Senate Democratic Wrap-up for the Week of April 10, 2016

 

The Senate unanimously approved House Bill 12, which amends Domestic Relations Law to simplify divorce procedures for spousal abuse victims.

This legislation enables abuse victims to divorce their spouse without needing the spouse’s consent.  This legislation also adds provisions to empower abused spouses to refuse marital counseling with their spouse during divorce procedures, if they have a protection from abuse order filed against them.

Specifically, the bill defines a list of “personal injury crimes.” If an individual is found guilty of any of these crimes against their spouse, mutual consent will no longer be required to obtain a divorce.

The bill was enacted as Act 24 of 2016.

 

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The Senate unanimously approved House Bill 400, which would create the “Work Experience for High School Students with Disabilities Act” to help disabled individuals as they transfer from school into the workforce.

The legislation places responsibilities on the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation (OVR) to assist disabled students with their transition.  The OVR would be in charge of collaborating with schools to help students gain “competitive integrated employment.”  This term refers to an individual’s ability to enter the labor force and perform competitive work, full-time or part-time, and to be paid in the same way as individuals without disabilities.

The OVR will offer disabled people training, guidance, counseling opportunities and coaching.  They are also required to report information on their website about the new law.

The bill was enacted as Act 26 of 2016.

 

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The Senate voted 43-6 in favor of House Bill 794, which gives some counties the option of raising the local hotel tax.

This legislation raises the maximum allowable hotel tax from 3 percent to 5 percent. County commissioners would be empowered to choose the size of their hotel tax.  The option to increase the counties hotel tax rate would only apply to counties of the 3rd though 8th class and to three specified second class A counties.

This legislation also adds provisions for tourism promotion agencies (TPA) and clarifies how a TPA may be created or dissolved. Revenue from the hotel tax will go to the counties’ TPA to be used for marketing and promoting tourism.

The Department of Community and Economic Development has the authority to withhold tax revenue if the TPA fails to submit an annual audit report or the financial statements required by the end of each fiscal year.

The bill was enacted as Act 18 of 2016.

 

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The Senate unanimously approved House Bill 1278, which prohibits motorists from watching live television or prerecorded videos while driving.

This bill prohibits motor vehicles from being operated while an “image display device” is broadcasting “television images, live stream, satellite or any other prerecorded video images.”

Video devices used to display views around the vehicle and GPS devices are exempt. Television-type receiving equipment used for safety or law enforcement purposes is also exempt from the restrictions.

The measure does not prohibit television devices from being located in the front of a vehicle, but does prohibit them from being visible to the driver.

The bill was enacted as Act 19 of 2016.

 

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The Senate unanimously approved House Bill 1319, which would establish the Pennsylvania ABLE (Achieving a Better Life Experience) Savings Program to encourage savings accounts for disabled family members.

This legislation would create a 529-ABLE Plan to encourage families to save money for disabled family members in tax-exempt savings accounts. These plans allow individuals to store after-tax dollars in a tax-deferred savings account. Parents or guardians would be allowed to save money in these accounts for qualified individuals.

Money could be distributed into these savings accounts for individuals who are currently receiving benefits based on blindness or a disability. The money stored in the ABLE savings accounts would be exempt from local and state taxes. This legislation also keeps individuals from losing federal benefits due to savings exceeding a certain limit.

This legislation is similar to Senate Bill 879, which was enacted as Act 17 of 2016. This bill now goes to the House Rules Committee.

 

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The Senate unanimously approved House Bill 1329, which creates the Caregiver Advise, Record and Enable (CARE) Act.  This law allows a patient to designate an individual who will be providing after-care assistance to them as a lay caregiver.  This bill will also require hospitals to notify lay caregivers of a patient’s change in location and provide them with after-care instruction.

Patients or guardians will be given the chance to designate a lay caregiver prior to their release from the hospital.  These caregivers would face no liability because of this designation, but would be privy to the patient’s medical information.  Lay caregivers will be notified if the patient is transferred or discharged.  Patients are not required to designate a lay caregiver.

