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Auditor General Eugene DePasquale says he’s going “to follow the facts where they are” with regard to whether “all $10 million was spent in accordance with the grant agreement” for the 2016 Democratic National Convention.

“No matter what the use of state funds – whether for schools, for a state agency operation, or for support of a major national event that generates economic benefits – the public has a right to know that those funds were spent appropriately and lawfully,” DePasquale said during a Thursday morning state Capitol press conference. “I have directed my team to conduct a thorough review of the grant agreement that provided $10 million in state funds to support the event.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer late last week reported the 2016 Democratic National Convention Host Committee, which received a $10 million state grant for the event, ended with a $4 million surplus of funding, of which at least $1 million was used to pay out bonuses and grants.

Those reports prompted Gov. Tom Wolf – who expressed his displeasure state taxpayers didn’t see any of that surplus – and state Senate Republican leaders to ask DePasquale to review how the host committee spent the money it received.

Regarding the planned audit, Senate GOP spokeswoman Jenn Kocher said it was “a step in the right direction,” but she said the Senate Republican Caucus continues to be concerned about “the spending of taxpayer dollars” for such an event and the expectation taxpayers are the first to pay for such things.

“We look forward to a full accounting of the spending,” said Kocher. “We would hope private dollars would be used first, ands taxpayers dollars are returned.”

“My guess is from the perception situation, if these were salaries paid for at the beginning, there would be less of an uproar than because they were bonuses,” said DePasquale. “But I also think part of that is related to the idea that there was $4 million left over and $10 million of state money went to the convention.

“I think if it were all private money, this wouldn’t be a news story; I think the $10 million from the state is what makes it a news story and makes it worthy of an independent review.”

DePasquale thanked former Gov. Ed Rendell, who served as chairman of the host committee, for reaching out to him and offering to be available to the Office of Auditor General during the review.

The host committee, in a Thursday morning statement from committee spokeswoman Anna Adams-Sarthou, indicated its willingness to work with DePasquale: “The Host Committee is ready and willing to help the Auditor General in this review, and we will provide his office with whatever documentation it needs. This morning, we sent a letter to the Auditor General’s Office stating that we have directed the firm that compiled the original audit of how the state funds were spent to be available for an inquiry from his office. We remain confident in our accounting and look forward to this additional review to clarify the matter.”

DePasquale said the review will start off with the question, “How critical was this $10 million to actually securing the convention?”

Saying he was basing most of his comments off of prior news reports, DePasquale noted “the fact that they had $4 million left over shows that, at a minimum, they would have only need six [million dollars].”

The audit will then look to see how the grant money was spent and if it was segregated from the privately-raised DNC funding, as the host committee has said it was.

“If the funds were commingled, our work gets significantly more challenging … because now it’s mixed with another $76 million of funding that may have gone to other items that weren’t part of the grant agreement – that means private money could have gone toward a public purpose and vice-versa,” said DePasquale. “It gets much more challenging.”

“If the funds were commingled, we’re going to ask to see everything,” he later added.

And if the audit ultimately determines grant money wasn’t spent appropriately according to the contract?

“Then we would have a recommendation for the state to try to recoup that funding – but that’s a big ‘if’ right now,” said DePasquale.

“I would rather the bonuses not happen, but if they were paid for in private money, there’s not much we could have done to stop it,” he said, although he acknowledged the potential for conflicts of interest to further color the situation.

“That’s why I don’t want to prejudge anything until we go through the review,” he explained.

There have been concerns raised about the $300,000 bonus received by host committee executive director Kevin Washo, who signed off on the state grant contract.

The state grant contract contains provisions regarding financial interest conflicts, and they will factor into the Office of Auditor General’s examination, said DePasQuale: “Anybody that’s part of the contract, that potentially violated the terms of the contract, that would be part of our independent review, whoever they are.”

“If someone is part of the execution of the contract, and there’s a provision in there that says no conflict, and we find through our independent review that they violated that provision, then we will outline that … it doesn’t matter who it is,” DePasquale explained.

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Though the bulk of state government hearings are usually intended to focus on the proposed finances of state departments for Fiscal Year 2017-18, it appeared that lawmakers in the state House of Representatives’ and Senate’s Appropriations committees had election integrity and security on their minds when questioning officials from the Pennsylvania Department of State.

“The president has alleged that there has been massive voter fraud in the last election. Was there any fraud that you know of in Pennsylvania?” asked Rep. Michael O’Brien, D-Philadelphia, in the House committee hearing on Feb. 22.

“To the best of my knowledge – this is not wishful thinking, this is talking with the counties, media reports, the federal entities that looked at our elections – and the answer is no,” stated Cortes.

Other lawmakers posed questions regarding voters casting more than one ballot and non-citizens voting in elections, forcing Cortes to defend his agency’s oversight of the elections throughout both of his appearances, first in the House on Tuesday afternoon, and then in the Senate on Wednesday morning.

“I’m not sitting here to unequivocally say ‘There’s no type of issues or problems or fraud in Pennsylvania;’ It’s a massive state but certainly nothing happened,” Cortes continued.

