Thursday, 26 April 2007

Rendell reverses, withdraws cabinet nominations

by Damon Boughamer
Public Radio Capitol News, serving Pennsylvania

Harrisburg, Penna. (PRCN, 25 April 2007) -- Governor Rendell has withdrawn the re-nominations of two members of his cabinet, pending a review of their ethics.

He insists they've done nothing wrong and says he only agreed to this course of action because it can happen relatively quickly.

At the center of the sudden controversy are Environmental Protection Secretary Kathleen McGinty and Conservation and Natural Resources Secretary Michael DiBerardinis.

It's been disclosed that their agencies funded programs linked in different -- and Rendell says, very minor -- ways to their spouses.

The governor said he has asked the state Ethics Commission for an expedited opinion on the issues and expects to have it next Friday.

"Let me stress that Secretary McGinty and Secretary DiBerardinis both were ready to have the vote cast today. I prevailed upon them, in the name of trying to keep some form of working relationship, to allow this compromise to go forward. They reluctantly agreed," Rendell said.

Governor Rendell said he has resubmitted both names for Senate approval, and Senate leaders said they expected to be able to vote on the matter by May 8.

Rendell said if the Senate votes them down, McGinty and DiBerardinis will stay on as acting secretaries anyway.

House Dems will carry forward energy proposal

by Damon Boughamer
Public Radio Capitol News, serving Pennsylvania

Harrisburg, Penna. (PRCN, 26 April 2007) – Four House Democrats are introducing legislation that would put into place Governor Rendell’s energy independence proposal.

Representatives Eugene DePasquale of York, Bud George of Clearfield, Mike Gerber of Montgomery and John Hornaman of Erie are introducing various components of the administration’s plan, with minor tweaking.

If the initiative now has four faces in addition to the governor’s, it also has a symbol. At a press conference, Rendell asked George to hold up a so-called "smart meter" that would more accurately measure household energy use.

"This smart meter will regulate when energy is used or not used in the household, keeping energy use out of the peak industrial hours, and therefore saving the average residential customer over $70 a year," Rendell said.

The Democratic whip said he thinks there’s plenty of support for the whole package in the House, but GOP spokesman Steve Miskin is not as sure.

"Republicans are looking at alternatives, but alternatives that are not as costly and alternatives that are market-driven. And we are hoping to unveil that in the next couple of weeks."

The $850 million proposal would use money from a small consumer user fee to secure borrowing toward expanding the state’s clean energy production and technology industries.

Wednesday, 25 April 2007

Health insurance 'fair share tax' examined at hearing

by Damon Boughamer
Public Radio Capitol News, serving Pennsylvania

Harrisburg, Penna. (PRCN, 24 April 2007) – The most controversial component of Governor Rendell’s near-universal health care plan came under fire at a legislative hearing Tuesday.

The "Cover All Pennsylvanians" blueprint includes a three-percent payroll assessment for employers that don’t provide health insurance. The Rendell team calls it a "fair share tax."

At a joint Senate committee hearing, majority Republicans said they doubted the idea has enough support to pass.

Even if it does, they wondered whether a court would view it similarly to a Maryland plan that was ruled illegal.

Rosemarie Greco with the Governor’s Office of Health Care Reform said she’s confident.

"It was the opinion of our internal attorneys that the proposed legislation was so different, both in intent and in substance, from the statute addressed by the Fourth Circuit, that it could be successfully defended in a legal challenge based on ERISA preemption," Greco said.

Greco refers to ERISA. That’s a federal law that bans states from forcing employers to offer health insurance.

Gun owners rally at PA capitol

by Damon Boughamer
Public Radio Capitol News, serving Pennsylvania

Harrisburg, Penna. (PRCN, 24 April 2007) – Pennsylvania gun owners rallied at the state Capitol Tuesday, and some of their champions in the legislature introduced new proposals to strengthen Second Amendment rights.

One advocate – Kim Stofler with Firearm Owners Against Crime – listed many of the groups that oppose gun control and that brought people to the Capitol for the event.