The legislation also places specific requirements on how caregiver training is to be conducted. The Legislative Budget and Finance Committee is required to conduct a study to see if this legislation reduces the re-admittance of patients for incorrect after-care treatment.

The bill was enacted as Act 20 of 2016.

 

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The Senate approved House Bill 1589 with a vote of 37-11.  This bill amends the Fiscal Code to provide for budget implementation of the General Appropriations Act of 2015 (Act 10A of 2015) and the Supplemental Appropriation Act (Act 1A of 2016). The Fiscal Code is the plan for the implementation of the General Appropriation and the bill makes several key amendments to do the following:

 

  • Limits transfers from the Oil and Gas Lease Fund to the Marcellus Legacy Fund for distribution to the Environmental Stewardship Fund to $20 million;
  • Reauthorizes the Basic Education Funding, Special Education Funding and Community College Funding for the 2015-16 fiscal year using the same distribution plan as the 2014-15 fiscal year;
  • Suspends the pension double payments for charter and cyber charter schools in the 2015-16 fiscal year;
  • Provides for County Human Services in the event of an extended budget impasse;
  • Amends language related to bonds issued to refinance authorized school capital construction grant projects for the reimbursement of school construction projects;
  • This legislation requires the Department of Labor and Industry to appropriate payment to the Vocation Rehabilitation Fund for work-based learning experiences;
  • Authorizes fund transfers from the General Fund to entities such as the Tobacco Settlement Fund, Race Horse Development Fund, Workmen’s Compensation Administration Fund and the Uninsured Employers Guarantee Fund;
  • Permanently transfers slot machine license fees to the General Fund, for any fees received by the Gaming Control Board;
  • Allows for a city of the second class A to charge a local service tax that does not exceed $156;
  • Establishes a Natural Gas Infrastructure Grant Program run through the Commonwealth Financing Authority;
  • Reauthorizes the “Ready to Learn” block grant funding for school districts and charter schools at the 2014-15 fiscal year budget level; and
  • Creates new tax rates for appropriations made to the Department of Community and Economic Development.

The bill was enacted as Act 25 of 2016.

 

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The Senate voted 42-7 in favor of Senate Bill 3, which creates the Medical Marijuana Act for individuals facing severe medical conditions who use medical marijuana for treatment purposes. The following conditions are defined as serious medical conditions:

 

  • Cancer
  • HIV/AIDS
  • Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis
  • Parkinson’s Disease
  • Multiple Sclerosis
  • Damage to the nervous tissue of the spinal cord with objective neurological indication of intractable spasticity
  • Epilepsy
  • Inflammatory Bowel Disease
  • Neuropathies
  • Huntington’s Disease
  • Crohn’s Disease
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  • Intractable Seizures
  • Glaucoma
  • Sickle Cell Anemia
  • Severe Chronic or intractable pain of neuropathic origin or severe chronic or intractable pain which conventional therapeutic intervention and opiate therapy is contraindicated or ineffective
  • Autism

 

Medical marijuana was previously illegal in Pennsylvania because it is listed as Schedule I drug by the federal government. This measure allows individuals with “serious medical conditions” to be prescribed medical marijuana.

This bill allows for the use of medical marijuana in the form of pills, oils, and various other liquid forms. The bill prohibits the drug to be smoked or produced in an edible form.  The law also places restrictions on the use of medical marijuana.

The Pennsylvania Department of Health (DOH) is responsible for implementing this bill. The DOH is required to keep track of all patients and caregivers with identification cards.  These cards allow these individuals to access medical marijuana prescriptions.  The DOH is also responsible for all licensed distributors and producers in Pennsylvania.  Individuals applying to be a caregiver would not be allowed to receive an identification card if they have a drug related offense on their criminal record within the last five years.

The measure allows individuals, partnerships, or corporations to register with the DOH to become either a processor or a dispensary. This legislation provides for the development of Medical Marijuana Research Programs, which will be monitored by the DOH.

The DOH is also required to review all applications and renewals for producers and distributors. The agency will be responsible for maintaining regulations for research programs conducted by hospitals and universities involving medical marijuana. The department will be responsible for submitting a report on the benefits and risks of medical marijuana use under this bill, an assessment of the programs implementation and any safety suggestions.

