Wednesday, 15 March 2006

Gettysburg, Philadelphia could see slots changes

by Damon Boughamer
Public Radio Capitol News, serving Pennsylvania

Harrisburg, Penna. (PRCN, 16 March 2006) -- The Gettysburg countryside and Philadelphia were singled out by the state House as it passed changes to the gaming law:

Gettysburg, because the House unanimously approved an amendment banning slots parlors from Adams County, where one has been proposed.
Philadelphia, because lawmakers singled out the city as corrupt – too corrupt to site casinos, anyway. Only Philadelphia would be stripped of local zoning authority.

This did not sit well with many Democrats, including House Minority Leader Bill DeWeese.

"I don’t think it will stand judicial overview," DeWeese said. "This was already hurled back at us once. The jurists said that the local entities, the local municipalities, would be involved in the zoning effort."

The bill faces an uncertain future when it is returned to the Senate, which revised the gaming law in several ways but not in these ways.

Committee moves gay marriage amendment

by Damon Boughamer
Public Radio Capitol News, serving Pennsylvania

Harrisburg, Penna. (PRCN, 16 March 2006) -- A proposed state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage cleared a Pennsylvania House committee today.

Dozens of lawmakers, aides and observers packed into a hearing room that was too small. The crowd extended out the door.

Sponsor Scott Boyd – a Lancaster County Republican – said there was no need for public hearings.

"A constitutional amendment requires, in Pennsylvania, a voter referendum," Boyd said. "What broader public hearing can you have than a voter referendum, where each individual – not just selected interest groups – has the ability to go and vote on this issue?"

Democrat Louise Bishop of Philadelphia said this is not what Pennsylvanians want.

"My constituents – including the religious community – want me to vote no. It’s explosive. From Lancaster to Allentown to Philadelphia County, I have had e-mails, and 90 percent of them want a ‘no’ vote," Bishop said.

This amendment could be timed to the 2008 presidential election.

A motion to table the bill failed on a tie vote, with two Republicans – Dave Steil and Katharine Watson of Bucks County – joining every Democrat in an effort to block its advance.

Monday, 13 March 2006

Groups: not everyone wants to ban gay marriage

by Damon Boughamer
Public Radio Capitol News, serving Pennsylvania

Harrisburg, Penna. (PRCN, 13 March 2006) -- Opponents of a gay marriage ban – rallying at the state Capitol – said there’s no room for discrimination in the state constitution.

Gay marriage is already disallowed in Pennsylvania, but there’s a push to reinforce the message with a constitutional amendment.

Interest group leaders and several lawmakers – all Democrats – said it would do nothing to protect traditional relationships, as sponsors claim.

Representative Mike Veon of Beaver County is the House Minority Whip and the only lawmaker in leadership who appeared.

"House Bill 2381 is a small piece of legislation," Veon said. "That small piece of legislation is filled with very small ideas."

The Reverend Paul Fullmer of Lebanon Valley College added historical perspective.

"People of faith, we rightly look back with great pride to good work that our congregations undertook in the abolition of segregation and the abolition of slavery. Yet if we speak in support of an amendment like House Bill 2381, we support the very discrimination that we find so reprehensible in generations of the past," Rev. Fullmer said.

The amendment could be presented to voters in 2007 or 2008.

State plans energy workshops

by Damon Boughamer
Public Radio Capitol News, serving Pennsylvania

Harrisburg, Penna. (PRCN, 13 March 2006) -- A mild winter has helped to reduce the burden higher energy prices placed on Pennsylvanians over the past few months.

But the state and federal government are still offering some advice to businesses trying to plan for the year ahead.

They’ll deliver the advice at workshops around the state in April and May.

Officials will outline strategies for conserving energy and saving money.

Managers whose companies operate on July-to-June fiscal-year calendars are beginning work now on 2006-2007 budgets, so the timing could be useful.

State Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Charlie Young says last year was the first year for these sessions, and response was good.

"This is very much aimed right at the business community. It’s for small- and medium-sized businesses. We’re also encouraging local government officials to attend," Young says. "It’s going to be an emphasis on easily implemented, highly effective energy management measures."

Free advance registration is required for the events – in Norristown and Bethlehem in April and in Harrisburg, Pittsburgh and Ridgway, Elk County in May.