The secretary also testified to the success of online voter registration, which was implemented in Pennsylvania in 2016 to save money and make registration more efficient, and the state’s participation in the Electronic Registration Information Center collaboration, a database of voter information shared between 22 states that helps clean up voter rolls.

More than 900,000 Pennsylvania residents utilized the online voter registration system leading up to the 2016 General Election, which saw the largest voter turnout in Pennsylvania history: 6.5 million of 8.5 million registered voters cast a ballot.

Lawmakers also discussed different proposals to update the delivery of elections to Pennsylvania voters, including moving towards no-excuse absentee ballots and early voting, and doing more to clean up voter registration rolls.

Any changes to election processes would need to be made to the state Election Code, which would require legislative approval. Lawmakers plan take a closer look at the proposals in a Senate hearing later this spring, they said.

With regard to finances, Gov. Tom Wolf’s budget proposal asks for less money for the Department of State in the coming fiscal year compared to the current year.

Wolf is requesting $88,022,000 from the General Fund for FY2017-18, down from $88,977,000 in FY2016-17, with proposed minor cuts to the department’s general operations and decreased costs for the publication of information related to constitutional amendments, among others.

Certain programs and duties of the department will require small increases, though, like the Statewide Uniform Registry of Electors, which needs more money to modernize operations.

In the interest of further reducing appropriations, lawmakers also questioned Cortes about the costs associated with special elections and campaign finance reports.

Special elections in 2016 cost taxpayers almost $1 million in addition to normal election costs, and only two months into 2017, nearly $400,000 has been expended on the elections for unintended vacancies, Cortes said.

These costs, which are paid by the counties up-front and reimbursed by the state, could be avoided by waiting until the next general or primary election to fill any vacancies, Cortes said.

Encouraging or requiring candidates and political action committees to file campaign finance reports electronically could also save money, as well as publishing information related to constitutional amendments on online sites rather than in print newspapers, Cortes said.

The department currently utilizes a third party to scan submitted reports and make them search-accessible, costing the state thousands of dollars each year, while publishing information about constitutional amendments cost $2.7 million in FY2016-17 and is estimated to cost $1.5 million for next fiscal year.

Those costs could be driven down by advertising on online sites, though citizens’ access to the Internet must first be considered, Cortes said.

As for future costs, lawmakers will need to take a look at upgrading outdated voting machines across the Commonwealth, Cortes said.

Aside from election-related issues, lawmakers also questioned Cortes about a few concerns and ideas related to the department’s oversight of professional licensure programs, including lengthy wait times for professional licensure complaints to be investigated and closed.

It is estimated that in FY2017-18, it will take on average 410 days to investigate and close a complaint, up from 282 days in FY2015-16. If trends continue, the department expects that timeframe to increase to 450 days by FY2021-22 due to an increase in the number of complaints received by the department.

One of the department’s main objectives next fiscal year is to reduce the wait time and increase the efficiency in prosecutions through the use of new technology. It also hopes to reduce the processing time of professional licensure applications from 16 days to 10 days, according to the proposed state budget.

Rep. Jamie Santora, R-Delaware, also posed the cost-saving idea of renewing professional licenses every four years rather than every two.

 

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Even though Gov. Tom Wolf has signed legislation that will create statewide regulations governing transportation network companies, at least one lawmaker says the new act has Pennsylvania traveling into risky territory – and he’s potentially looking at suing to stop it.

“I’m not going to let this go; I’m adamant about declaring the [retroactive penalty] provision inappropriate and strip it,” said Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny. “What mechanism we use, I don’t know, but that’s what I’m looking to do.”  Sen. Costa also said he wouldn’t rule out filing a lawsuit.

While Act 164 of 2016, previously Senate Bill 984, is billed as ensuring the operations of ride-sharing companies, like Uber and Lyft, are properly regulated in Pennsylvania, there’s a lot more to the new law, and that’s what Costa said worries him.

“The thing that I most object to is the provision in the bill which, in my view, is special legislation for one entity, that undermines the rulemaking and enforcement of a quasi-judicial agency, the PUC [Public Utility Commission],” said Costa.

The provision in question states: “A person or entity which, as determined by the commission, operated as a transportation network company prior to the effective date of this section without proper authority from the commission shall be subject to a penalty not to exceed $1,000 per day or a maximum penalty not to exceed $250,000, notwithstanding the number of violations that occurred during the period in which the person or entity operated without authority.”

In April, the PUC voted 3-2 to adopt a joint motion ordering Uber to pay over $11 million in civil penalties for “unlawful operations” in violation of the PUC Code by “providing regulated passenger transportation service without a certificate of public convenience” from the PUC.

The penalty is currently under appeal in Commonwealth Court, and when the fine was issued, some Republican and Democratic elected officials – including Gov. Wolf himself – questioned the severity of the fine.

Costa argues the Pennsylvania Supreme Court employs a test regarding special legislation which depends on whether treating a particular class differently under the legislation is founded on real distinctions and not artificial differences used to evade the constitution. The court has held that “classification is per se unconstitutional when the class consists of one member and it is impossible or highly unlikely that another can join the class,” said Costa.

