Senate Democratic Wrap-up for the Week of June 28, 2015

 

In a party-line vote, the Senate voted 30-19 in favor of the 2015-16 state budget legislation. The $29.59 spending plan (House Bill 1192) would have appropriated $1.01 billion more than the previous year.

Two of the larger appropriation changes would have been the change in the Lottery Fund and the Motor Licenses Fund. The Lottery Fund would have been cut by $130 million and the Motor License Fund would have gone up by $181 million over the previous year.

Many Democrats criticized the GOP plan for being gimmicky; exhausting one-time revenue sources, shortchanging schools, social services and jobs programs; and giving gas drillers a pass on paying a modest extraction tax. They charged that the bill was similar to last year’s “phony” budget that left the state in a budget hole.

They also criticized the budget for providing no property tax relief and hiking school funds by only $8 million over the 2014-15 year.

The bill was vetoed by Gov. Tom Wolf as Veto No. 1 of 2015. The governor stated in his veto message that their people of Pennsylvania deserved to have a budget plan that “contains fair and adequate education funding.” The governor added that lawmakers failed to provide a gas drilling severance tax or provide property tax relief. The governor noted: “The budget is not balanced, it would increase the deficit to over $3 billion, it will lead to continued credit downgrades for Pennsylvania, it includes over $1.5 billion in one-time revenues and payment delays until next year, it does not include the restoration of the education cuts enacted over the last four years, and the budget fails our children from early childhood to higher education.”

 

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The Senate voted 27-22 in favor of House Bill 466, which would have privatized the state’s liquor industry.

The bill would have create 1,200 Wine and Spirits Retail Licenses. For the first 12-months after enactment, the licenses would have been sold to existing distributers to create one stop shopping for wine, spirits and beer. After this time the remaining licenses would have been sold to the public. The PLCB (Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board) would have an additional 600 licenses that they may choose to sell depending on the availability of products in certain areas. These liquor licenses would be used to create businesses all over Pennsylvania and to replace the state Wine and Spirit Retail Stores.

With the transition to new retail stores, the PLCB would have focused on four concerns to make sure customers were not negatively impacted by the changes. This included: product pricing, availability, store profitability, and the locations of the new retail stores.

The Senate Appropriations Committee estimated that the bill would have generated approximately $220 million in additional revenue for fiscal 2015-16.

The bill also would have: created liquor licenses for grocery stores; allowed beer distributors to sell six-packs and 12-packs; increased the amount of liquor sold in restaurants for off-site consumption; and issued wholesale permits for licensed importers with a 10 year distribution provision.

Opposition to the bill came from both Democrats and Republicans. Democrats proposed “modernization” instead of privatization to improve the liquor stores in the public sector and generate new continuous revenue. Republicans expressed concerns about the potential lack of retail stores in rural areas. Many also criticized the bill for potentially selling off a long-term asset for short-term gain. There were also concerns that the measure would make alcohol more available to minors and cause problems in urban neighborhoods.

Through the transition to private retail stores, it was estimated that about 4,000 state employees would have lost their jobs. However, the bill would have created a grant program to help employees with re-training and give them preference for other state jobs.

The bill was vetoed by Gov. Tom Wolf (Veto No. 2 of 2015). The governor stated, “It makes bad business sense for the commonwealth and consumers to sell off an asset, especially before maximizing its value.” The governor added that consumers would see higher prices and less of a selection. He insisted that “there are many more responsible options available.”

 

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The Senate unanimously approved House Bill 73, which amends Title 42 (Judiciary and Judicial Procedure) to require counseling agencies that provide services to sexually violent predators to inform the local district attorney and the chief law enforcement officer that they are being counseled in their area.

The bill was enacted as Act 20 of 2015.

 

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The Senate unanimously approved House Bill 140, which removes carpooling and vanpooling from being considered as public utilities.

This change ends the Public Utility Commission’s (PUC) oversight of commuter ridesharing. By making this change, the measure will make it easier for businesses to offer ridesharing, save money for motorists/passengers and reduce the number of vehicles on the road.

