Monthly Archives: April 2016

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Two issues face the citizens of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania with respect to healthcare. Patients who require surgical or interventional procedures must have physician-led anesthesia care. In the first example, Pennsylvania’s citizens at large are directly affected. The second issue specifically affects our veterans who require anesthesia care in Veterans Affairs (VA) hospitals in the commonwealth.

I’ll start with the surgical issue.

House Bill 1277, sponsored by Rep. Jim Christiana (R- Beaver), has been languishing in the House Professional Licensure Committee. This bill proposes to place into statute what is already in regulation overseen by in the State Board of Medicine. By making this requirement law, rather than more easily modified regulation, the citizens of the commonwealth will be assured that a physician is in charge of anesthesia care for hospitalized patients.

The bill specifies that anesthesia care in a hospital shall be provided by a physician or “a nurse anesthetist authorized by the State Board of Nursing to provide anesthesia care and who is under the supervision of either of the following … an anesthesiologist or … the operating physician …”

HB 1277 enjoys overwhelming bipartisan support. I urge the House Professional Licensure Committee to move this bill out of committee and to the floor of the House.

The citizens of the commonwealth want the best healthcare possible. This bill will assure that each citizen will have a physician anesthesiologist overseeing their care. Some who object to this bill argue that mandatory physician supervision reduces access to anesthesia care in a hospital. The truth is that greater than 97 percent of hospitals in Pennsylvania already have physician anesthesiologists in charge of their care. Access to care is not an issue. Ninety-five percent of Pennsylvanians say it’s important to them that physicians supervise nurses administering anesthesia or responding to emergencies during surgery – that IS an issue.

The education of physician anesthesiologists and certified nurse anesthetists (CRNAs) cannot be considered equal with respect to years of training and experience.

Physician anesthesiologists complete a much longer educational process prior to going into practice. They have, at minimum, a four-year undergraduate degree, four years of medical school, a year of internship and a minimum of three years of anesthesiology residency. Many have subspecialty training in specific areas such as pediatric anesthesiology, intensive care, obstetrical anesthesiology, cardiac anesthesiology or pain medicine.

CRNAs have a four-year undergraduate degree and a combined 27-month master’s degree program that includes their clinical training, as well. Few extend their training to a new Doctorate of Nursing Practice.

There is no doubt that CRNAs play an important role on the patient care team. However, the Pennsylvania Society of Anesthesiologists believes that the citizens of Pennsylvania should get the best and most educated care. All hospitalized patients undergoing anesthesia should have a physician anesthesiologist in charge.

With regard to the VA Hospital issue: The Veteran’s Administration Nursing Handbook is currently undergoing revision. There is pressure from some quarters to have independent (meaning not supervised by a physician) care provided by certified registered nurse practitioners to fill the large gap of patient care needs with respect to primary care.

This proposal unfortunately has crossed into the realm of anesthesia care for veterans. Veterans often have complex medical issues stemming from combat injuries and older age. Their surgical and interventional procedures requiring anesthesia services must have physician-led care.

During a recent hearing on the FY 2017 VA budget held by the House Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on Military Construction and Veterans Affairs, U.S. Rep. David Jolly (R-Florida) asked VA Secretary Robert McDonald and Under Secretary of Health David Shulkin M.D. about proposals for anesthesia care in the Veteran’s Administration. They answered quite simply, “We believe that the current system is serving veterans adequately and safely.” The implication of that statement is obvious; there is no access to care or safety issue that requires independent certified nurse anesthesia care.

The importance of physician-led anesthesia care within the VA system also was discussed at a joint hearing of the House and Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committees. Written testimony prepared for the committees by the National Guard Association of the United States and the Association of the United States Navy conveyed the two groups’ concerns about patient safety if the physician-led care was abandoned.

The National Guard Association wrote: “The risks and complications associated with the administration of anesthesia during surgeries should not be reduced when serving an aging and injured veteran population.” The Association of the Navy added: “… our nation’s veterans deserve the highest level of medical attention, and this proposed shortfall in care is unacceptable.” The AMVETS organization also was supportive of physician-led anesthesia care.

What can you do about this issue for our veterans? The answer is quite simple. Go to www.SafeVAcare.org and complete the online form. Call your congressman and U.S. senators. Call your local Veterans Administration Office. Write to every news organization. Let them know that our veterans deserve the highest and most knowledgeable anesthesia care. Insist that physician-led anesthesia care be retained!

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Is Cheap Oil Causing Trouble for the U.S. Economy?

*Oil prices began a downward slide in June 2014. Brent crude, the benchmark for global oil prices, plunged roughly 70% — from highs above $100 per barrel to less than $33 in mid-February 2016.1

Crude oil plays a part in the manufacturing and worldwide distribution of everything from food to electronics. The earnings of oil companies large and small tend to take a hit when oil prices drop, but many other businesses see their costs fall, which typically boosts profits. Cheaper fuel is helping American consumers save billions of dollars that they can spend on other goods and services.2

Low prices are often a welcome development for oil consumers and the broader U.S. economy, primarily because consumer spending powers about two-thirds of U.S. gross domestic product (GDP). So you may wonder why falling oil prices have made investors jittery and sparked so much volatility in the stock market.