Costa said the PUC did also penalize another riding-sharing company – Lyft – which reached a $250,000 settlement in July 2015 with the PUC for, like Uber, unauthorized operations. Uber’s April 2016 penalty was $11 million, and appears to be the only one that would be affected by the new act.

Therefore, argues Costa, the retroactive section of SB984 violates Article III, Section 32 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, which prohibits the General Assembly from passing “local or special law in any case which has been or can be provided for by general law,” and, within the section’s specifications, forbids “remitting fines, penalties and forfeitures, or refunding moneys legally paid into the treasury.”

Costa’s argument runs into a bit of difficulty, according to other readers of Act 164’s language.

“Based on numerous conversations with legislative leaders throughout the process, it is our understanding that the language regarding fines is intended to address future actions,” said PUC press secretary Nils Hagen-Frederiksen.

Costa has said during committee meetings and floor debate the legislation establishes some dangerous precedents.

Costa again expressed Friday that if the Legislature can undo a fine imposed by a regulatory agency like the PUC, there would appear to be little to prevent a future General Assembly and compliant governor from undoing a fine imposed by the state Department of Environmental Protection or another government agency.

With this new law “you’re saying it’s okay to change that [an imposed fine] for a specific company, retroactively,” which undermines the ability of any governmental agency to ensure compliance with its regulations, said Costa.

Senate Republican leaders have said there is no intent by the Legislature with this act to affect the PUC penalty assessed to Uber. They have also explained, as Hagen-Frederiksen stated, the language is written to address penalties that have yet be ordered by the commission, not ones that have already been finalized.

Senate GOP spokeswoman Jenn Kocher reiterated that position. “We feel this does not affect the Uber situation, as that has been finalized by the PUC, and there’s no other action that can be taken by the PUC unless ordered by the court,” said Kocher.

Kocher also said it’s possible there are other PUC actions about which we have not yet been made aware, and for which no fine has yet been imposed, so there could be more than one matter affected by the Act 164 provision.

“It doesn’t matter what the intent is if the plain language is clear,” Costa said, noting that intent is only of interest to the courts when judges can’t clearly discern what a law does. “This plain language is clear.”

“Now that the governor has signed this, Uber doesn’t have to make the payment, and I don’t know if anyone is going to come back and say they have to – I’m mean, who’s gonna make them pay it now, when you read it and it says they don’t have to pay it?” said Costa. “It’s crazy.”

Costa made it clear he’s only focused on the retroactive penalty language within the bill.

“I’m very supportive of the underlying bill – I voted for it in the past,” he said. “I think it’s a good step in the right direction, a good beginning.”

He did note there are a few items on which he and Sen. Wayne Fontana, D-Allegheny, are working for next session to address “provisions that should be applied statewide” but are currently only available to Philadelphia.

However, while Costa approves of much of the legislation, some have noted Act 164 doesn’t contain a severability clause – which allows the rest of a law to remain in effect even if a particular portion of it is found to be unconstitutional.

If Costa should sue, and he should be successful, that could likely force the General Assembly to pass new ride-sharing legislation.

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Gov. Tom Wolf has signed into law legislation to make several changes to the state’s unemployment compensation system, but that wasn’t the only UC bill on the minds of the governor and others.

That other UC bill – House Bill 2375 – did not get to the governor’s desk, but was seen as being just as important as House Bill 319, now Act 144 of 2016 after the Nov. 3  bill signing.

HB2375 would allow the transfer of $57 million out of the UC Fund to the UC Service and Infrastructure Improvement Fund for the purposes of funding the day-to-day operations and upgrading of the UC benefit system. For the last four years, the Department of Labor and Industry has been allowed to transfer about $150 million out of the UC Fund to be used for the day-to-day operations and modernization of the state’s 40-year-old legacy unemployment compensation benefits system.

The problem is, there’s still more work to be done to modernize the system, and the department hasn’t come up with a way to pay for its daily operations of the system without continuing to transfer money from the UC Fund.

HB2375 would allow the department an additional year to transfer funds, totaling $57 million for 2017. And while the bill did win approval from the state House of Representatives during the final hectic week of session in October, the Senate did not hold a vote, stating it ran out of time.

During the HB319 bill signing ceremony, Gov. Wolf urged the Senate to concur with the bill (it has already been approved by the House) when they return to session on Nov. 16.

“It’s critical that we get this bill passed so that effective customer service can be provided,” said Gov. Wolf, in light of the 44,000 more individuals who will be accessing the system due to Act 144, “as well as all working men and women who count on a reliable unemployment insurance system.”

Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne, who took part in the HB319 signing ceremony, suggested the governor start working on Senate leaders to come back in November to hold that vote.

“Governor, I think I would encourage advocacy. As you know the Senate has not voted after elections in Sine Die, but if you can make the case why we should do that on the 16th, I think we may be willing to consider that based on your efforts and how you push that,” said Baker, majority chair of the Senate Labor and Industry Committee.

The legislative session doesn’t technically end until Nov. 30, but since 2008, neither of the General Assembly’s chambers has held voting session days after a General Election, referred to as” sine die” sessions.