The bill creates a Medical Marijuana Advisory Board to examine and analyze the use of medical marijuana. The board would be required to create a report within two years on the addition or removal of “serious medical conditions,” suggestions on any change in the number of producers and dispensers and whether to permit medical marijuana to be dispensed in dry leaf or plant form for administration by vaporization.

Individuals seeking a medical marijuana identification card must obtain one from a licensed medical practitioner. Medical physicians seeking to become registered must apply to the DOH.  The department will regulate the conditions under which practitioners may issue the identification cards.

The DOH may only issue permits to 25 processors and 50 dispensaries. Additional restrictions are placed on these entities to avoid monopolies and to avoid the abuse of the distribution of this product.  Dispensaries may not sell at more than three locations in Pennsylvania. Growers are required to pay a $200,000 registration fee and the processor must have $2 million in capital to support the license. Dispensaries are required to pay $30,000 for a registration fee and must have $150,000 in capital to support the license.  Both processors and distributors are required to retain records for four years.

A 5 percent tax will be placed on the processors for the sale of medical marijuana to the dispensaries. The revenue this generates will go to the Medical Marijuana Program Fund to reimburse the DOH for drug abuse prevention and for further research on medical marijuana.

The bill was enacted as Act 16 of 2016.

 

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The Senate unanimously approved Senate Bill 879, which establishes the Pennsylvania ABLE (Achieving a Better Life Experience) Savings Program and the ABLE Savings Program Fund to encourage the creation of savings accounts for disabled individuals.

This legislation would create a 529-ABLE Plan to encourage families to save money for disabled family members in tax-exempt savings accounts. These plans allow individuals to store after-tax dollars in a tax-deferred savings account. Parents or guardians of individuals with certain disabilities would be allowed to save money in these accounts.

Money can be contributed into these saving accounts for an individual currently receiving benefits based on blindness or a disability. Individuals saving for disability costs run the risk of losing federal benefits if their savings exceed a certain limit. The money stored in the ABLE savings accounts will not be exempt from local and state taxes.

The bill was amended to add provisions for ABLE savings accounts that have been terminated by the Treasury Department. Accounts may be closed if it is “in the best interest of the program or the designated beneficiary” and individuals are allowed to appeal this decision.

A similar measure, House Bill 1319, is pending in the House. Senate Bill 879 was enacted as Act 17 of 2016.

 

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The Senate unanimously approved Senate Bill 1114, which would amend the Pennsylvania Sewage Facilities Act to provide for alternative sewage disposal systems.

The current law only allows for the use of conventional sewage systems. This legislation would allow individuals to propose “alternative systems” to the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).  Alternative systems would be defined as systems that dispose of sewage using other means not currently regulated by the DEP. Alternative systems would need to be approved by a local sewage enforcement officer.

This bill is designed to help regulate the disposal of waste and would allow for alternative systems to be used for certain situations. Examples of these situations include times when a public health issue exists, when traditional systems do not function properly at a given location or to allow for entities to use the best possible waste disposal system available for their site.

The bill now goes to the House Environmental Resources and Energy Committee.

 

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The Senate unanimously approved Senate bill 1152, which would amend the Vehicle Code to require children under the age of two to be placed in a rear-facing car seat.

This legislation would require car-seats to be oriented towards the rear of the vehicle if the child is under the age of two — until the child exceeds the “maximum weight and height limits” specified for the safety-seat.

The bill also amends language to require a driver under the age of 18 to properly secure any passengers under the age of 8 in a safety seat belt.

The bill now goes to the House Transportation Committee.

 

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The Senate unanimously approved Senate Bill 1155, which amends the Vehicle Code to provide for special license plates for members of the U.S. armed forces.

This bill would allow PennDOT to issue special recognition license plates to active members of the armed forces, reserves and Pennsylvania National Guard. The plates may be purchased for an additional $20 fee, in addition to the registration fee. These special license plates would only be eligible to be placed on passenger trucks and cars.

The bill now goes to the House Transportation Committee.

 

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