The short answer is that a longer-than-expected period of global oil price instability has stoked investor fears about potential negative consequences for corporate profits and economic growth, especially after U.S. GDP growth weakened to 1.0% in the fourth quarter of 2015.3

Enough Isn’t Enough
Surging oil production in the United States, the Middle East, and elsewhere has resulted in a global oil glut. Iran has also boosted production following the recent removal of international sanctions.4

In the past, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) — a cartel of 12 oil-producing nations — collaborated to control global supplies and prop up prices. This time around, many nations have ramped up output in a bid to capture market share and presumably to let low prices drive some high-cost producers out of business.5

In mid-February, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, and Qatar discussed freezing production at January’s high levels. The proposal seemed to represent the start of a collective effort to stem production, but neither Iran nor Iraq would commit to an agreement.6

The persistent drop in oil prices might indicate that the global economy is slowing more than people think. A February report from the International Energy Agency predicted that global demand will grow at a slower pace in 2016. The closely watched agency also estimated that supply may exceed demand by an estimated 1.75 million barrels a day in the first half of the year, given the assumption that coordinated production cuts are unlikely to occur.7

A Heavy Anchor
Low oil prices are undoubtedly bad news for the energy sector. Energy stocks saw steep losses in 2015 (–21.12%), compared with a slight gain (1.38%) for the S&P 500 index total return.8

Energy accounts for only about 7% of the S&P 500 index, but the industry’s slump could continue to drag down the performance of the overall market. For example, S&P Capital IQ expects total earnings for companies listed in the S&P 500 index to drop 5% in the fourth quarter, in large part because energy profits are expected to fall 70%.9

Will Oil Spill Over?
Beyond the energy sector, industrial companies that supply equipment — and banks that lend money to struggling energy companies — may also be vulnerable. Weak oil prices contributed to the bankruptcy of dozens of U.S. oil and natural gas companies in 2015, and a large number of debt defaults could be waiting in the wings.10

Energy firms are normally big spenders, but U.S. producers have already started cutting back. Industry outlays on mining, shafts, and wells dropped 35% in 2015, and more spending is being cancelled. Nationwide, fourth-quarter 2015 GDP growth was hampered by a 1.8% decline in business investment.11

Solid U.S. Prospects
Despite global headwinds, the domestic economy seems to be holding up, posting moderate 2.4% annual GDP growth in 2015.12 U.S. oil firms have shed thousands of jobs, but the sector accounts for just 1.5% of U.S. employment.13 In January 2016, the nation’s unemployment rate dropped to 4.9%, which the Federal Reserve considers close to full employment.14 And in December 2015, the Federal Reserve projected another year of 2.4% GDP growth in 2016.15

Eventually, accelerating demand and/or slower production should help stabilize prices. But changes in the global oil market are difficult to predict. A sustained period of low oil prices might have broader implications, presenting opportunities and challenges for investors. Still, it’s important to stay focused on your long-term strategy and avoid overreacting to market volatility.

Happy Investing!

Scott C. Weaver.

The return and principal value of stocks fluctuate with changes in market conditions. Shares, when sold, may be worth more or less than their original cost. The S&P 500 is an unmanaged group of securities that is considered to be representative of the U.S. stock market in general. The performance of an unmanaged index is not indicative of the performance of any specific investment. Individuals cannot invest directly in an index. Past performance is not a guarantee of future results. Actual results will vary.

1, 6) Reuters, February 19, 2016
2) CNNMoney, December 16, 2015
3, 12) U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, 2016
4, 7) Bloomberg.com, February 9, 2016
5) CNBC.com, February 9, 2016
8) S&P Dow Jones Indices, 2016
9) USA Today, February 9, 2016
10) CNNMoney, February 11, 2016
11, 13) The Wall Street Journal, January 28–29, 2016
14) Bloomberg Businessweek, Feb. 15, 2016
15) Federal Reserve, 2015

 

*The information in this article is not intended as tax or legal advice, and it may not be relied on for the purpose of avoiding any federal tax penalties. You are encouraged to seek tax or legal advice from an independent professional advisor. The content is derived from sources believed to be accurate. Neither the information presented nor any opinion expressed constitutes a solicitation for the purchase or sale of any security. This material was written and prepared by Emerald. Copyright 2016 Emerald Connect, LLC.

www.academicwealthstrategies.com sweaver@nextfinancial.com dwestfall@nextfinancial.com

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Attorney General Kathleen Kane has announced she is not seeking re-election, capping a stunning fall from the height of state Democratic politics.

 

Kane, a first-term Democrat who is facing criminal charges and potential impeachment, vowed to continue to “fight tirelessly” against the “good ole’ boys network” that she said has destroyed public trust in the justice system.

