Here Are Four Ways 2020 Will Shape PA Politics Moving Forward

PHILADELPHIA, PA (WITF) – It’s not easy to recognize important historical moments while they’re happening. But 2020 has been a year marked by disaster and debacle. It has featured a deadly global pandemic, a reckoning over racism in the wake of several Black Americans killed by police, and a tense, litigious election. Looking back, historians, political insiders, and on-the-ground organizers agree that the last 12 months or so will leave an indelible impression. “I don’t know a historian right now who isn’t still kind of in shock,” said Timothy Lombardo, a Philadelphia-born historian of conservative politics.

After Critical Report, PA Police Review Their Role In ICE Deportations

HARRISBURG, PA (WSKG) – Pennsylvania’s state police force is reviewing its interactions with the federal immigration and customs enforcement, in the wake of a series of investigative reports questioning the legality of troopers using traffic stops to detain people in the country illegally. It’s still not clear how law enforcement agency will change their procedures, or when. An investigation by ProPublica and the Philadelphia Inquirer found the Philadelphia Immigration and Customs Enforcement office–which oversees Pennsylvania, Delaware, and West Virginia–arrests more undocumented immigrants without criminal convictions than any other ICE office in the country. Unlike police in many other states, Pennsylvania state troopers don’t have official partnerships with ICE –nor do they have limits on questioning people about their legal status. It’s largely up to individual troopers to decide whether to question people about their immigration status or contact ICE agents.

Wolf, Lawmakers Push A Raft Of Criminal Justice Overhauls

HARRISBURG, PA (WSKG) – Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf and a number of legislators are advocating for a slew of changes to the state’s criminal justice system. The call comes in the wake of a few victories for reform advocates, but in the face of opposition from a significant portion of the legislature’s GOP majority. On the agenda are eight initiatives, including standardizing bail across counties, pumping more money into public defense, providing a clean slate for old misdemeanors, and a second phase of Justice Reinvestment initiatives aimed at reducing recidivism. Some of those, like the clean slate bill, are already moving through the legislature and have garnered bipartisan support. “These reforms would save us precious time and money spent incarcerating people who are better-served through programs and services–people who simply don’t belong in prison,” Wolf said at a press conference outside the Dauphin County Judicial Center.

GOP Guts Bill Proposing Independent Redistricting Commission

KEYSTONE CROSSROADS — The Pennsylvania legislature would get more control over how state legislative boundary lines are drawn under an amended bill that passed out of the House Government Committee along party lines Wednesday. The original bill removed lawmakers from the process in favor of an independent citizens’ commission. State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler, says lawmakers are the most accountable of anyone who might be tasked with legislative reapportionment. “The best way to make sure we have citizens actually being the ones redrawing, citizens who are held accountable to their fellow citizens who elect them to office, and are not just going to go away after the work is done, and be held accountable in the future for their decisions, is to totally gut and replace this bill,” said Metcalfe, committee chairman. Metcalfe’s amendment completely changed House Bill 722 from its original intent.

Amid Allegations, House GOP Proposes Studying Workplace Harassment

HARRISBURG, PA (WSKG) — State House Republicans are announcing two proposals aimed at curbing workplace harassment. The effort comes after one of their members–Delaware County’s Nick Miccarelli — was accused of harassment by fellow House Republican Tarah Toohil, of Luzerne County. She now has a restraining order against him. A few other lawmakers have also been accused of harassment in recent months. The GOP measures diverge significantly from previous solutions offered up by Democrats.

Pennsylvania Medical Marijuana Program Enters Final Stages of Rollout

HARRISBURG (WSKG) — Pennsylvanians have started receiving identification cards to get medication through the commonwealth’s new medical marijuana program. More than 10,000 people have registered, but only about 1,188 have been approved so far. Medical marijuana ID cards started going out to patients in mid-December, with 435 released in the first wave. The Department of Health says more are being issued as we speak. Acting DOH Secretary Rachel Levine said people can actually start getting medication sometime during the next four months–though it’s still unclear exactly when.