This bill redefines a “ridesharing operator” to describe the various entities that rent or lease a ridesharing vehicle to provide carpooling or vanpooling opportunities.

The bill was enacted as Act 22 of 2015.

 

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The Senate unanimously approved House Bill 157, which amends Title 51 (Military Affairs) to help veterans transition from their military life to a civilian career.

The bill ensures that a veteran’s military education and training are considered and applicable in seeking jobs with certain state agencies.

The definition of a veteran is redefined as “an individual who has served in the U.S. Armed Forces, including a reserve component and national guard, and who has been discharged or released from the service under conditions other than dishonorable.”

The bill was enacted as Act 23 of 2015.

 

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The Senate unanimously approved House Bill 164, which would step up efforts to stop animal fighting.

This legislation would make it a third degree misdemeanor to possess of any drug, device, or object used to train or engage animals in staged fights.

Police officers no longer need to actually catch individuals in the act of staging animal fights, but can take preventative steps if they catch people who possess materials that are part and parcel of the cruel fights.

The bill was enacted as Act 24 of 2015.

 

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The Senate unanimously approved House Bill 221, which would provide law enforcement officers and district judges with additional training to help them identify and deal with individuals with mental health conditions.

This legislation implements training for police officers and magisterial district judges to help them identify people who have autism, Tourette Syndrome or other mental illnesses/disabilities. The bill is aimed at getting mentally ill people the appropriate help and treatment, and them from being unnecessarily harmed or killed when law enforcement can use safer and more effective ways to de-escalate incidents.

The bill was enacted as Act 25 of 2015.

 

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The Senate unanimously approved House Bill 229, which adds cyber harassment of a child to the Crimes Code.

Under the measure, this harassment includes repeated cyber comments or threats about a child’s sexuality, mental health, physical characteristics or other traits with the aim to embarrass or humiliate. For adults, the offense is a third degree misdemeanor. Juveniles convicted of cyber harassment would be required to attend a sensitivity/anti-bullying program.

The bill was enacted as Act 26 of 2015.

 

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The Senate unanimously approved House Bill 272, which changes the process for how evidence in sexual assault cases is tested.

The legislation requires the Department of Health to identify approved labs for evidence testing and establish guidelines for laboratories’ evidence processing. The bill establishes more rights for the victims by making all analyses of their case evidence available to them. The bill establishes a time limit for conducting and processing rape case testing. These changes are intended to provide efficiency and consistency for the sensitive evidence in these cases.

The new regulations require a report of the number of outstanding backlogged cases that a lab is unable to process in six months. From this information, a public report will be created and issued to the General Assembly for monitoring purposes.

The bill was enacted as Act 27 of 2015.

 

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In a party-line vote, the senate voted 30-19 in favor of House Bill 762, which would have provided the fiscal 2015-16 school code.

Under the bill, community colleges, special and basic education, and libraries would have been funded using the same calculation method as the previous fiscal year.

This bill would also have allowed for interstate postsecondary distance education. This exchange of education would have expanded online education services and reduced costs.

The legislation would also have established the Member Public School Building Construction & Reconstruction Advisory Committee to advise on all school construction projects. This bill would have created the Postsecondary Distance Education Interstate Reciprocity Agreement Restricted Receipts Account fund to manage fees and appropriations from the general fund.

The bill was vetoed by the governor as Veto No. 3 of 2015. The governor stated, “This bill is the school code bill, which implements aspects of the General Appropriations bill for the 2015-2016 fiscal year. As I vetoed the General Appropriations bill, I will also veto this implementation of it.” The Governor said he agrees with several aspects of the bill, such as the Basic Education Funding distribution to a variety of student-focused programs. However, because this bill only increases the K-12 Education funding by $8 million from the previous budget, the governor said he would not sign a school code bill that does not “thoroughly and efficiently” provide for Pennsylvania’s schools.