Senate GOP spokeswoman Jenn Kocher offered a more pointed reaction to the Governor’s comments, writing in an email, “We are reviewing the bill with Sen. Baker and her committee but no decisions have been made. If the Governor is advocating that the General Assembly take votes during the Sine Die, it might also be an opportunity for him to collect votes for the pension plan since it also is something he claims so strongly to support.”

The most recent pension proposal did not come up for a vote in either the House or Senate  due to a lack of votes in the House. GOP leaders said Wolf didn’t try to get any House Democratic Caucus votes to pass the bill in the House (House GOP leaders said they were 3 votes short), while the House Democrats argued they wouldn’t have provided any votes if the Governor had asked since they weren’t included in the development of the legislation.

As for HB2375, the Department of Labor and Industry has warned that failure to authorize additional funding transfers could result in UC staff furloughs and potential UC call center closures.

When pressed about what happens if the legislation doesn’t get to the Governor’s desk, both Gov. Wolf and Labor and Industry Secretary Kathy Manderino said they’re assuming the situation will be resolved before January, when the department would have to “face the loss” of the funding.

“Gov. Wolf will continue to work with both Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate to address this challenge. Regrettably, without reauthorization, the department will be forced to move forward with consolidation measures and furloughs. However, the department will also do everything it can to mitigate the negative impacts associated with no action on this issue,” stated Wolf spokesman Jeff Sheridan.

Legislative sources said they continue to have discussions with the Department of Labor and Industry, and expressed, like the Wolf administration, hope that the situation can be resolved with limited impact on the ability of individuals to access the UC benefit system.

Sen. Baker also noted the UC changes contained within Act 144 do take into account the impact on the UC Fund that the $57 million transfer within HB2375 would have, should it become law.

 

The much-hyped down-ballot problems some suggested Republican Donald Trump would cause in Pennsylvania did not appear in the races for the Pennsylvania General Assembly’s available seats in 2016.

In fact, Trump’s historic win in Pennsylvania may have helped Republicans expand their majorities in both the state House of Representatives and the Senate, with the latter chamber appearing to secure a veto-proof majority – a total of 34 seats.

All 203 seats in the state House of Representatives were up for grabs, although nearly half of the chamber’s incumbents ran unopposed, with many more in relatively safe districts. That presented a difficult scenario for Democrats hoping to slice into the Republican Party’s current 119-84 majority in the chamber. In the end, the GOP majority looks to have grown by as many as 3 seats.

If the Democrats’ path to denting the GOP’s majority in the House was difficult, their task was herculean in the Senate, where the GOP held a 31-19 majority going into the election. Twenty-five of the chamber’s 50 seats were on the ballot, but there were only a handful deemed by Republican and Democratic campaign insiders as having the ability to shift the chamber’s current political composition.

And shift it did, with Republicans winning three seats – thanks to a Trump wave in most areas of the state west of Harrisburg – and holding on to one GOP seat thought vulnerable to the Democrats.

Senate races                                                                                                                      

In a rematch of a special election earlier this year, incumbent GOP Sen. Tom Killion narrowly defeated Democrat Martin Molloy, 51.39 to 48.61 percent (a nearly 6,300-vote margin) to hold on to the 9th Senatorial District in Delaware County. The earlier special election was prompted by Sen. Dominic Pileggi’s election as a Delaware County judge.

Republicans had targeted incumbent Democratic Sen. Rob Teplitz in the 15th Senatorial District.

Teplitz’s 2012 election was in a district drawn in 2000, due to problems with the 2010 reapportionment maps. Since his election, the 15th District was redrawn to add all of heavily Republican (but not heavily populated) Perry County.

That tipped the scales for Republican challenger John DiSanto, who defeated Teplitz 51.42  to  48.58 percent (a 3,380-vote margin).

And the western Pennsylvania Trump wave crashed on incumbent Democratic Sen. Sean Wiley in his first reelection effort, following his win in 2012 with 60 percent of the vote.

Republican challenger Daniel Laughlin defeated Wiley 53.5 to46.5 percent for the Erie County seat.

Sen. John Wozniak’s decision to retire – some say due to rumors that started earlier this year that he would lose reelection – left an open seat in western Pennsylvania.

Republican Wayne Langerholc thumped Democrat Ed Cernic Jr., 62.54 to 37.46 percent, for the 35th Senatorial District, which includes Bedford, Cambria and part of Clearfield counties

House races                                                                                                                     .

Incumbent Democrat Jaret Gibbons lost his relection bid to Republican challenger Aaron Bernstine, 41.37 to 58.63 percent, in the 10th District, which includes Beaver and Lawrence counties.

Democrats look to have barely held on to the open Bucks County 31st District seat held by Rep. Steve Santarsiero, who lost his congressional bid on Nov. 8

Democrat Perry Warren defeated Republican Ryan Gallagher by 28 votes (50.04 to 49.96 percent).

Democrats did not retain the 49th District in Washington County, open due to the retirement of longtime Rep. Peter Daley, II. Republican Donald Cook defeated Democrat Alan Benyak 54.25 to 45.75 percent.