 

Her roughly nine-minute announcement began in what appeared to be campaign-mode, as she ticked through her office’s accomplishments and said there was more work to be done to fight crime and stand up for consumers.

 

But in the end, Kane, the first woman and Democrat elected to the post, said as a single mother she needs to devote more time to her two young boys.

 

“I will tell you that I love being the attorney general. I love serving the people of Pennsylvania,” Kane told a room of about two dozen reporters during a press conference in downtown Scranton. “I hope that they know that, and I hope that they feel that.”

 

“While I love Pennsylvania, I love my sons first,” she said. “I’m a mother first and foremost because at the end of my life I hope that history judges me well. But that’s for time to tell. I hope more that God and my sons judge me well.”

 

She also implored those seeking the office of Attorney General to speak out against “injustices” as she has, and pledged to continue her fight until she leaves office.

 

“Every single day since I was elected I’ve been trying to make sure we clean up this commonwealth,” Kane said. “I tried to make sure we clean it and rid it of politicians, elected officials, judges, lawyers, prosecutors, whomever take advantage of our system of justice that’s rooted in the constitution.”

 

“I fought tirelessly to make sure that that happens and I will continue to fight tirelessly to make sure that continues to happen,” she said. “…I told you I would fight corruption and I’m fighting corruption regardless of the personal cost to me.”

 

“Together, when the people and the government and the elected officials stand with me to fight these battles in tearing down this ole’ boys network, we will hand back to the citizens of this commonwealth the system of justice that they deserve and not the one that they have,” she said. “When we accomplish all of that I will rest peacefully and easily knowing that we marched into hell for an unheavenly foe, and we won.”

 

Although elected as a neophyte, Kane made waves as a leading Democratic politician when she took a hard stance against the state’s ban on same-sex marriage and rebuffing a high-profile initiative by former Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican, to privatize management of the Pennsylvania Lottery.

 

Her office also led a high-profile review of the state’s handling of the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse scandal. The review, while a flop in terms of her claim that the investigation was slow-walked for political reasons, uncovered millions of internal emails shared by past investigators under her Republican predecessors.

 

Embarrassing emails, containing crude, pornographic, racist, homophobic and misogynistic jokes, were released piecemeal by Kane, leading to resignations of top former OAG staff. A state Supreme Court judge also resigned after being tied to the emails.

 

Last year, prosecutors in Montgomery County charged Kane with several crimes related to a leak of grand jury information from her office. They say she did it to embarrass a political foe. She denies any wrongdoing. The state Supreme Court subsequently suspended her law license.

 

Since then, another justice has been suspended after Kane released his private emails.

 

She has faced calls to resign from top Democrats and Republicans. Last month, she survived a removal vote in the state Senate, but the state House of Representatives approved an initial impeachment investigation.

 

Kane’s announcement came on the deadline to file nominating petitions for office.

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March 2016 drowning in paper work

The Department of Environmental Protection has a technology problem.

 

Secretary John Quigley told Senate lawmakers the department leases warehouses just to store paper because the department doesn’t have adequate electronic filing systems. In some regional offices, internet speed is so slow, upwards of an hour of work is wasted because a webpage takes too long to load.

 

One state senator said he heard the sound of a dial-up modem in the background during a conference call with regional DEP staff.

 

Quigley, during his department’s annual budget hearing, said that in 2004 DEP was judged “best in state government” by the Office of Administration for information technology. But state funding for technology improvements hasn’t kept pace since 2004, he said, and an outside consultant has rated DEP’s information technology “at best, a D-minus.”

 

DEP is forced to send staff into the field with clipboards and carbon-less forms.

 

“We have inadequate systems and so we continue to rely heavily on paper,” Quigley said. “We still process paper checks, folks have to submit paper applications to the agency.”

 

He said regional and satellite offices are plagued by poor internet speeds.

 

Sen. Scott Wagner, R-York, bluntly asked “Have you slapped your provider around?” He then said he’d “be happy to slap them around.”

 

“I’m with you, senator,” Quigley said.

 

The department identified several efficiency measures that could improve the technology issues that impact DEP, Quigley said. They include enhancing mobile capacity within the agency (Quigley said they weren’t allowed to download mobile applications, like geolocation apps that could help with field work), improving bandwidth, and replacing clipboards with iPads. He said the plan to disband with clipboards will begin in 2016 with the oil and gas management office.

 

Wolf’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2016-17 would boost DEP’s environmental support services information technology program by $2 million to replace the current eFacts system and enhance mobile capacity.

 

Quigley stressed improvements to electronic document management programs is necessary.

 

“We are drowning in paper,” Quigley said. He aims to “get out of paper” in three years.

 

Wagner, asking Quigley to lay out the savings in real dollar amounts, said: “Show me the money.”

 

Quigley also brought up what has been a perennial issue with DEP operations: staffing levels.

 

He said the governor’s budget is “bare bones” as far as operations, covering the cost-to-carry spending.

 

But he said the department continues to lag behind in staffing.