But he stressed this wasn’t about the organizations.

"This is about our freedoms. This is about what happened 232 years ago. That was when General Gage sent 700 men to Lexington and Concord to seize American firearms. Sadly, in this august place of the people, we have some legislators who have considered that option again," Stofler said.

As for the legislation – Republican Daryl Metcalfe proposes allowing someone who can demonstrate that he or she is in imminent danger to secure a temporary emergency license to carry a gun.

Republican Russ Fairchild wants to clarify conditions under which guns may be carried in state parks.

Most lawmakers at the rally were Republicans, but there were a few Democrats.

Tuesday, 24 April 2007

Specter stops short of calling for Gonazles to resign

by Damon Boughamer
Public Radio Capitol News, serving Pennsylvania

Harrisburg, Penna. (PRCN, 23 April 2007) – Senator Arlen Specter says he’s disappointed with what he’s learned in the controversy over fired federal attorneys and U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

But at a state Capitol appearance, he still did not call on Gonzales to resign.

One reporter asked Specter whether he thought efforts to revise Patriot Act to allow attorney firings truly were linked to efforts to rank attorneys based on loyalty to the President.
Specter hesitated, then answered.

"Well, they – I’m – they may have been, they may have been," Specter said. "I don’t think it does us a whole lot of good to speculate about it. I think what we have to do is find out about their loyalty list and whether there was justification for asking these U.S. attorneys to resign. Look here: the President has the authority to replace all of the U.S. attorneys. You can replace U.S. attorneys for no reason, but you can’t replace them for a bad reason."

But ultimately, Specter said, it’s up to Gonzales to choose to resign or to the President to ask Gonzales to do so.

Specter: abortion ruling not civil liberties harbinger

by Damon Boughamer
Public Radio Capitol News, serving Pennsylvania

Harrisburg, Penna. (PRCN, 23 April 2007) – Senator Arlen Specter says he sees, in a recent Supreme Court decision, signs that the court is shifting toward a more strict interpretation of the U.S. Constitution.

The ruling was a 5-4 decision by the high court that upheld a ban on so-called "partial birth" or "late term" abortions.

Specter supports abortion rights but did vote for the partial birth ban.

Public radio asked Specter whether he sees in the abortion ruling any hints about how the court will approach broader questions of civil liberty.

"I do not. I think that we have to be vigilant on congressional oversight on the civil liberties issue. We gave the FBI additional power under the Patriot Act but we put limitations on it. Unfortunately, they have not followed the law. Protection of civil liberties, civil rights is indispensable in our democracy, and that’s a matter for congressional oversight, which we are undertaking vigorously," Specter said.

Specter played a major role in the reconstitution of the court.

As then-majority chair of the Senate Judiciary committee, he conducted the hearings that examined the nominations to the court of now-Justice Samuel Alito and Chief Justice John Roberts.

Monday, 16 April 2007

Gun control foes draw attention to PA bill

by Damon Boughamer
Public Radio Capitol News, serving Pennsylvania

Harrisburg, Penna. (PRCN, 14 April 2007) – Something unusual happened at the Capitol this past week.

A piece of legislation that was quietly introduced weeks ago, and that has almost no chance of passing, suddenly received an enormous amount of attention.

When the subject is handguns, Harrisburg is prone to explosive debate.

The bill’s sponsor didn’t even issue a press release when he submitted the bill, and he only secured five co-sponsors in the 203-member House.

Plus, it contains an idea that has never gained traction. The bill would require that legal gun owners re-register each piece yearly at $10 per gun.

But House Republicans and a few Democrats launched a public relations assault on the legislation, and by the late in the week, headlines on it and editorials against it had spread the word about it to places as far away as Texas.

"It doesn’t feel as if it were productive – the fuss that was made of it at this stage," says gun control advocate Shelly Yanoff with Philadelphia Citizens for Children and Youth.

Two co-sponsors of the legislation have since withdrawn their support.

The bill’s sponsor said he will press on.