PA Officials: Budget Constraints Limit Care For Mentally Ill Inmates

KEYSTONE CROSSWORDS – Following a U.S. Department of Justice investigation in 2014, the Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania filed a lawsuit against the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, demanding changes to provide better care for mentally ill inmates. DOC settled in 2015, and three years later, the state says it no longer uses solitary confinement as prevalently. “We no longer utilize the same level of segregation that we did prior to the reports and the investigations,” said Lynn Patrone, DOC’s mental health advocate. She said the department is working to meet the requirement that the settlement put forward to divert inmates into treatment instead of solitary confinement. Patrone said even when the misconduct of inmates with mental illness results in solitary confinement, they are offered 20 hours of out-of-cell activities per week.

Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Lawsuit Over Royalty Payments Advances

A lawsuit is moving forward by the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office alleging natural gas companies didn’t pay royalties to landowners as they’d promised. Bradford County Common Pleas Court Judge Kenneth Brown denied the preliminary objections raised by the defendants, Chesapeake Energy and Anadarko Petroleum. The lawsuit, filed in 2015, accuses the companies of violating the Unfair Trade Practices and Consumer Protection Law, by promising landowners royalty money they never paid. You can read the full story here.

Calls For Change Mount After Harassment Allegations Against Pennsylvania Lawmakers

HARRISBURG (WSKG) — On the heels of recent Philadelphia Inquirer and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette stories on alleged sexual harassment by state lawmakers, a number of officials are calling for a change. The latest story concerns 40-year veteran lawmaker Thomas Caltagirone, a Berks County Democrat. The House Democratic caucus paid a quarter million taxpayer dollars to settle a harassment complaint a staffer made against him. A non-disclosure agreement kept the whole thing under wraps. A few weeks before that was reported, fellow House Democrat Leanne Krueger-Braneky, of Delaware County, said a different news story made her realize the settlements were happening and being kept secret.

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Eastern PA Democratic Lawmaker Joins Crowded Race For Lieutenant Governor

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.

PA Lawmakers Float Stringent Budget Bill To Save Money

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.

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PA’s Highest Court Considers Governor’s Appeal In Home Care Case

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.

Judge Halts PA’s Attempt To Take Funds From Insurer

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.

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PA House Passes “Clean” CHIP Renewal, Without Ban On Transgender Coverage

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.

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PA Lawmakers Nearing Agreement On Funding Jobless System

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.

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PA House Begins Debate Over Natural Gas Drilling Tax

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.

$1-Billion Hole Projected For Next Year’s PA Budget

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.

Audit Shows PA Legislature Has A $95-Million Surplus

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.

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Arrests At PA Capitol Rally For Redistricting, Gift Reform

HARRISBURG (WSKG) – Several activists were arrested Monday while blocking a hallway during a rally at the state Capitol.  Many had just finished a three-day walk from Lancaster to Harrisburg–the second one they’ve done this year. The group’s goal is to call attention to stalled bills that would ban gifts to lawmakers and seek to make the redistricting process less partisan. The walk to the Capitol was 36 miles, and temperatures fell below freezing at times. But when the March on Harrisburg group reached the Capitol, their energy was high Several members dressed in the red stripes of children’s book character Where’s Waldo–a dig at House members, who had canceled their regular session day for an informal nonvoting session. Rachel Brewer, of national anti-corruption group Represent.US, called out Republican House State Government Committee Chair Daryl Metcalfe in particular.

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For Second Time, Malpractice Insurer Sues PA Over Funding

HARRISBURG (WSKG) – State lawmakers are running into legal issues over a component of the budget plan they passed last month. Some $200 million of the plan is slated to be appropriated from a group that insures healthcare providers against malpractice claims. However, the group has sued to keep that money. The state established the Joint Underwriting Association in the 1970s, so lawmakers say they have the authority to appropriate its funds as needed.  But the JUA contends its money are private, because it comes from investments and premiums from policyholders. Its employees also don’t receive state benefits. This is the second time the disagreement over the association’s status has resulted in a lawsuit.