 

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The Senate unanimously approved House Bill 972, which amends the Insurance Company Law to provide for the electronic delivery of insurance policies and annuities.

Previously, insurers had to hand-carry or use certified mail to deliver a policy or annuity. This legislation allows for electronic delivery of policies and annuities. The insurance issuer will be required to maintain a copy of the electronic transaction dates and delivery information for the length of the policy as a means to prove the policy or annuity was sent.

The bill was enacted as Act 30 of 2015.

 

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The Senate unanimously approved House Bill 1071, which will amend the Permit Extension Act in order to clarify language in the law

The Permit Extension Act provides for the extension of state and local building permits. This bill aims to clarify Act 54 of 2013 (House Bill 784) (Permit Extension Act) which was intended to cover the right to convert or withdrawal real estate. Courts have interpreted Act 54 differently than how it was intended and this amendment will save money and save time.

The bill amends definitions and includes language for the automatic suspension of permits that provides for a suspended tolling period. This legislation amends the automatic suspension of permits so that the statute is delayed instead of extending the expiration date.

The bill was enacted as Act 31 of 2015.

 

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The Senate unanimously approved House Bill 1276, which amends Child Protective Services Law to make it less restrictive for community volunteers who work with kids to obtain criminal background checks.

The definition for “direct contact” will be modified and the definition of “routine interaction” will be added. By making these changes, certain volunteers and individuals working with children would not be considered the primary person responsible for the children and would need different clearances.

The legislation would also require volunteers who have not lived in Pennsylvania for the last 10 years to obtain a criminal background check only once when establishing residency. Minors that are employed will be exempt from obtaining the FBI criminal background check if he or she has been a state resident for the last 10 years.

This legislation will also make employees’ clearances transferable. Currently, employees must obtain new clearances for each job they hold.

The bill was enacted as Act 15 of 2015.

 

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In a near party line vote, the Senate voted 29-20 in favor of Senate Bill 1, which would have changed the public pension system for teachers and state workers.

The proposal would have created a 401k-style pension system for newly hired employees who are members of either the State Employees’ Retirement System or Public School Employees’ Retirement System.

Under the bill, employees would have opted to either increase their contribution rate or accept a reduced benefit. Benefits already earned by current employees or retirees would not have been affected. Republicans claimed the bill would protect benefits while shielding taxpayers from the growing unfunded debt. They claimed the measure could save $18.3 billion over 30 years.

The bill was amended in the House to change criteria for an employee to receive certain benefits and rates. A list of positions (different types of police officers) was added in the amendment to exempt these individuals from the direct contribution plan implemented by this bill. The amendment also removed the requirement for pre-Act 120 members to pay a higher contribution to keep their higher accrual rate. The amendment would also have considered employer contributions to SERS as pre-tax dollars

Apart from complaining that the 400-page bill was rushed through the Senate with little review and no hearings, Senate Democrats said the bill was unconstitutional since it would alter pensions for workers already in the system.

The bill was vetoed by the governor as Veto No. 5 of 2015. He said the bill provided no immediate cost savings to taxpayers and did not maximize long-term savings for taxpayers. The governor also noted that the measure “violates federal tax law as it would be considered an impermissible cash or deferred arrangement (CODA). In addition, he said the bill would have “forced newly-hired employees to pay down the unfunded liability of existing pension plans, caused by years of government’s failure to make obligated payments, while denying new employees the full benefit of their contributions.”

 

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The Senate voted 27-22 in favor of Senate Bill 6, which would amend the school code to create the Achievement School District (ASD) program to maintain and manage schools that cannot turn around their consistent low-performance. This bill would be entitled The Educational Opportunity and Accountability Act.

The ASD would create a board of directors and have the power to manage and implement transformative changes to schools all over Pennsylvania. The ASD could also intervene and implement changes in the lowest 5 percent of schools in Pennsylvania.   These changes aim to provide relief to families and taxpayers by increasing accountability in Pennsylvania’s lowest-performing schools.