Wednesday, 8 March 2006

Food stamp limit kicks in April 1

by Damon Boughamer
Public Radio Capitol News, serving Pennsylvania

Harrisburg, Penna. (PRCN, 8 March 2006) -- Food pantries in Pennsylvania are being told to brace for a wave of new clients at the end of the month.

It’s because the state Department of Public Welfare will enforce a limit to food stamp benefits for certain adults of three months every three years.

During 2004 and 2005, the state had no time limit for this category of Pennsylvanians, defined as able-bodied adults, aged 18 to 50, without dependents.

But the agency started a new clock January First, and those who received assistance in January, February and March will be cut off April First.

Barry Friesen with the Pennsylvania Hunger Action Center says those who stand to lose benefits do have another option.

"If they can get into a work-and-training program through their county welfare department, they certainly should try to do that. People who are in an employment training program – this rule does not apply to them," Friesen said.

People living in high-unemployment areas are exempt from the cutoff. This includes Philadelphia, but not Allegheny County or Pittsburgh.

Prison budget grows again

by Damon Boughamer
Public Radio Capitol News, serving Pennsylvania

Harrisburg, Penna. (PRCN, 8 March 2006) -- The man who runs Pennsylvania’s prisons asked lawmakers this past week to grant his department the budget increase proposed by Governor Rendell.

Corrections Secretary Jeffrey Beard said a 49-million-dollar increase on prison spending is needed to keep up with personnel and care costs.

And he said lawmakers should be concerned about the growing inmate population.

"Last year, we grew by three percent for a total of an additional 1,481 inmates," Beard said. "This is an average growth rate of about 123 a month. Female population grew by even more. The current population of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections is just over 42,500 inmates, and we’re at 110percent of capacity."

The cost to house an inmate in the Pennsylvania prison system now stands at 31-thousand dollars a year.

Beard said the department is doing what it can to control costs.

That has included closing the state prison at Waynesburg, mothballing the Pittsburgh facility and shifting those prisoners to other locations.

Study casts doubt on middle school strategy

by Damon Boughamer
Public Radio Capitol News, serving Pennsylvania

New York (PRCN, 8 March 2006) -- A study of some Philadelphia schools suggests students in kindergarten-through-grade-eight schools don’t perform any better than those in traditional middle schools.

The city school district is in the midst of closing middle schools and shifting most students to "k-through-8" environments.

Columbia University researcher Christopher Weiss says his study found "k-through-8" students felt safer and had better self-esteem, but had no fewer absences or F’s.

“I think we have some important outcomes, and we are raising some important questions, about the way that, say, Philadelphia, New York City, other districts are rushing to get rid of middle schools," Weiss says. "But what would be the truest comparison or the best outcome to look at would be test scores. Those we don’t have. We have grades.”

Philadelphia Schools C-E-O Paul Vallas says the district still plans to eliminate all but eight middle schools by 2009.

Another expert, quoted in an Education Week article, said the research informs what the city school system is doing, but he – quote – "wouldn’t say it tells them to slow down or tells them that they’re wrongheaded."

Weiss said he thought that was a fair assessment.

Weiss said he chose Philadelphia as the subject of his research because – over the time period studied – it was one of the few districts to have about the same number of K-through-8 buildings and middle schools.

The report is outlined in the most recent American Journal of Education.

Gaming official downplays argument

by Damon Boughamer
Public Radio Capitol News, serving Pennsylvania

Harrisburg, Penna. (PRCN, 8 March 2006) -- A member of the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board is downplaying a dispute some say has slowed the panel’s progress.

At issue is whether the supplier market for slots parlors should be wide open or should be divided into two or five regions.

The panel has been unable to reach a consensus.

But Commissioner Mary Colins says observers are making too much of the argument.

"The supplier issue is something which we will resolve," Colins says. "It is something that the board works on day in and day out. We are patiently evaluating all aspects of it, and we will resolve it."

Colins noted the board did agree to allow the application process for slots to move forward anyway.

No final decisions will be made until a resolution is reached on the question of supplier regions.

Hoeffel bows out of LG race

by Damon Boughamer
Public Radio Capitol News, serving Pennsylvania

Harrisburg, Penna. (PRCN, 8 March 2006) -- Joe Hoeffel dropped out of the Democratic race for lieutenant governor today – less than 24 hours after officially filing to run.

Governor Rendell did not want him to run against incumbent Catherine Baker Knoll.

An event in Harrisburg was supposed to be Hoeffel’s launch announcement but turned into a joint appearance with Rendell where both said ending this campaign was in the best interest of the party.