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Moody’s Raises Questions About PA’s Gaming Expansion

HARRISBURG (WSKG) — A Moody’s credit rating agency report shows Pennsylvania’s recent gambling expansion may not be that great for casinos, and could run the risk of making the commonwealth less attractive to the industry.   The expansion will allow up to 10 new mini casinos to start operating, as well as video gambling terminals in truck stops. Moody’s analyst Peggy Holloway said the moves could siphon revenue from existing casinos. “Based on some commentary from the operators, they’re not that happy with the way the bill was set up,” she said. A spokesman for the Wolf administration noted, lawmakers tried to address concerns by requiring new casinos to be a certain distance from the current ones, and giving existing operators first dibs on licenses. But Holloway said even with safeguards, she’s worried there won’t be enough business to go around.

PA Voters Pass Property Tax Amendment

HARRISBURG (WSKG) — Along with electing a number of judges Tuesday night, Pennsylvania voters agreed to a ballot measure that will amend the constitution to let municipalities stop charging property taxes. It’s a step forward in an ongoing fight to lower the commonwealth’s controversial, high property tax rates. But it’s not likely to have a practical impact anytime soon. Under previous constitutional language, local governments could only exempt up to 50 percent of their median home value from property taxes. Now, they can technically exempt all homeowners.

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With Election Results In, Many PA Dems Optimistic About Next Year

HARRISBURG (WSKG) — Tuesday night saw some big wins for Democrats around the country–but Pennsylvania’s elections were mostly lower-profile, and ended with more of a political mixed bag.  Onlookers in the commonwealth say they’re already ahead looking to 2018. The commonwealth’s top-of-the-ticket race was for a term on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, between Republican interim justice Sallie Mundy and Democratic family court judge Dwayne Woodruff, who’s also a former Pittsburgh Steeler. Mundy, who outstripped Woodruff in fundraising and endorsements, won the seat. Alex Reber, a Dauphin County Democratic official who spent election night at a Harrisburg watch party, said that doesn’t necessarily signify anything about Democrats’ prospects in future state elections. “Sallie Mundie was endorsed by a lot of unions, so when they’re backing the Republican–I don’t think that’s a good test,” he said.

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It’ll Take At Least A Year To Enact PA’s New Gambling Expansion

HARRISBURG (WSKG) – Pennsylvania is starting the lengthy process of making far-reaching expansions to its gambling industry.  Among the law’s major provisions are legalization of video gaming terminals–or VGTs–in truck stops, and licensing of 10 new miniature casinos. Counties can opt not to allow VGTs, and municipalities can do the same for mini-casinos. State Gaming Control Board Spokesman Doug Harbach said those moves have to happen by December 29 and 31, respectively, but they haven’t heard from anyone yet. “These government bodies will be working with their solicitors to look at the language and then making some decisions in the near future,” he predicted. The number of counties and municipalities that opt out of the expansion will help determine how much revenue the state gets.

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‘People Are Furious’: Wolf Aide Criticized After Downplaying Royalty Problems

Advocates for Pennsylvania landowners are challenging a statement made recently by one of Governor Tom Wolf’s top aides, after he said complaints over unfair gas royalty payments have subsided. In some cases, Pennsylvania mineral owners have received royalty checks showing negative balances, saying they owe money to drillers. At an energy conference in Hershey last week, Wolf’s deputy policy director Sam Robinson said the administration hasn’t heard as much about it lately. “I think there was a crescendo of that kind of claim in 2015 to 2016,” he told the audience. “There’s been real movement in a positive direction on that issue.” You can read the full story here.

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Federal Tax Uncertainty Casts Doubt On PA’s Revenue Projections

HARRISBURG (WSKG) — Four months into the fiscal year, Pennsylvania’s revenues are more-or-less on target.  A new report from the state Independent Fiscal Office shows collections are about $10 million dollars below estimates–a figure IFO Director Matthew Knittel said is leaps and bounds better than this time last year, when state income lagged by more than 20 times that much. The commonwealth ended last fiscal year nearly $1.5 billion below projections–a shortfall that contributed to lawmakers’ painful, protracted budget battle. However, Knittel said the fact that revenues look better this year doesn’t mean there’s not still potential for instability–especially if the Trump administration doesn’t overhaul the federal tax code as promised. “We think if federal tax reform does not happen…then we would lower our revenue estimate for this year,” he said. The uncertainty stems from individuals and businesses delaying reporting some of their income in hopes of getting a tax cut later.