 

“I will tell you, when it comes to my agency, additional cuts will be ruinous not only to the agency but also the regulated community,” Quigley said. “We don’t have the service levels the governor wants for the regulated community, and some of it, there’s no getting around it, requires us to have additional staff.”

 

Problems with turn-around time for permits is due to inadequate staff levels, he said, but also noted the industry is partially to blame for turning in deficient permit applications, which slows the process down.

 

“DEP must do better, but the regulated community must do better as well,” he said. “It takes two to tango when it comes to permitting.”

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Other than the growing funding needs, the issues confronting Pennsylvania’s state-owned universities since its current head took over haven’t changed significantly.

 

But now Chancellor Frank Brogan is more than two years into the job, and pension and healthcare benefit costs continue to grow, and state funding of the 14-university system continues to lag behind the needs of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE).

 

Gov. Tom Corbett’s budgets level-funded PASSHE, and while legislators and Gov. Tom Wolf ultimately agreed to give the system a 5-percent increase in funding for the current fiscal year, that funding hike fell victim to the collapse of the framework agreement prior to Christmas and Wolf’s blue pen on Dec. 29. As part of his FY2016-17 budget proposal, Wolf expects a supplemental appropriation for that 5-percent increase as well as an additional $21.7 million in new funding for PASSHE.

 

Brogan told the House Appropriations Committee the $20.6 million that 5-percent increase represented wouldn’t have been enough, along with the system’s 3.5-percent tuition hike, to cover the system’s projected increase in costs for the current year.

 

The FY2015-16 money would have been nice to have anyway, said Brogan, and now the system and its universities have had to find other ways to fill this year’s $32 million hole (it grew by about $12 million due to pension costs growing by a larger amount than first projected). For the coming fiscal year, the system needs approximately $41 million just to keep up with its growing costs, Brogan said.

 

“We know there are only three ways to make that deficit up … you can increase tuition and/or you can receive more money in the state appropriation and/or/or you can cut your budget, proportionally, depending on how the first two are handled,” said Brogan. He told House lawmakers the system has cut $300 million and 900 employees during the last 10 years.

 

The system’s pension costs are expected to level off soon, but the same can’t be said for PASSHE’s growing health care costs.

 

Brogan said the system’s health care benefits are the best he’s ever seen, and the biggest problem with them is they are the best he’s ever seen.

 

“It is very, very expensive and it continues to go up,” said Brogan of the cost of the health insurance plan.

 

“We don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater – we’d like to keep it – but we’re going to need, over time – and we’ve begun to do that – to make adjustments to the participation rates in a number of the areas: copays, deductibles and those kind of things,” he said.

 

“The option we’ve begun to exercise thus far is to look at the contribution rate of employees, and recognize that it is virtually impossible to continue to support it as is,” Brogan told senators. “Keep the great program we have, just adjust the contribution rates, and we’ve just done that with all of our non-represented [non-union] employees as well as those members of unions considered to be ‘me too’ unions on the issue of health care.”

 

He said negotiations are ongoing with the state system’s faculty union – the Association of State College and University Faculties (APSCUF) – regarding health care since they are a different bargaining unit from the unions that have already had their contribution rate adjusted.

 

As for other costs and the continuing concern about enrollment, Brogan sounds a lot like he did when participated in his first budget hearing in 2014, after taking his current position in the fall of 2013.

 

At that time he told lawmakers the system needed to re-examine itself and rethink its model, even suggesting Pennsylvania’s entire higher education model – including PASSHE, the state-related universities and the state’s community colleges – would appear to be ripe for remodeling.

 

He told the state Senate Appropriations Committee the same thing on Wednesday afternoon, and during both his budget hearings Wednesday he said PASSHE has to evolve with the higher education market if it intends to survive.

 

Enrollment continues to be a problem for PASSHE, with an approximately 2 percent decline systemwide during the past year. A few schools, such as West Chester University and Indiana University of Pennsylvania, have seen continued improvement. Cheyney University and Mansfield University, while they aren’t projected to see a decline in the coming year, have experienced some of the worst enrollment issues, although Brogan said much of the PASSHE schools have experienced declines.

 

And that’s something difficult to combat because of demographics, Brogan said.

 

He there are “simply less students coming out of Pennsylvania high schools … there are just less high school student today than there were 10 years ago,” adding there are less students coming out of the high schools within the regions served by the PASSHE schools.

 

He said while those markets have changed dramatically, the demographics are expected to start improving soon, although he cautioned it will take years for those demographics to rebound.

 

“It will not be an overnight fix,” said Brogan.

 

But even without the demographic issue, “markets are changing in general in higher education,” Brogan told lawmakers, and that requires PASSHE “to do whatever we have to do to remain relevant.”

 

Pilot projects he envisioned back in 2014 that permit some universities to charge different tuition rates based on program costs, or in the case of Millersville University, per instructional credit wanted by the student, have, at the very least, had no negative impact on the schools after about one year of operation.

 

Brogan also said an evaluation of the academic programs offered by each of the 14 universities continues, with plans to eliminate redundancies.