The ASD would have the right to make substantial changes in school districts, including: replacing the principal and at least half of the staff, converting schools to charter schools, closing schools and transferring students to higher performing schools.

The bill now goes to House Education Committee.

 

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The Senate unanimously approved Senate Bill 42, which amends Title 75 (Vehicles) to fine on any individual who falsely claims to be a veteran on their Pennsylvania driver’s license application. Any individuals found guilty of this third degree misdemeanor are subject to a fine of up to $2,500 and/or a year in prison.

The bill was enacted as Act 32 of 2015.

 

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The Senate voted 48-1 in favor of Senate Bill 95, which would amend Title 42 (Judiciary & Judicial Procedure) to provide immunity for constitutionally protected communication.

Bill supporters claim there has been an increase in court cases regarding companies and individuals giving their opinions to support a public interest or regulation. In several instances, businesses file suit against these people as a means to “to deter or silence critics” from expressing their view. For example, a person providing an on-line opinion about a business, service or product is often subject to these kinds of suits.

The bill seeks to curb Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP).

Under the bill, no civil actions, regarding protected communications, can be taken against any individual involved in protected communications. This legislation would allow courts to swiftly dismiss cases if it is found that they are stemming from constitutionally protected communications. If the individual or organization defending the civil case prevails and the case is dismissed, the defendant would be entitled to repayment for all damages and costs associated with the case.

The bill now goes to the House Judiciary Committee.

 

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The Senate unanimously approved Senate Bill 533, which would outline the procedure for dealing with contraband left in possession of parole and probation agencies.

The legislation would apply to all situations in which two years have passed since the parolee was in the jurisdiction of the court. Notice would have to be sent to inform the parolee that the item has been declared abandoned and no other claim could be made on the item.

After an item has been held and attempted to be properly returned, it will become property of the county probation and parole department. If it is refused by the Treasury Department, the items may then be destroyed, sold, donated to a nonprofit organization, or used for the official use of the county department.

The bill now goes to the House Judiciary Committee.

 

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The Senate unanimously approved Senate Bill 536, which would amend current Insurance Company Law to give cancer patients access to choose the best method of treatment.

Instead of only being able to choose intravenous chemotherapy methods, individuals would have oral chemotherapy as a feasible cancer treatment option. The option has always been available; however, oral chemotherapy has lower health coverage compared to other chemotherapy options.

This legislation would require health insurance companies to provide equivalent coverage for oral chemotherapy. Health insurance companies would be required to have the same billing structure for both intravenous chemotherapy and oral chemotherapy.

Similar legislation was previously introduced, Senate Bill 402, in the 2013-2014 session. That bill died in the Senate Banking and Insurance Committee.

Senate Bill 536 now goes to the House Health Committee.

 

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The Senate unanimously approved Senate Bill 566, which would amend the Housing Finance Agency Law to provide funding for the PA Housing Affordability and Rehabilitation Enhancement Fund (PHARE).

Currently PHARE is only receiving revenue from impact fees. The revenue obtained from these fees is only allowed to be used in the counties where the revenue is obtained. This legislation would expand funding to all counties across Pennsylvania.

The bill would require money to be transferred from the Realty Transfer Tax (RTT) to the Housing Trust Fund. By transferring this revenue, PHARE hopes to improve housing conditions and affordable housing opportunities. With the additional revenue, PHARE could expand and offer services to all counties across Pennsylvania. The fund would “assist with the creation, rehabilitation and support of affordable housing.”

Similar legislation (SB 1380) passed the Senate Urban Affairs and Housing Committee last session, but died in the Senate Appropriations Committee.

The bill now goes to the House Urban Affairs Committee.

 

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The Senate unanimously approved Senate Bill 620, which releases land from Project 70 restrictions. This legislation will release land in the Carlisle area to create a park and open land for the community. The bill was enacted as Act 36 of 2015.