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PA Voters Could Step Toward Property Tax Elimination

HARRISBURG (WSKG) — When Pennsylvanians go to the polls next Tuesday, they’ll have a rare opportunity to vote to change the state constitution.  They’ll decide via ballot measure whether to make property tax elimination an option. However, it would only be the first step in a long process. Property tax rates largely depend on how much school districts and local governments decide to exempt from taxation. Right now, state law lets them exclude up to 50 percent of an area’s median home value. The ballot measure would increase that cap to 100 percent–so jurisdictions could opt to totally eliminate property taxes.

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PA Treasurer Authorizes Major Loan To Cover State Expenses

HARRISBURG (WSKG) – The state Treasury has authorized a major $1.8 billion loan to keep Pennsylvania’s general fund from running out of money.  It comes just in time for the commonwealth to make major public school payments. Over the last several years, it became routine for the Treasury to extend large loans early in the fiscal year, because the bulk of state revenues have tended to come in later months. But this year, Treasurer Joe Torsella refused to follow suit until the state budget was finished–calling it irresponsible to do so. The Senate and Governor Tom Wolf supported the decision to delay the loan, though House Republicans didn’t.  Wolf still hasn’t confirmed whether he’ll sign the legislature’s now-complete revenue plan, but Torsella said he’s comfortable lending the money based on the administration’s promises to manage funds responsibly. In a statement, Torsella said because of the “unusual events surrounding this year’s budget,” the Treasury opted to add provisions to the loan that would “secure Treasury’s investment, and provide alternatives if circumstances change.”

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PA House Passes Final Budget; Ball In Governor’s Court

HARRISBURG (WSKG) — The state House has sent a gambling expansion bill to Governor Tom Wolf’s desk–effectively finishing the budget they’ve labored over this entire fiscal year, four months past the due date.  The long, complex measure prompted hours of debate over the course of two days. It significantly broadens Pennsylvania’s 13-year-old gaming industry. Gambling in airports and over the internet will now be legal. Truck stops across the commonwealth can install video gaming terminals–or VGTs–and up to 10 new miniature casinos are authorized. Lawmakers have repeatedly failed to pass similar bills in recent years.

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Raucous Meeting Leaves PA Lawmakers At-Odds Over Illegal Voting

HARRISBURG (WSKG) — State representatives are trying to figure out how to stop voter registration glitches that have allowed over 500 non-citizens to vote in state and national elections since 2000.  That was the focus of a state government committee hearing Wednesday. But after dissolving into partisan shouting matches several times, lawmakers left the session saying they don’t agree on how to handle the situation–or even how serious it is. Over the last 17 years, roughly 93 million ballots have been cast in Pennsylvania. At least 544 of them came from non-US citizens who were in the country legally, according to the Department of State. That’s roughly one out of every 172,000.

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Gas Tax Passes PA House Committee, May Hit A Wall Before Floor Vote

HARRISBURG (WSKG) — State House lawmakers have moved a bill onto the floor calling for a severance tax on natural gas drilling. It’s a big step for Democrats and moderate Republicans, who have pushed the tax for years. But there’s a good chance the measure will languish without a vote for the foreseeable future.  It would create a tax on the volume of gas taken from the ground, on top of an existing fee for new wells drilled. Its sponsor, moderate Bucks County Representative Gene DiGirolamo, estimated annual revenue between $200 million and $250 million, depending on gas prices. The last time the House moved a severance tax bill was in 2009, when the chamber was briefly controlled by Democrats.