The GOP also picked up the currently Democrat-held 51st District in Fayette County, with Republican challenger Matthew Dowling besting incumbent Democrat Tim Mahoney 52.82 to 47.18 percent.

In the 58th District, open due to Democrat Ted Harhai, Republican Justin Walsh defeated  Democrat Mary Popovich, 62 to 38 percent.

In the east, the GOP thought they may have picked up another seat, but late returns appear to have given incumbent Democratic Rep. Leanne Krueger-Braneky, from the 161st District in Delaware County, a 240-vote win (50.35 to49.65 percent) over Republican Patti Rodgers Morrisette.

Incumbent Republican Harry Lewis also appears to have survived against Democrat Joshua Maxwell in Chester County’s 74th District, 51.93 to48.07 percent (or an 880-vote margin).

However, for the 115th District, incumbent Republican David C. Parker looks to have lost to Democrat Maureen Madden, 51.94 to 48.06 percent (or by a margin of about 841 votes).

Republican incumbent Tom Quigley bested Democrat Joseph Ciresi, 51 to 49 percent (a margin of 544 votes) for Montgomery County’s 146th District.

Republican incumbent Rep. Dan Truitt, who both GOP and Democratic insiders thought might lose his reelection bid may have retained Chester County’s 156th District by a scant 78 votes ( 50.11 to 49.89 percent) over Democrat Carolyn Comitta.

And in a bit of a surprise to some, Republican incumbent Martina White appears to have won reelection to her Philadelphia-based 170th District seat. White – who was a surprise win for the GOP in Philadelphia in a 2015 special election (because then Democratic Rep. Brendan Boyle was elected to Congress and vacated the seat), owing to political infighting by some of the city’s Democratic powerbrokers – defeated Democratic challenger Matthew Darragh, 54.27 to 45.73 percent.

In Montgomery County’s 150th District, Republican Michael Corr defeated Democrat Linda Weaver, 54.37 to 45.63 percent.

In Chester County’s 158th District, Republican Eric Roe defeated Democrat Susan Rzucidlo, 53.18 to 46.82 percent.

Iin Delaware County’s 165th District, Republican Alexander Charlton defeated Democrat Elaine Schaefer 56.54 to 43.46 percent.

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The Pennsylvania Senate is evaluating the future of a unique Pennsylvania industry which has generated up to 10 percent of the state’s electric power needs over the past three decades while cleaning up acid mine drainage and pollution along 1,200 miles of streams in the state and reduced air pollution from wild fires, all while recycling 200 million tons of coal waste and reclaiming 7,000 acres of abandoned coal mine land.

Beginning in the 1980s, independent electric power producers erected 14 state-of-the-art power plants across the Anthracite and bituminous coal fields of the state using high-efficiency fluidized bed boilers to generate electricity and take advantage of special, guaranteed power rates then available under state law.  Over the years, the preferential power rates expired as the electric generating industry moved to a demand-driven market model.  To keep the coal refuse industry competitive and able to continue its privately funded environmental cleanup model, the Commonwealth instituted a tax credit program of $4 a ton to incentivize utilization of coal wastes.  The total annual tax credit was capped at $7.5 million a year and is scheduled to increase to $10 million a year in 2017.

In preparation for a progress report to the Senate Environmental Protection Committee this month, ARIPPA, a coal waste industry trade association, commissioned an environmental and economic impact report from Econsult Solutions, a Philadelphia research firm.

Econsult looked at the yearly and total benchmarks achieved by the waste coal cleanup effort and projected out expected benefits for the next 20 years if the program continues to perform at or near current capacity.

The study found that:

  • 200 million tons of coal refuse had been recovered and recycled into fuel.
  • 7,000 acres of abandoned coal lands and refuse piles had been re-contoured for new, productive uses.
  • Acid mine drainage and other pollution of 1,200 miles of streams have been remediated.
  • At peak capacity, the 14 power plants were generating 1.4 megawatts of electricity, sufficient to supply one million homes.
  • The industry directly employed more than 1,500 skilled workers earning an average of $70,000 a year and indirectly supported another 3,000 jobs in nearby communities.
  • The total economic impact of the coal waste industry in Pennsylvania is about $740 million a year.
  • The total value of the environmental cleanup to be provided to the Commonwealth at no cost to the taxpayer over the next 20 years is estimated at more than $500 million.

“The coal refuse recycling incentive is unique to Pennsylvania among the mining states,” George Ellis, ARIPPA executive director, noted. “Our members are providing a valuable service to future generations of Pennsylvanians by cleaning up the historic scars of more than two centuries of mining, at no cost to taxpayers.  At the same time, we generate clean electricity.  It’s been a hugely successful partnership.”

Ellis presented the Econsult report at a recent hearing conducted by the state Senate Environmental Resources & Energy Committee held in Jim Thorpe, in the heart of the anthracite field.