 

“We are looking not only at what each of our universities by way of academic program array – and we’re not only looking for those new program ideas – but which of the programs can no longer survive the market,” said Brogan about programs that would be put in “moratorium,” which is essentially on hold until such time that they are again in enough demand by the student market and the employer market to warrant their resumption.

 

“We also look at reorganizing existing programs,” Brogan said. “Because we keep a program doesn’t mean it exactly lines up with what students have to take away for the 21st Century.”

 

He said they are doing all of that “with more scrutiny than ever before, not only at the institution level, but also at the system level, to look for … inefficient redundancies.” Brogan noted there can be some redundancy, due to necessity or geography.

 

However, first and foremost, PASSHE is trying to ensure its college degrees translate into the jobs that will be needed by Pennsylvania and its employers going forward, said Brogan, noting incorporating internships into academic programs could be one way to accomplish that. He said right now more than 80 percent of PASSHE graduates have jobs in their field of study.

 

He also said PASSHE is trying to partner some of its universities – such as Cheyney and West Chester – to achieve efficiencies on other operations, such as purchasing, payroll and human resources.

 

But things aren’t moving quickly enough to keep up with the problems confronting the system.

 

“The world has changed and we have to change with it, and we need to untie your hands and the hands of these [PASSHE university] presidents to be able to change with the market and what the consumers want,” said Sen. Rich Alloway, R-Franklin, who is a member of the PASSHE Board of Governors, noting APSCUF fought the Millersville per-credit program.

 

“We’re trying to make the system strong so that it can serve everybody, and yet we get pushed back and fought at every turn, every turn,” continued Alloway.

 

And responding to the concerns constantly raised about the potential for lost university jobs with changing university program offerings, Alloway said, “Tough crap.”

 

Reacting to Alloway’s statement, Brogan said: “As we take this new look at the system, everything has to be on the table. If we start this process by first determining what are the sacred cows, what are the traditions that cannot be changed, what are the rules and regulations that keep us from making changes that have to be preserved moving forward, you still won’t be able to change a damn light bulb in this system without asking somebody’s special permission to do so.”

 

“I am convinced we have to unshackle these individuals [referencing the university presidents], we’ve gotta let them organize their universities in a way to serve their student population and free them up of many of the obligations that they have been bound to for 40 years that are not only not taking us forward anymore, but they are holding us back, and in some cases driving us down,” added Brogan. “Everything has got to be on the table, or this will be an exercise in complete futility.”

 

A few senators suggested it might be time to think about reducing the number of PASSHE schools in order to avoid the potential of a few taking down the rest of the system. Brogan acknowledged during the budget hearings the overall system is currently supporting one failing institution, Cheyney University. However Cheyney isn’t the only school with enrollment and other issues, and if things don’t change, several other PASSHE institutions already on the margins could join Cheyney, said Brogan.

 

And while he didn’t say merging some of the PASSHE schools was a potential policy to be pursued, Brogan suggested the state of Georgia has decided to go that route to preserve its extensive state system of colleges, merging two schools every 18 months.

 

“Not just for the survival, but for the flourishing of our universities, we’ve got to engage in those sorts of conversations, and everything has to be on the table to do that,” he said.

 

Brogan said the changes won’t come without some unintended emotional and political pain, but someone – and he urged legislators to help PASSHE – needs to stand in support of whatever “is in the best interest of the system, and ultimately the students served by that system.”

 

“We’ve gotta put that emotionalism and those politics aside and do what’s right,” said Brogan. “We’ve all gotta be singing off that page.”

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After record-high spending in November’s statewide judicial elections, the push for merit selection of appellate court judges received a boost this week from the current and former governors.

 

All six living governors – Dick Thornburgh, Tom Ridge, Mark Schweiker, Ed Rendell, Tom Corbett and Tom Wolf – have sent a letter to the state House of Representatives asking the chamber to vote on a bipartisan constitutional amendment to implement merit selection of judges to the Commonwealth, Superior and Supreme court benches.

 

Rendell, Schweiker and Ridge said while merit selection – including its latest iteration – won’t remove politics from the process completely, it would be a more palatable option given the “broken system” of electing judges.

 

Rendell said given the record campaign spending last November, low voter turnout and ongoing scandals in the justice system, the time is now to move forward with starting the change to the state constitution. Schweiker added that the record spending and continual low turnout in statewide judicial races is “a recipe for deep distrust in the government and especially the judiciary.”

 

Ridge believed the constitutional framers wanted to have two branches of government, the executive and the legislative, which could change with the will of the people, but created the judicial branch to arbitrate based on the constitution.

 

“Popular will,” Ridge said, “is not to be reflected in the appellate courts of Pennsylvania.”

 

The House Judiciary Committee in October approved a “hybrid” merit selection model, House Bill 1336. Under that version, those seeking an appellate judicial post would have to apply to a bipartisan Appellate Court Nominating Commission made up of lawyers and non-lawyers who are appointed by the governor, House and Senate leadership.