Long-term care industry wonders about funding

by Damon Boughamer
Public Radio Capitol News, serving Pennsylvania

Harrisburg, Penna. (PRCN, 13 April 2007) – The state’s top welfare officer made headlines this past week when she said retired experts would be brought in to deal with a backlog in personal care home inspections.

Less attention was focused on an underlying policy issue that’s driving broader discussions within the long-term care industry.

Here’s a startling statistic from Dr. Stuart Shapiro: "Seventy percent of those turning 65 in Pennsylvania today will require some type of long-term care services in their lifetime."

According to Shapiro, the problem is that Pennsylvania’s laws and regulations in this area are outmoded.

Dr. Shapiro is CEO of the Pennsylvania Health Care Association, which speaks for the state’s nursing homes. He describes a continuum of elderly care – with home care at one end and nursing homes at the other.

"Then, in the middle, there’s something called personal care homes, where you cannot receive any medical services. And that’s why we need to add a new category called ‘assisted living,’ which the legislature is now considering," Dr. Shapiro says.

Dr. Shapiro says three-quarters of the states define "assisted living."

The last several years have seen additional state resources aimed at home care. Advocates for each type of long-term care are worried that the total investment will not grow and instead will simply be divided differently.

PA lawmaker asks why vets can't skip EMT training

by Damon Boughamer
Public Radio Capitol News, serving Pennsylvania

Harrisburg, Penna. (PRCN, 12 April 2007) – A western Pennsylvania lawmaker is pushing a plan to allow military veterans to put first responder training to use right away.

Here’s Representative Jim Casorio’s rationale: American soldiers receive world-class emergency medical training as they are deployed in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

So why would Pennsylvania need to force them to undergo additional training – and pay for it – if these soldiers want to be EMTs when they come home?

"I thought that was just – one, silly; two, ridiculous; three, a waste of time; and four, why should we treat our veterans like that? So that’s what brought us to this point in the legislation," Casorio says.

Casorio – a Westmoreland County Democrat – says his bill would cut out unnecessary steps.

Casorio says veterans’ groups support his legislation.

He introduced this bill last session. It died in committee but may stand a better chance this year because Casorio’s party is now in the majority.

Gaming board faces busy spring

by Damon Boughamer
Public Radio Capitol News, serving Pennsylvania

Harrisburg, Penna. (PRCN, 12 April 2007) – The next several weeks promise to be busy at the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board – as the agency continues to negotiate a transition from launching to operating.

Next Friday marks the beginning of a two-month-long window during which resorts can apply for two remaining licenses for small casinos.

Up to 500 slot machines could be installed at each of the eventual licensees, according to gaming board spokesman Doug Harbach.

"We did loosen some of the regulations and make it clear who could qualify so that we could, indeed, get some competition for these – because, in the end, we’re looking to get the casinos, these smaller ones, in the best places so they can produce the most revenue for use of tax dollars to Pennsylvanians," Harbach says.

As this is going on, board staffers have also circled May 15 on the calendar.

That’s when Philadelphians are to vote on a casino location referendum that the gaming board contends would result in illegal restrictions.

That same day, arguments should begin before the state Supreme Court for casino applicants from Pittsburgh, the Poconos and Philadelphia passed over by the board in December.

PA lawyers launch website on court elections

by Damon Boughamer
Public Radio Capitol News, serving Pennsylvania

Harrisburg, Penna. (PRCN, 10 April 2007) – The Pennsylvania Bar Association has put together a comprehensive election website – ahead of this spring’s primary elections for Supreme Court and Superior Court.

Visitors to the site can read about each candidate for each bench and can learn about the responsibilities the offices carry.

Bar President Ken Horoho says it’s the association’s – and the profession’s – attempt to put to good use its experience and its familiarity with the candidates.

"The most questions and the most phone calls I get from my neighbors are usually the calls the Monday night before the Tuesday election, when there are judicial candidates running. ‘What judges should I vote for?’ Because they typically look to the lawyers to say, ‘Look, you know these judges better than we do,’" Horoho says.

