liquor privatization alive in the coming months.

House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, the most dogged legislative supporter of the push, said Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley is once again leading the effort to phase out state wine and spirits stores.

He said the fact that it’s an election year will work to the advantage of supporters.

School shootings across the country have prompted studies on school safety in Pennsylvania, calls to boost security budgets and, now, legislation to allow school staff to carry firearms is on the table.

A year ago, top lawmakers and the Corbett administration said they didn't want to talk about arming teachers in a bid to deter gun violence in schools, but that's exactly the debate state Sen. Don White (R-Indiana) wants to have.

Work still remains for state lawmakers on child protection legislation, in spite of the slew of bills signed by the governor last week.

The 10 proposals are the result of more than a year of work to tighten up the state’s child protection laws.

Central to the effort was a proposal to re-write the state’s legal definition of child abuse to make it less vague.

But Bucks County District Attorney Dave Heckler says there’s more to come.

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