 

The commission would interview the judicial applicants and develop a short list from which the governor would choose the nominee to place before the Senate for confirmation. After a four-year term, the judge would stand for retention.

 

The bill is a constitutional amendment so it would need to pass the Legislature in two consecutive sessions then be placed on the ballot for voters to decide.

 

Not everyone is supportive of the legislation. Supreme Court Justice Debra Todd stated her preference for the election of judges when asked about merit selection during a budget hearing this past week.

 

“You run, it’s inherently political, and you are appointed, it’s inherently political,” she said. “It’s just at a higher level, by people in political power making the decisions rather than the electorate.”

 

“If it’s going to be political either way, my preference is that the electorate make the decision. Sunshine is the best disinfectant,” she continued. “I like seeing the judges out there, I like seeing the campaigns going county to county. I think I personally benefited from visiting all 67 counties, meeting people, learning from them and them learning more about me. Could our electorate be more educated about the candidate? Yes, I’d like to see us move more towards that. But I do favor an elective process.”

 

When asked about her comments, Ridge disagreed, saying the undisclosed campaign spending in judicial campaigns is far less transparent than the hybrid merit system, which would filter applicants through the commission process.

 

And while no system can remove politics, Schweiker said the hybrid model at least puts more emphasis on qualifications rather than ballot position.

 

Noting low turnout in statewide judicial races, Schweiker said: “The average Pennsylvanian has given up on this.”

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March 2016 John Hanger

John Hanger, secretary of policy and planning for Gov. Tom Wolf, is leaving the administration to spend more time with his wife and daughter in Massachusetts.

 

The governor’s office said that Sarah Galbally, who has been deputy secretary for policy and planning, will replace Hanger.

 

Hanger released a statement saying it had become impossible to do his job and commute regularly to see his family.

 

“It has been an honor to serve an extraordinary governor and his administration who work tirelessly to make a better Pennsylvania,” Hanger said. “It is difficult to leave, but I cannot be in two places at once.”

 

“John’s service to my administration has been invaluable, and it is difficult to see John leave his current position,” Gov. Wolf said in a statement. “I have known John for many years and I am glad that John will continue to provide me the benefit of his counsel and expertise in the years ahead.”

 

Hanger, who ran against Wolf for the Democratic nomination for governor in 2014 but dropped out before the primary, is a former commissioner on the state’s Public Utility Commission, serving from 1993 to 1998. While there he advocated for alternative energy programs, customer choice and energy conservation.

 

He served as founding president from 1998 to 2008 of Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future, a statewide environmental advocacy organization, and was secretary of the state Department of Environmental Protection from 2008 to 2011 in the administration of Gov. Ed Rendell.

Gov. Wolf also said Will Danowski, until now the acting secretary of legislative affairs, will serve in that role permanently.

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By Kevin Zwick, Capitolwire

 

A top aide to Gov. Tom Wolf has warned Penn State Trustees to lobby for the governor’s tax package or face funding cuts.

 

Without Wolf’s tax increase package, the budget will be balanced with “massive cuts” that will “harm PSU among many others,” said John Hanger, Secretary of Policy and Planning, in emails obtained by Capitolwire.

 

In one of the emails, sent the morning of Wolf’s second budget address, Hanger said Penn State President Eric Barron told Trustees the university will lobby for its appropriation but not for the revenue package to avoid taking a partisan stance.

 

But Hanger said Barron’s “logic is erroneous.” Barron’s position is “more partisan,” Hanger argues, because it props up the position of conservative Republicans who don’t want new taxes, as opposed to the governor, legislative Democrats and a small group of Republicans who supported a “framework” agreement that included increased revenues.

 

“More troublingly, the PSU position of refusing to lobby for new revenues also makes it more likely the budget will be balanced by massive cuts that will harm PSU among many others,” Hanger wrote in the lengthy email.

 

“The Governor continues to fight for balancing the budget and funding education,” Hanger wrote. “He will propose a revenue package that will achieve these goals. If the revenue package does not win support in the General Assembly, then massive cuts will take place. “That result is opposed by the Governor. But every Pennsylvanian must decide which road we will not take.”

 

David Han, the university’s academic trustee, told Hanger he believed it was “inappropriate and inaccurate to label Penn State as an enabler of a partisan position of no-new-revenues.”

 

“I cannot support your position that Penn State’s refusal to support new revenues is partisan,” Han wrote. “While individuals can and should exercise their First Amendment right to petition the government, it is in my opinion inappropriate to suggest that the University should enter into a similar role.”

 

Hanger responded: “To be clear, PSU lobbies and when it does it inevitably takes sides. It is for an appropriation that others oppose it. It is against something that others favor. I can give you many examples if you would like. If your argument is that PSU should not take sides in the General Assembly, then it best stop lobbying and perhaps close or reduce the government relations office.

 

“Having said that, I am not surprised by the selective application of the do-not-take-sides position. Just know that the budget will be balanced by cuts or revenues,” Hanger continued. “If there is not enough support for revenues, then the trustees should not be surprised by massive cuts to education, including PSU. I certainly am working to achieve something other than that outcome.”