“We’ve made steady progress over the last two decades in removing coal refuse and turning it into energy, along with beneficial ash that can be recycled and used to remediate mining sites and in products such as concrete and asphalt.  We generate electricity in order to pay for our environmental activities – the removal of abandoned coal refuse piles and the remediation and restoration of coal refuse affected sites.  If our industry does not survive, the cleanup becomes the responsibility of the commonwealth and its taxpayers,” Ellis told the committee.

Ellis urged the committee to preserve the recently adopted tax credit measure and to explore other opportunities for economic support and regulatory relief that would help to keep the plants operating.

# # #

(The complete Econsult report is available at www.arippa.org)

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As Capital Watch goes to press, former presidential candidate Jill Stein and a co-petitioner filed a lawsuit in federal court on Dec. 5 to hold a statewide recount in the Keystone State. General Election recounts are already taking place in Wisconsin and Michigan,

“Pennsylvania also has among the most vulnerable, outdated, and unsecure voting machines in the country. Pennsylvania is also among a very few states where the great majority of voters vote without the ability to check any paper trail,” read Stein’s filing against Pennsylvania Secretary of the Commonwealth Pedro Cortes and Jonathan Marks, commissioner of the Bureau of Commissions, Elections and Legislation.

“As a result of the Pennsylvania Election Code, and the conduct of defendants, the [Department of State] and the 67 county boards, the voters of Pennsylvania do not have voting rights remotely equal to the rights of voters in the great majority of (if not all) other states,” it stated.

Stein, a candidate for the Green Party, is seeking a recount of paper ballots cast in the state and a forensic examination of the electronic voting equipment, according to the filing.

As stated in the filing, Stein is also asking the court declare Pennsylvania’s current election law violates voting rights-related components of the United States Constitution and prevent state officials from enforcing the allegedly unconstitutional portions of the Pennsylvania Election Code in the future.

Stein also asked to be reimbursed for the costs and attorney fees related to her suit.

Prior to the suit’s filing, some of Stein’s Pennsylvanian supporters rallied for her cause in the main rotunda of the state Capitol Building on Dec. 5.

Holding signs that read “restore my faith” and chanting “count the votes,” Green Party voters symbolically asked for the recount and requested that in the future, the state Legislature or Congress approve more funding for equipment upgrades and that counties use machines that provide voters with a receipt of their votes.

“To act like it isn’t possible, to act like we don’t need to worry our pretty little heads about it is absolutely childish,” said Pat LaMarche, the 2004 Green Party vice-presidential candidate and political activist, at the rally.

“We of course want to know whether our machines are accurately recording the information we have loaded into them. And it doesn’t make us a bunch of grumpy little gusses because we want to know for sure that it happened. It makes us citizens,” she added.

The election of president-elect Donald Trump is the focus of the recount, with Stein claiming precincts may have experienced cyberattacks and some results may have been manipulated, though her campaign has offered no hard evidence of such incidents.

Trump and the Republican Party of Pennsylvania have called Stein’s effort “frivolous” and “without merit.”

Lawrence Tabas, Esq., lead counsel in Pennsylvania for President-Elect Trump, his Electors, and the Republican Party of Pennsylvania stated on Dec. 3: “The filing of a discontinuance of the Election Contest by Jill Stein’s petitioners tonight is a recognition that their Election Contest was completely without merit, and meant solely for purposes to delay the Electoral College vote in Pennsylvania for President-Elect Trump.”

The state GOP argued Stein sought a court order for a statewide recount, which is absolutely not allowed under Pennsylvania law.

Tabas further said: “Candidate Jill Stein’s allegations created the false allusion that some unidentified foreign government hacked our state’s voting systems when absolutely no such proof existed. We believe that she always knew that she had no such proof.”

A state judge on Dec. 2 ordered that the more than 100 voters who brought a lawsuit on Stein’s behalf put up $1 million bond before a judge considers their arguments in a Commonwealth Court hearing, according to per curiam order. The money was to be used to cover the costs of a recount.

The Stein campaign and Green Party voters deemed the request excessive and the petitioners withdrew the suit.

“Petitioners are regular citizens of ordinary means,” their filing states. “They cannot afford to post the $1,000,000 bond required by the Court.”

Stein has raised more than $7.1 million for the three recounts, according to her website.

Wisconsin’s recount is estimated to cost $3.4 million, Michigan’s is estimated to cost $975,000, although there would still appear to be legal hurdles for Stein to clear in that state for a recount, and Pennsylvania’s is estimated to cost $500,000, according to her website. Lawyer fees are expected to cost $2 million to $3 million, and the campaign is also covering the cost of recounts in some Pennsylvania counties.

The campaign also cited concerns about the impartiality of Pennsylvania’s state courts in election-related cases.

“Over the past several days, it has become clear that the barriers to verifying the vote in Pennsylvania are so pervasive and that the state court system is so ill-equipped to address this problem that we must seek federal court intervention,” said Jonathan Abady, lead counsel of the party’s recount effort, in a press release.

Petitioners also worried that if they put up the money to receive a hearing, a judge could’ve dismissed the case, decided that the petitioners acted in bad faith and handed down thousands of dollars in fines, said Carl Romanelli, Pennsylvania’s coordinator of the Jill Stein campaign, at the rally.