 

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In a party-line vote, the Senate voted 30-19 in favor of Senate Bill 655, which would have established the 2015-2016 Fiscal Code.

The bill would also have amended the Fiscal Code to extend the expiration date for the State Workers’ Insurance Fund until June 30, 2019.       The House amended the bill to include an amendment to the fiscal code to implement the 2015-2016 State Budget.

The bill was vetoed by the Gov. Tom Wolf (Veto No. 4 of 2015). In his veto message, he stated, “As I vetoed the General Appropriations bill, I will also veto its implementation.” The governor called Senate Bill 655 one part of a budget plan that does not produce a balanced budget for Pennsylvania. Ultimately, the governor said the legislature failed to provide “adequate funding to ensure Pennsylvanians have schools that teach our students.”

 

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The Senate unanimously approved Senate Bill 748, which amends Title 75 (Vehicles) to eliminate the mandatory police escort for super-sized truck loads.

This measure removes the need for a police escort for large loads, which in turn will reduce the costs of providing escorts for these vehicles. Drivers of certified escort vehicles are added to the list traffic controllers. The measure also requires that drivers of escort vehicles be certified and licensed by PennDOT. Definitions are amended under this legislation, as well as the list of items that may be required to be escorted or transported on a super-sized truck.

The bill was enacted as Act 55 of 2015.

 

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The Senate unanimously approved Senate Bill 756, which would amend Title 64 (Public Authorities and Quasi-Public Corporations) to amend provisions regarding the First Industries Program expiration date.

The First Industries Program is designed to improve Pennsylvania’s agriculture and tourism industry. The program provides financial tools targeted toward assisting the agriculture industry.

Currently, Farm Credit Institutions are eligible for loans from the First Industries Program, but the participation expiration date for these institutions is July 15, 2015. This legislation would remove that expiration date and allow these institutions to continue to be in the First Industries Program. In addition, the bill would require Farm Industries to have at least $500,000 in private funds in order to receive a loan.

The bill is currently in the House.

 

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The Senate unanimously approved Senate Bill 862, which would amend the Public School Code to align background check requirements with the Child Protective Services law.

The bill would require that school employment and school volunteer applicants have clearance forms (such as criminal background check, fingerprint background check and child abuse clearance) that are no more than five years old. Current employees would also be required to obtain updated clearances every five years. The current requirement is one year. This legislation would save employees and applicants a lot of money in renewing clearances.

The bill now moves to the House Education Committee.

 

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The Senate unanimously approved Senate Bill 871, which would amend the First Class Township Code to implement a $100 limit on all gifts.

The bill specifies that money could be used to purchase flowers, plaques or other tangible property, but could not be used as a cash gift or gift certificate.

The bill now goes to the House Local Government Committee.

 

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The Senate unanimously approved Senate Bill 887, which would amend Title 75 (Vehicle Code) to protect highway workers and emergency responders in construction zones.

This legislation is aimed at taking preventative action against reckless and speeding drivers. This bill was inspired due to the high number of deaths of highway workers and emergency responders on Pennsylvania highways the last few decades.

This bill would add several fines related to the death or harm of highway workers in highway work zones. For endangerment of a highway worker, causing bodily harm, a fine of $1,000. For serious bodily harm a driver would be fined up to $5,000 and lose his or her license for six months. A fine of $10,000 and the loss of one’s license for one year would be the fine given to any driver who causes death to a highway worker.

The bill now goes to the House Appropriations Committee.

 

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The Senate voted 46-3 in favor of Senate Bill 928, which would amend Title 75 (Vehicles Code) to increase the minimum financial responsibility requirement for all motor vehicles.

The minimum for bodily injury for one person would change from $15,000 to $25,000. For two individuals the minimum would change from $30,000 to $50,000. For property damage the requirement would change from $5,000 to $15,000.

The bill requires PennDOT to sell statewide basic driver information to wholesale distributors and publish it in the Pennsylvania Bulletin.

The bill now goes to the House Insurance Committee.

 

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