 

When Han asked for examples, Hanger on Feb. 11 said he was lobbied the prior day by PSU and others on behalf of House Bill 1589, a bill opposed by Wolf that would provide funding for various agriculture programs. He also pointed to Senate Bill 912, the university’s Fiscal Year 2015-16 appropriation, that was a largely party-line House vote that the governor and Democrats “viewed as an unpaid for piece of legislation…”

 

“PSU takes sides all the time,” Hanger continued. “And to be clear it has a right to do so. And it has a duty to do so in some cases. But please don’t say that PSU cannot support revenues needed to pay for appropriations because to do so would violate PSU’s supposed responsibility not to take sides.”

 

In response to the exchange, Lawrence Lokman, a university spokesman, said Barron stated the university’s position, “which is that Penn State’s history and that of all of the state-related universities is to be non-partisan and to advocate for education, and higher education in particular.”

 

“We are pleased that the Governor continues to acknowledge the importance of investing in Penn State,” Lokman said. “Our focus, however, remains on coping with the lingering current year budget stalemate, and to that end we are urging all parties to complete their work on the 2015-2016 Commonwealth budget. The bottom line is that state support is an essential investment in student opportunity and success, and economic growth and development. We must find a resolution to the current impasse.”

 

When asked for comment, Wolf’s office didn’t specifically address Hanger’s exchange with the board, but reiterated the governor’s call for more revenue.

 

“In order to turn the page of across the board cuts that have a devastating effect on our colleges, universities and students, we need sustainable revenue and not one-time fixes,” said Mark Nicastre, Wolf’s communications director, via email. “Investing in higher education is important to Governor Wolf, but if the math does not add up, institutions of higher learning will not only miss out on additional funding increases, but they will likely again face massive cuts. This is why we need an honest, balanced budget that funds our schools.”

 

Wolf proposed several taxes and tax hikes to produce a total of $2.72 billion in recurring revenue, with a nearly $1.4 billion increase in the Personal Income Tax, which would raise the current 3.07 percent rate to 3.4 percent. He also proposed expanding the Sales and Use Tax to apply to some currently exempted items, expected to generate $414 million. Cigarettes and other tobacco products are also tapped for more cash by the governor.

 

Jenn Kocher, spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, a Republican who represents Penn State and surrounding areas, criticized Hanger’s “strong-arm” approach.

 

“This position by the administration, it’s certainly been their tactic to attack and manipulate people into doing what they want,” she said. “They aren’t getting support for their positions on the merits so they’re resorting to bullying for that support.”

 

“This administration has been about intimidation and Secretary Hanger in particular loves to throw his weight around,” she added.

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MedicalCannabis

After several impassioned appeals, the state House of Representatives gave its overwhelming approval to legislation establishing a system to produce and dispense medical marijuana for certain medical conditions on March 16.

The 149-43 vote sends the legislation back to the Senate. If changes are made in the Senate, it’s unclear when the House would take up the measure again.

Sen. Mike Folmer, R-Lebanon, the prime sponsor and a top legislative advocate for medical marijuana, said he was “very grateful” for the House lawmakers who supported the legislation. Now, he said the House amendments will be reviewed to make sure the legislation “works for patients.”

Senate Bill 3 would allow 50 dispensaries to have up to three separate locations, meaning potentially 150 places where patients could obtain medical marijuana after receiving a certification from a physician.

The legislation’s list of a “serious medical condition” includes cancer, epilepsy, autism, sickle cell anemia, intractable seizures, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, post-traumatic stress disorder, HIV/AIDS, glaucoma, severe chronic and intractable pain of neuropathic origin, inflammatory bowel disease, neuropathies and Huntington’s disease.

In one stirring plea, Rep. Jeff Pyle, R-Armstrong, spoke about his diagnosis with a hereditary form of cancer. After an operation and with nearly 50 staples in his stomach, he refused his friend’s offer of medical marijuana oil to help increase his appetite, he said. He said he refused to take it because he had to “live what I preached” as a state representative. The thought of the pain his daughters might have to suffer if they were struck with the inheritable disease drove him to support the legislation.

“I want them to have access to comfort that I did not have,” he said as his voice cracked.

Rep. Mike Regan, R-York, said he had “a moral obligation” to vote for the legislation, adding that “my faith tells me that this is the moral, compassionate, right thing to do.”

Much of the opposition to the legislation touched on caution from the medical community, fear of drug proliferation, and legal issues. Responding to the emotional pleas, Rep. Chris Dush, R-Jefferson, said “let’s connect the heart to the head and do this right.”

House Health Committee Chairman Matt Baker, R-Tioga, who has led the opposition in the House, said he found it “astounding” that the chamber was going to dismiss the opinions from the medical community, which supports more research.

“As the Health chairman, I think the combined professional opinions of the medical community should mean something,” Baker said. “Their opinions should not be marginalized…My goodness, we’re talking about medicine here.”