“That eats up the money that we received from the hard earned donations of a lot of small donors,” said Romanelli.

Now, the petitioners have switched gears. Stein and a co-petitioner filed an emergency federal court order in the United States Eastern District court on Monday, although again without any concrete evidence of hacking or manipulation of the election results.

“In the 2016 presidential election, rife with foreign interference documented by American intelligence agencies and hacks of voter rolls in multiple states, voters deserve the truth. Were Pennsylvania votes counted accurately? That truth is not difficult to learn: simply count the paper ballots in optical scan districts, and permit forensic examination of the electronic voting systems in DRE districts. This can be done in days, by top experts, if necessary at the Stein campaign’s expense, under the supervision of election officials, and without endangering a single vote,” the filing read.

Stein’s supporters say that only a recount could bring incidents of hacking or manipulation to light.

“The hacking, for example, or even the malfunctioning is something that we will only learn by looking at the forensics of the machines,” argued Romanelli.

He said there is enough evidence, however, to prove some inaccuracies based on exit polling and anomalies reported in precincts, like an unverified ballot that was recorded in Centre County, according to a poll watcher who spoke at the rally.

But Stein isn’t only relying on the federal suit to bring about a recount, she is spearheading recounts in handful of county precincts across the state, including precincts in Philadelphia County, Allegheny County and Centre County.

If the precinct recounts bring Trump’s official vote count in Pennsylvania within half a percentage point of Clinton’s total, a recount will automatically be held, according to state law.

It is unclear how long it will take the federal court to rule on the suit, and concerns are being raised as to whether the state will be able to certify its elections by the deadline of Dec. 13.

In turn, there are concerns that the lawsuit may threaten Pennsylvania electors from casting their 20 votes for Trump on Dec. 19, when the Electoral College is scheduled to vote.

“I think that any delays that might occur rests as much on the election officials for not understanding and being prepared for what would be needed in a real recount and understanding that that’s important,’ Romanelli said. “And because they did not do their job and they inflicted these less than stellar equipment on us, than we are the ones that have to bring attention to you and the public …”

During a radio interview last week, Gov. Tom Wolf said there’s no indication of anything to invalidate the Nov. 8 General Election results.

“We don’t have any reason to believe that there was fraud – I think the Clinton campaign has also said they have not seen any fraud, but they are standing with the [Stein] suit,” Wolf said. “We just don’t see any evidence of that [fraud].”

According to the most recent election figures, Trump won the Keystone State by 47,755 more votes than Hillary Clinton, helping him to claim a predicted 306 total electoral votes to Clinton’s 232.

Stein received less than 1 percent of more than 6 million votes cast in the Keystone State.

 

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By W. Russell McDaid

Our elected officials are tasked with crafting a fair and responsible budget amid difficult circumstances and we are pleased they provided some much-needed assistance to Pennsylvania’s skilled nursing facilities through the access add-on payments for high Medicaid facilities this year.

However, we caution that Pennsylvania’s Medicaid program still does not come close to covering the real cost of care. Nursing facilities received flat funding in this year’s budget, which leaves Pennsylvania’s frailest and sickest residents, such as those with advanced dementia or severe chronic health conditions that require around-the-clock care in skilled nursing facilities, vulnerable.

The funding shortfall in Pennsylvania’s Medicaid program is the single biggest challenge facing Pennsylvania’s nursing homes and long-term care providers as the commonwealth works to ensure high-quality, person-centered care for a rapidly aging population.

For a decade, facilities have been asked to do more with less. Skilled nursing facilities still cannot invest in necessary capital improvements or advanced technology that would enhance care, nor can they pay competitive wages that would increase staff retention, which is so vital to high-quality care.

Without adequate funding moving forward, some facilities may have to turn away seniors on Medicaid because they cannot afford their care, creating access to care issues in parts of the state.

In addition to adequate funding for skilled nursing facilities, PHCA has strongly advocated for meaningful tort reform legislation, which would help ease the burden that predatory out-of-state law firms place on our sector’s facilities, staff and residents. Senate Bill 747, which would cap punitive damages at 250% of the amount of compensatory damages for long-term care providers, received bipartisan support in the Senate and now awaits a vote in the House of Representatives.

It is critical that Senate Bill 747 be brought up for a vote in the House when the chamber returns in September. When passed, this important piece of legislation will take our scarce Medicaid dollars back from predatory out-of-state lawyers and keep them here in Pennsylvania paying for quality care where they belong.

Senate Bill 747 is essential to the long-term viability of Pennsylvania’s nursing homes, personal care homes and assisted living residences and needs to be passed in the House and earn the Governor’s support to become law this fall.

We plan to continue working with the Wolf Administration and the General Assembly to make the needs of seniors a priority by ensuring our sickest, frailest Pennsylvania residents have access to the services they need to live a healthy, safe, high-quality life with the dignity and respect they deserve.

  1. Russell McDaid is President and CEO of the Pennsylvania Health Care Association.

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Pennsylvania voters cast their vote on a constitutional amendment question on April 26– but their vote doesn’t officially count.