The site also lists the Bar’s closely watched ratings for each appellate candidate.

The association describes each candidate as Highly Recommended, Recommended or Not Recommended based on experience, reputation and community service background.

The website is

Liquor board awaits ruling on beer sales at Sheetz

by Damon Boughamer
Public Radio Capitol News, serving Pennsylvania

Harrisburg, Penna. (PRCN, 10 April 2007) – It’s not clear when the state Supreme Court will rule on beer sales appeals filed by the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board.

A Sheetz in Altoona became the first hybrid gas station and restaurant in the state to sell beer when the board awarded it a license.

But the state’s administrative Commonwealth Court said that the process had been flawed, and sales have been halted.

The liquor board had already asked the Supreme Court to consider the case. Now it’s asking the court to weigh in on the temporary sales freeze before deciding whether to address the broader issue.

Board spokeswoman Dawn Petrosky says this was a necessary step.

"It was our choice to appeal – to file a motion to the Supreme Court – because of the ramifications of the Commonwealth Court decision on not only Sheetz, in this matter, but also the over 500 ‘E’ licensees in the state of Pennsylvania – and actually, potentially, all other types of license holders, such as restaurants and hotels," Petrosky says.

Petrosky notes that – whether it’s the legislature or the courts – someone has to make it clear whether allowing on-premises alcohol consumption for these licensees is something that’s simply permitted or something that’s required.

Wednesday, 11 April 2007

PA officials brace for 4000 spring retirements

by Damon Boughamer
Public Radio Capitol News, serving Pennsylvania

Harrisburg, Penna. (PRCN, 10 April 2007) – Pension administrators are offering some advice to state workers as the system braces for a wave of retirements over the next two and a half months.

According to Robert Gentzel, a spokesman with the State Employees' Retirement System, about 4000 state workers are expected to retire between now and July...

Gentzel says the system has posted information on its website to assist employees as they contemplate the sometimes-difficult decision.

Workers also have the option of speaking with retirement counselors at offices in Bensalem; Harrisburg; Hazleton; Montoursville; Pittsburgh; Seneca, Venango County; or State College.

"Because of a change in the contract for state employees – without getting into all the details – it is going to make the retired employee health benefit less attractive to those who retire after July
1 than to those who retire before then," Gentzel says.

SERS hopes to have all of the thousands of retirements processed within ten weeks of the receipt of paperwork.

PA social workers rally for change

by Damon Boughamer
Public Radio Capitol News, serving Pennsylvania

Harrisburg, Penna. (PRCN, 10 April 2007) – Pennsylvania's social workers filled the state Capitol Tuesday – pushing legislative priorities and a broader progressive agenda.

No one could accuse the social workers of having a timid agenda.

Dr. Nadine Bean, who heads Pennsylvania's chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, came to a news conference with nothing short of global changes on her mind.

"The U.S. has the dubious distinction of being one of only two countries in the world that never fully ratified the U.N. Declaration on Human Rights after World War Two," Bean noted.

But the group does list many Pennsylvania-specific goals for the next three years, including seeking mental health insurance parity and making the transition easier for out-of-state professionals who move here.

Freshman Representative Tim Seip – a Berks and Schuylkill county Democrat and the only licensed social worker in the state House – rallied his colleagues.

"You can be an effective advocate in other ways – although it wouldn't be so much of a bad thing if some of you would run and come to the House," Seip said.

Professionals lobbied lawmakers Tuesday. So did students who will soon seek careers in social work.

Tuesday, 10 April 2007

States' health care efforts eyed in DC

by Damon Boughamer
Public Radio Capitol News, serving Pennsylvania
Harrisburg, Penna. (PRCN, 9 April 2007) – As lawmakers return to Harrisburg for spring and summer work, the Rendell administration continues to talk up its vision for near-universal health care coverage.

National experts are watching to see what states do in this policy area.

From Massachusetts and Vermont to New York and California, states are examining what one expert calls the "three A's" – access, affordability and adequacy.