"I thought and still think that I could build a better team for the future. But the governor is the decision-maker here," Hoeffel said.

"I have heard with almost unanimity from people – from local elected officials to countywide elected officials in the southwest – again, the burden of having two southeasterners on the ticket would be very difficult for them," Rendell said.

Allegheny County Recorder of Deeds Valerie McDonald Roberts and two others are still challenging Knoll, but Hoeffel was considered to have the best shot at unseating her.

Montgomery County Commissioner Jim Matthews is the only Republican candidate and the running mate of GOP gubernatorial hopeful Lynn Swann.

Tuesday, 7 March 2006

Official: gaming licenses by December

by Damon Boughamer
Public Radio Capitol News, serving Pennsylvania

Harrisburg, Penna. (PRCN, 7 March 2006) -- A top state gambling official says slots parlor licenses will be awarded soon.

Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board Commissioner Mary Colins offered the update at the second annual Pennsylvania Gaming Congress in Harrisburg.

"Our next goal is – which we have set for ourselves – is to in fact issue the 22 permanent licenses by the end of this year," Colins said.

Colins said “22…licenses,” but she seemed to mean 14. There are 14 licenses available for 22 applicants.

Colins said upcoming hearings across the state will comprise a large part of the body of evidence used to make decisions about where parlors will go.

Separately, there was talk early Tuesday that the state House would act Tuesday night on tweaks to the gaming law. They were pulled from the calendar by midday but are expected to be debated soon.

Need for foreign-language nurses outlined

by Damon Boughamer
Public Radio Capitol News, serving Pennsylvania

Harrisburg, Penna. (PRCN, 7 March 2006) -- New policies should make it easier for foreign-language nurses to get certified in Pennsylvania.

It’s something experts say the commonwealth needs as badly as the nurses themselves do.

The best example might be Puerto Rico. Nurses there train and earn certification, but if they come to Pennsylvania, they must pass an English-language test, and this is often difficult for them.

It’s not just that they want the jobs. It’s that Pennsylvania needs more foreign-language nurses – with growing and aging populations whose native tongues are Spanish, Russian, Chinese or Vietnamese.

Representative Curtis Thomas – a Philadelphia Democrat – says a regulatory board has agreed to make some changes "that now allow for a two-year window of opportunity to take and pass the exam in order to practice in Pennsylvania."

"So six months to one year is out. We now have two years – a two-year window of opportunity," Thomas says.

The state will also use an incumbent worker training program to help nurses study. Partners include Temple University and the Hospital Healthcare Workers Union.

Monday, 6 March 2006

Casey brief supports pay raise suit

by Damon Boughamer
Public Radio Capitol News, serving Pennsylvania

Harrisburg, Penna. (PRCN, 6 March 2006) -- Pennsylvania Treasurer Robert Casey Junior is speaking out against the pay raise lawmakers approved for themselves last year – even though he himself is named in a pay raise lawsuit.

In July 2005, state legislators – in the middle of the night, without public debate – voted to raise their own pay, as well as the salaries of judges and executive branch officials. They reversed themselves four months later.

There’s a lingering lawsuit over “unvouchered expenses,” which enabled some lawmakers to collect extra money immediately. Some never paid it back.

Casey has filed a brief supporting Dauphin County activist Gene Stilp, the petitioner. He agrees with Stilp that the pay raise and the collection of unvouchered expenses were both unconstitutional.

"And at the same time, in a larger sense, even beyond the lawsuit, I think it’s an obligation of every public official to do everything you can to prevent the erosion of public confidence in government. And I think this action eroded confidence in government," Casey said.

The situation is complicated by Casey’s being a respondent in the case. That’s because his office, the treasurer’s office, cut all the checks.

Swann plan unconstitutional, expert says

by Damon Boughamer
Public Radio Capitol News, serving Pennsylvania

Harrisburg, Penna. (PRCN, 6 March 2006) -- A property tax plan sketched out by Lynn Swann over the weekend is illegal and unconstitutional, according to an expert on tax policy.

Swann – the Republican challenging Democratic Governor Ed Rendell – unveiled his proposal during a speech to the Pennsylvania School Boards Association.

He said he wants to base tax rates on the last sale price of a home, meaning long-time homeowners would pay less than recent movers.

But Penn State economist Tim Kelsey says this would require amending the state constitution.