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Jobless Workers Worry PA’s Lawmakers Have Forgotten Their Funding Woes

HARRISBURG (WSKG) — While Harrisburg is mired in balancing its overdue budget, employees in the state’s Unemployment Compensation program are getting concerned that a planned fix to their funding won’t come on time.  Hundreds of UC employees were laid off last year ago after funding wasn’t renewed over fears the program was ill-managed and cost too much. It caused mass delays for people trying to claim unemployment benefits. $15 million in stopgap money was passed in April, and has helped rehire some staff. It was only designed to last until roughly the end of the year; at the time, lawmakers said they’d immediately start on a permanent fix. There have since been some studies and hearings, but there’s still no bill–or even a known framework.

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Can Political Strife Hurt Business Prospects?

HARRISBURG (WSKG) — As Pennsylvania contends with a months-late budget and recently-downgraded bond rating, it’s also working hard to entice Amazon to set up a secondary headquarters in one of its cities. The situation raises a question: could the political turmoil deter businesses? Some pro-business leaders say in certain cases, it’s a possibility. Gene Barr, president of the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, typically takes the position that a state’s tax structure, business incentives, and pension costs, among other things, determine whether companies will want to put down roots. He said the stalled budget and recent credit hit, which put Pennsylvania’s rating among the bottom five states–aren’t cause for panic.

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Former Environmental Secretaries Criticize Bill Changing DEP Permitting

Former Pennsylvania environmental secretaries say changes aimed at streamlining the Department of Environmental Protection’s permitting process would likely have the opposite effect and lead to lawsuits. The tax code bill pending consideration by the House after squeaking through the Senate has a severance tax on natural gas production. It also has a number of environmental provisions that would alter the way DEP functions. Read full story here.

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Many Unknowns Persist For Pennsylvania’s Real ID

HARRISBURG (WSKG) — After years of back and forth, Pennsylvania has passed a law to bring its state IDs up to federal standards. But compliance doesn’t end there.  It’ll still be a multi-year process to phase in the new IDs, and a lot of the timelines and costs are unknown. The state says it tentatively plans to make the new federal “Real ID” compliant cards available around March 2019. PennDOT coordinator Alexis Campbell said the Pennsylvania’s IDs are largely in compliance with federal standards already. But it’ll have to update its IT systems–in particular, the way the state collects identification data will probably change.

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Time Short For PA Lawmakers On Gerrymandering Amendment

HARRISBURG (WSKG) — Around the state, advocates and frustrated Pennsylvanians are pushing lawmakers to change the rules governing how district lines are redrawn every ten years. The current process lets politicians the skew districts in their political favor–a process known as gerrymandering. But it’s going to take some serious legislative might to make changes. On Tuesday, a crowd of protesters nearly filled the Capitol’s front steps–many holding up green signs that read “end gerrymandering in PA.” They’re supporting bills in the House and Senate that aim to do just that, by amending the state constitution to make redistricting more impartial.

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PA Prisons Get New Inmates, Courtesy Of Vermont

HARRISBURG (WSKG) — Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections is striking a deal to house inmates from Vermont in its Camp Hill Prison, which has about 1,000 empty beds.  The department first discussed such rental agreements early this year, after receiving pressure from the governor and legislature to cut costs in the face of a severe budget deficit. Contract negotiations started soon after Corrections Secretary John Wetzel announced Pennsylvania’s inmate population had declined enough to close a prison. DOC spokeswoman Susan McNaughton said it was good timing “As a result of reducing our inmate population over the last couple of years, we have all of these extra beds, and Vermont heard this,” she said. “So they reached out to us, it wasn’t like we went looking for them.” The contract will net about $5 million a year, which is a drop in the bucket compared to the Corrections Department’s often-strained $2 billion budget.

EPA Science Advisory Board Sharpens Criticism of Fracking Report

EPA science panel calls on the agency to produce more evidence for its assertion that fracking by gas rigs like this one does not have a widespread effect on drinking water. photo by JOE ULRICH/ WITF

By John Hurdle, State Impact Pennsylvania 

A scientific advisory panel on Thursday stepped up its criticism of the Environmental Protection Agency’s controversial report on fracking, calling on the agency to provide evidence for its landmark conclusion that fracking for oil and gas has had “no widespread, systemic impacts” on drinking water.  

 

Read the rest of the story here.