House GOP Whip Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, said he was concerned that approval of the bill would lead to confusion with federal enforcement agencies as well as potential conflicts with a variety of other state laws.

Rep. Jerry Knowles, R-Schuylkill, said he was concerned the legislation could lead to proliferation of drug use.

Under SB3, patients wouldn’t be allowed to smoke medical marijuana. Dispensaries could sell it as a pill, oil, topical form, or forms for a medically-approved administration of vaporization or nebulization, tincture and liquid. It could not be sold in edible form, but patients would be able to incorporate it into food to aid ingestion.

A 5-percent tax on growers and producers would help fund research at universities and hospitals, and be used to offset costs for patients who can’t afford medical marijuana. The Department of Health and an advisory board would oversee the program, including creating regions so patients would have access to the drug. The board would, among other tasks, determine whether to expand or reduce the number of dispensaries and the list of applicable medical conditions.

If approved, Pennsylvania will join 23 states and the District of Columbia in legalizing a medical marijuana program.

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By G. Terry Madonna and Michael Young

 

Barring some unforeseen circumstances the presidential nomination contests are over. Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump will be the respective nominees of their parties.

 

For Democrats, that’s probably okay. Even if Democrats are not excited about Hillary, they still think they win with her.

 

For Republicans, not so much a Trump nomination looks like trouble up and down the ticket: no White House, maybe loss of the Senate, possible loss of several state legislatures and a few state houses.

 

In short, the GOP needs some “unforeseen circumstances” if, as many now believe, electoral disaster in 2016 is to be averted.

 

The party’s last gasp efforts to support Marco Rubio and stop Trump on Super Tuesday were clearly too little and too late.  Now the so- called “establishment Republicans” confront a fateful decision – to rally around Trump as a few already have – or try to derail his candidacy by drafting a convention “dark horse,” maybe Mitt Romney or even John McCain.

 

How exactly that would work out remains to be seen since neither party has had a contested convention since 1976. Moreover, the last brokered conventions were in 1948 for Republicans and 1952 for Democrats. And the last bona fide draft was more than 60 years ago when Republicans nominated Dwight Eisenhower.

 

One thing, however, is certain; if Trump is derailed, it will not be accomplished in the primaries and caucuses that remain; if it happens, it will happen at the Cleveland Convention in July.

 

The establishment GOP’s motive for trying to stop Trump is strong. Beyond almost any doubt, a Trump nomination would tear the Republican Party asunder – perhaps presaging a generation of wandering in the political wilderness – as happened to Republicans after Hoover’s loss in 1932 and to the Democrats after Humphrey’s loss in 1968.

 

Deeply aware of this ominous history, Republican leaders face a daunting dilemma: embrace Trump with its inevitable political costs – or move to deny him the nomination, thereby entering an uncharted political no man’s land.

 

For many Republicans this will more and more seem like a Hobsons choice which is to say no choice at all. A Trump nomination could destroy them as a major national political party – and few party leaders doubt that.

 

Further muddying these already muddy waters is the still real possibility of an independent candidacy.  The former mayor of New York City, billionaire Michael Bloomberg, is the most likely to launch such a candidacy.

 

At first blush, a Bloomberg candidacy may seem promising. Voters in recent polls have indicated they are ready for a third party and given the extraordinarily high levels of dissatisfaction with government, a Bloomberg candidacy would seem promising.

 

And Bloomberg, who has expressed strong personal concerns about Trump, might do it.

 

But his disadvantages are formidable. He has to start with no organization at the grass roots level and no candidates running for federal and state offices to be part of his team. He must also pull voters away from the major parties, a difficult challenge given the growing polarization and increased partisanship among the electorate. Finally, he must fulfill the myriad byzantine petition regulations required in all 50 states to qualify as an independent candidate – and he must do so in enough states to give him any reasonable chance to win the 270 Electoral College votes required to win the presidency.

 

Then there is the personal calculus for Bloomberg: an independent run by him is likely to draw more votes away from the Democratic ticket, earn the support of independents, thus helping his avowed antagonist, Donald Trump. Bloomberg in a real sense would be running against himself.

 

A Bloomberg run, should it happen, would certainly be a wild card in what has been the wildest of political years.  Nevertheless, his primary role would be that of a spoiler, whose candidacy helps Trump.

 

All of this presents in ever sharper relief the painful quandary Republicans now face. A Trump nomination could deal the party an electoral defeat in November that might take a political lifetime from which to recover.  An independent candidacy could help, but like all third party efforts, it is fraught with unknowns.

 

For Republicans, the only viable path forward is to stop Trump at the convention – somehow. But if they somehow can stop Trump at the convention, a Trump independent candidacy is all but certain.

 

This is truly a choice between the devil and the deep blue sea – the proverbial rock and the proverbial hard place.

 

Already in late winter, it’s clear that 2016 is likely to be a bad year for the GOP. The next few months should reveal just how bad it will be.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of any institution or organization with which they are affiliated. This article may be used in whole or part only with appropriate attribution. Copyright © 2016 Terry Madonna and Michael Young.