EASTON (WSKG) -- On the eastern border of Pennsylvania, north of the Philadelphia suburbs, a cluster of state Senate districts appear -- at first glance -- to be arbitrarily drawn. They twist and tangle their way through Bucks, Lehigh, Montgomery, Northampton, Chester and Monroe Counties. It's an area that's long been a Republican enclave, but has more recently started to lean further left. But the way the districts are drawn happens to give many Republicans wide margins, while sometimes making things confusing for individual cities and communities. The 24th Senate District, which has been represented by Republican Bob Mensch since 2009, looks kind of like a sailboat. Or maybe some kind of bird.
HARRISBURG (WSKG) -- The field for the 2018 lieutenant governor election is filling up, with a number of Democrats jumping into the often-low-key race. That could mean a tough battle for incumbent Mike Stack, who has struggled through public conflicts with fellow Democrat, Governor Tom Wolf. State representative Madeleine Dean, who has served part of Montgomery County since 2012, is the latest entry to the race. So far, she has avoided bashing other candidates. But asked if the Lieutenant Governor's office has used more resources than it warrants, she offered some criticism that seemed aimed at Stack. "You know, the current climate shows that it has not," she said.
HARRISBURG (WSKG) -- Several Republican state senators plan to introduce legislation that would require Pennsylvania to use zero-based budgeting--a standard specifically designed to save money. The idea comes from lawmakers' annual, unsuccessful struggles to balance the commonwealth's books. However, other states that have attempted to use the method have often opted not to stick with it. Zero-based budgeting basically requires a rotating percentage of state agencies to re-justify all their operations and expenses every five years, and estimate the minimum amount of money they need to continue them. The author of the new measure, York County Republican Scott Wagner, said he's taking cues from the private sector.
HARRISBURG (WSKG) -- Pennsylvania's Supreme Court is deciding whether Governor Tom Wolf overstepped his authority with an executive order letting the state organize home healthcare workers under a union-like structure. A lower court already decided against the governor once. But lawyers for the Wolf administration argue the governor's directive merely gives workers an option to voice their concerns. The 2015 order--one of Wolf's first in office--targets independent workers who care for elderly and disabled people in their homes. It has them pick representatives to meet with the state human services secretary about issues like pay and benefits. It also gives their contact information to representative groups, which opponents say could facilitate future organizing.
HARRISBURG (WSKG) -- A judge has issued an injunction that will at least delay state lawmakers from getting some of the money they planned for in the revenue plan they finished last month. The cash is tied to a pending case about whether the state can constitutionally force the Joint Underwriting Association--a medical malpractice insurer--to give up $200 million. This is the second year lawmakers have tried to take surplus money from the JUA to help balance perennial budget gaps. The state created the JUA in 1975, and its funds and surplus have since been kept independent. Its employees don't get state benefits, it's not housed in a state building, and a spokeswoman has said the group is entirely funded by contributions from those it insures.
HARRISBURG (WSKG) -- The state House has passed a bill to reauthorize the Children's Health Insurance Program, which covers kids from families who make too much to qualify for Medicaid, but can't afford other insurance. The routine bill became controversial this year, because the Senate inserted language that would have prohibited CHIP from covering transgender kids' transition surgeries. The House axed that provision; now the bill returns to the Senate. The deadline for reauthorization is the end of the year. House GOP Leader Dave Reed said it would be irresponsible to tie up CHIP care while debating whether the surgeries should be covered. "That's better to deal with separately, while not endangering 200,000 kids and their families going into the holiday season," he said. But that doesn't mean the issue of whether CHIP should pay for gender confirmation surgery is resolved.
HARRISBURG (WSKG) -- After a year of fights over how to pay for Pennsylvania's claims system for jobless workers, lawmakers say they're getting close to a bipartisan solution. A standoff last year over financial mismanagement in the unemployment compensation program resulted in nearly 500 layoffs. Some workers have since been brought back, but not all. A new plan passed through the House Labor and Industry Committee on Monday would give the UC program $115.2 million, which would be gradually phased out over four years. That's less money than the program was getting before the layoffs, and it's unclear if it would be enough to rehire any more furloughed workers. $115.2 million is also significantly less than Governor Tom Wolf had asked for, and a lot more than Republican Committee Chair Rob Kauffman originally proposed.
HARRISBURG (WSKG) -- House lawmakers have begun moving a natural severance tax through their chamber. It's major priority for Democrats, who have been trying unsuccessfully to pass one for a decade. But it's slow going--the bill is saddled with well over 300 amendments. Along with Democrats, the tax is championed by a coalition of moderate, largely southeastern Republicans. GOP Representative Kate Harper, of Montgomery County, is one of the most vocal advocates. "Members," Harper told colleagues in her floor testimony, "we're broke.
HARRISBURG (WSKG) -- Pennsylvania is already on track to have a significant budget gap to fill next year. A study from the Independent Fiscal Office shows lawmakers will likely need to come up with about a billion dollars to keep the books balanced. They only just finished this year’s budget, four months behind schedule. It was mostly filled with borrowing, expected revenue from a gambling expansion and a number of internal fund transfers. Much of the money isn’t recurring, and that’s a big reason why the IFO is predicting the state will have to find more cash next year.
HARRISBURG (WSKG) -- The state legislature has received its yearly audit, which looks at reserves lawmakers keep on hand in case pay for themselves and their staff gets cut off during a budget impasse. This year's review showed a smaller surplus than last year's, with overall legislative reserves decreasing from $118 million and change last year, to around $95 million as of this June. However, the surplus could be significantly bigger than it appears in the report. Lawmakers are often pressured to cut down on their excess cash, particularly in the face of the commonwealth's recent budgeting woes. Cumberland County Representative Mark Keller, the Republican chair of the audit process, said there was some belt-tightening.