Conceptual discussions prevail in some places while implementation is under way in others.

Ed Haislmaier is a health policy expert at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation.

He says it's no surprise that states are taking on health care, given federal inaction and the high stakes.

"It doesn't matter if you're the governor or one of the governor's appointees or a legislator. It doesn't matter, pretty much, what state you're in. And it doesn't matter whether you're a Republican or a Democrat or a liberal or a conservative. You've got a state budget that, in most cases, you have to balance. And it's got three things in it: health spending, education spending and everything else. And the first one is eating the other two," Haislmaier says.

The Kaiser Family Foundation is hosting a series of state-centric health care discussions at

Rendell's "Prescription for Pennsylvania" includes a statewide indoor smoking ban, a higher cigarette tax, new taxes on cigars and smokeless tobacco and a three-percent payroll assessment for companies that don't offer insurance.

Open records dispute resolved between parties

by Damon Boughamer
Public Radio Capitol News, serving Pennsylvania

Harrisburg, Penna. (PRCN, 9 April 2007) - The resolution of an open records dispute relating to the state Treasurer's office offers no guarantees about future public access.

The Treasurer and the Patriot-News of Harrisburg were going to go to court over whether certain legislative payroll records should be publicly disclosed.

The state House just told the Treasurer it has no objection to their release, so the Treasurer has dropped the court inquiry.

But Treasurer's office spokeswoman Elizabeth Kupchinsky acknowledges this leaves a gray area gray in Pennsylvania's open records law.

"All we know is that we were sent a letter from the House officials saying that there is no objection to the release of this information. And that was, I guess, our main question. We didn't know if there would be objections," Kupchinsky says.

Another pending dispute remains unresolved.

Activist Gene Stilp had made a broader request than that of the Patriot-News, and at the moment, his inquiry may still be headed to court.

But the acting Treasurer says he's hopeful this matter can also be resolved without asking Commonwealth Court for guidance.

Monday, 9 April 2007

PA lobbyist database finally online

by Damon Boughamer
Public Radio Capitol News, serving Pennsylvania

Harrisburg, Penna. (PRCN, 6 April 2007) – Pennsylvanians can now search a unified online database of registered lobbyists.

After lobbyist disclosure legislation passed last year, Pennsylvania lost the distinction of being the only state in the country without universal requirements.

Now, in accordance with the new law, the Department of State has assembled registration information at a searchable website.

Project manager and deputy department commissioner Chet Harhut emphasizes that anyone can navigate this site – not just Capitol insiders who are familiar with the terminology and trappings of lobbying.

For example, he says, you can search for each of three types of players – lobbyists, principals and firms.

"Lobbyists are the actual people doing the lobbying. A principal is someone who would hire the lobby. It could be a company (or) a corporation. A firm is just a company that has a bunch of lobbyists under it," Harhut says.

Click here to access the site.

Education proposal draws unexpected fire

by Damon Boughamer
Public Radio Capitol News, serving Pennsylvania

Harrisburg, Penna. (PRCN, 6 April 2007) – Governor Rendell may have expected vigorous debate this spring on his complex proposals relating to health care, alternative energy and property taxes.

But he's also receiving push-back from the legislature on his plan to expand pre-kindergarten programs, and advocates of such programs are rallying in response.

House Minority Leader Sam Smith unveiled education counter-proposals this past week.

Joan Benso heads Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children as well as an ad hoc group called Pre-K Today. She says Smith has some good ideas.

"Some of the things that Representative Smith proposed, Pennsylvania Partnerships would be happy to support – particularly his proposals around career education and preparing kids for the workforce of the 21st century," Benso says.

But she says it's a mistake to think that pre-kindergarten has nothing to do with strengthening K-through-12 programming.

"Thinking about our K-12 system in the absence of thinking about a pre-K-post-secondary (education) system is not a way to think about preparing for the workers of the 21st century," Benso says.

Benso's groups' ideas are online at

Find Smith's by clicking "Education Alternatives" at