"Under Pennsylvania’s constitution," Kelsey says, "there’s a uniformity clause that requires objects that are being taxed to be treated uniformly – which is why here in Pennsylvania, when we re-assess, we re-assess all properties at the same time.

"If you instead base the value of taxation on the value when the property is sold, the basis for taxation will vary dramatically within any one district."

A spokeswoman for Swann’s campaign said more specifics on the plan will be unveiled in the coming weeks.

Thursday, 2 March 2006

Private toll roads could be in PA's future

by Damon Boughamer
Public Radio Capitol News, serving Pennsylvania

Harrisburg, Penna. (PRCN, 2 March 2006) -- Pennsylvania could soon have roads that are built entirely with private dollars – proposed by private companies that are banking on potential profit.

State lawmakers who support the concept call it a natural next step in the evolution of surface transportation.

Virginia’s about to try it. Washington’s Capital Beltway is really crowded, especially on the Virginia side, but the state said it did not have the billions of dollars it would take to upgrade the highway.

Enter private enterprise, which has said it will construct new lanes by itself in exchange for the right to collect its own tolls.

This could work in the state’s most congested corridors – along the Schuylkill in Philadelphia, for example, or southbound, westbound or eastbound out of downtown Pittsburgh.

House Transportation Committee Minority Chair Keith McCall – a Lehigh Valley Democrat – said that while this would be new to the States, it’s not a totally original idea.

“The Europeans have completely private roads," McCall said. "It really never, I think, gained footing here.”

McCall and Republican Rick Geist plan to develop legislation together to authorize such projects.

Education sees more money in budget

Harrisburg, Penna. (PRCN, 2 March 2006) -- Education is one of the only departments getting more money under Governor Rendell’s proposed 2006-2007 budget.

The head of the agency addressed lawmakers as budget hearings continued at the state Capitol.

Education Secretary Gerald Zahorchak told the House budget committee the spending plan includes $517 million more for primary and secondary education.

That includes a five-percent increase in the basic education line item.

Zahorchak says the department has been working to meet the legislature’s charge to improve schools’ access to the internet.

“Ninety-two percent of our buildings have good connectivity now. We expect, by 2008, to have 100 percent of our schools” connected, Zahorchak said.

Zahorchak faced tough questioning from lawmakers.

One Republican was skeptical of the proposed Classrooms for the Future program, which would put a laptop on every desk in core subject classrooms. He said districts might want more local control over the extra dollars it would take.

Wednesday, 1 March 2006

Health agency head asks for funds

by Damon Boughamer
Public Radio Capitol News, serving Pennsylvania

Harrisburg, Penna. (PRCN, 1 March 2006) -- The state’s highest-ranking public health official stated his case for more funding as budget hearings continued in Harrisburg.

Secretary of Health Doctor Calvin Johnson told the House budget committee the governor’s proposed budget for his agency includes $1.7 million more for breast and cervical cancer screening.

It also increases funding for HIV/AIDS programs 2.6 percent, even as overall spending goes down.

Doctor Johnson faced several questions about the proposed Jonas Salk Legacy Fund, which would have the state borrow money for big immediate spending to attract researchers and build better labs.

He said members of the board that would select projects would be non-political -- in his words, "experts that can speak to the quality, the scientific validity and quality, of the efforts and the projects that are connected to that, as well as other industry experts that can speak to the biotechnology aspects of it, the commercialization aspects of it."

Republican leaders have described the Salk Fund proposal as having little chance of passing the legislature as proposed.

Keystone State unemployment falls

by Damon Boughamer
Public Radio Capitol News, serving Pennsylvania

Harrisburg, Penna. (PRCN, 1 March 2006) -- Pennsylvania unemployment has reached a five-year low.

It stands at 4.4 percent for the first time since February 2001.

The total number of jobs in Pennsylvania tops 5.74 million, an all-time high, according to the Labor Department.

Spokesman Barry Ciccocioppo notes that peer states such as Michigan and Ohio have not yet created the number of jobs lost since the September Eleventh attacks.

"Pennsylvania has surpassed the pre-recession job levels, and our unemployment rate in Pennsylvania is now well below the national level," Ciccocioppo said. "In fact, it's been better than the national unemployment level for the past five straight months."

The 4-point-4 percent unemployment rate is eight-tenths of a percentage point lower than it was last year at this time.

All of the most recent figures are from January.

County-specific job counts will be released in a couple of weeks.