Commonwealth Court Judge Kevin Brobson rejected an injunction request seeking to stop House Resolution 783, which implements a last-minute election ballot change to remove from the April 26 ballot a constitutional amendment question on mandatory judicial retirement. The question will be placed on the Nov. 8 general election ballot.

The resolution was upheld but, given the close proximity to the April 26 primary election, state and county election officials weren’t able to physically remove the question from the ballot. Because the resolution stands, Brobson said, Secretary of the Commonwealth Pedro Cortes has no authority to “canvass and compute” votes cast on a question that is not before the electorate.

“In light of H.R. 783, Proposed Constitutional Amendment 1 was, but is no longer, a question before the electorate, regardless of its presence on a ballot,” Brobson wrote. “Thus, the Secretary is under no legal obligation to ‘canvass and compute’ votes cast on Proposed Constitutional Amendment 1 during the April 2016 Primary Election.”

The traditional posting of election night results on the Department of State’s website is done as a public service. The official “canvassing, computing and tabulating return” does not occur until days after the election.

However, due to the complexity of testing and coding the election night returns system, the results of votes cast regarding the ballot question could appear publicly on the department’s website. Any changes to publicly posting the election night results of the ballot question will be left up to the discretion of the secretary.

H.R. 783 moves the ballot question to the fall general election ballot and directs Cortes to re-word the question asking voters to approve or disapprove increasing the mandatory retirement age of judges to 75. Judges currently must retire at the end of the year in which they turn 70 years old.

Three Democrats who filed the preliminary injunction request argued H.R. 783 disenfranchises voters, particularly absentee voters who have already cast ballots on the question, or others who intended to vote on the question on primary election day.

Brobson rejected that argument. He also rejected limitations the Democrats sought on the General Assembly’s exclusive authority under the Pennsylvania Constitution to dictate the “time” and “manner” in which a question will appear on the ballot.

The judge said the close proximity of the resolution’s passage to the primary election might place hardships on state and county election officials, but those do not reach the level of “harms” that could be remedied by the court.

“Even if the Court were to consider them harms for purpose of preliminary injunctive relief, greater harm of a constitutional dimension would result if this Court were to enjoin enforcement of the otherwise lawful action of a coordinate branch of government,” Brobson wrote.

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By Tony May

It’s a non brainer that another budget debacle serves no one – not the beneficiaries of state programs, not school districts reliant on state funding or local governments who share in the Commonwealth’s tax collection and distribution functions.  And certainly not legislators up for re-election who need to be home campaigning and not the governor who has been feeling the heat from both friends and foes over last year’s budget mess.

So, at last, after more than a year of seemingly petty bickering and in-fighting, we seem to be agreed on something: getting out of town by June 30.  So how do we do it?

There are a number of ways this can go but here is the cleanest and the fairest:

  1. Gov. Tom Wolf agrees to accept a budget for 2016-17 that is funded without an increase in the personal income tax or major changes to the state sales tax in return for a pledge from at least some Republican leaders to work cooperatively on addressing broad-based tax and spending needs in a comprehensive package in 2017.
  2. The General Assembly finds a way to pump some additional funds into Pennsylvania public schools in 2016-2017 with the recognition that urban schools need special attention and funding.
  3. The leadership of both political parties in the legislature names delegates from the private sector and the community to sit with nominees to be named by the governor to a special blue ribbon panel on Pennsylvania’s future program and revenue needs (kudos to my colleague and friend, George Wolff, for proposing this initiative). The commission should be tasked with producing an interim report by December 2016 and a long-term blue print by summer 2017.

Normally, commissions and study panels are created to avoid confronting major areas of disagreement.  In this case, the panel would provide a new – and less partisan – perspective on where the state is and where it is heading.

The current problem with today’s General Assembly is a wide rift not between Democrats and Republicans but between Republicans who believe that government has a legitimate role in the lives of citizens and a growing element in the GOP that wants to kill government at most any cost short of insurrection.

Nowhere is the chasm between the two wings of the GOP more evident than in the current debate over the operation of bricks and mortar and cyber charter schools.

The most basic tenets of Republican fiscal responsibility have been thrown out the window in favor of ideological purity – the blind acceptance  of the belief that any private school is preferable to a public (or :”government”) school.  Charters – both cyber and traditional – are given the same state funding as public schools without regards to actual costs.  It’s a more flawed policy than the federal government’s cost-plus contracts with defense contractors.  In the case of charter schools, you can spend your per student allocation any way you want and make as much of a profit as you’re able.  There’s not much academic oversight and even less fiscal oversight.

The result is charter schools that perform all over the lot – some better than their public counterparts and many that do not.

Looking for a place to find waste, fraud and abuse?  The charter movement may be the biggest source of waste and abuse in state government today.  Notice, I didn’t say “fraud” because the charters do what is required of them.  We’re just not calling them to account the way that we should.

Charters do provide parents – at least in some parts of the state – with choices.  The fair question to ask is it worth the cost?

Maybe it’s an issue that requires its own blue ribbon panel but at least if could be addressed in a general way by the ways and means panel proposed above.