Saturday, February 29, 2020

PA Capitol Report: PennDOT Plans To Shift Local Road Money To Interstates

[ Because In Politics, Everything Is Connected To Everything Else ] PennDOT told the House Appropriations Committee last week, as it has before, over the next nine years it will move more than $3 billion away from local and rural road work to spend on interstate highways as a result of a federal mandate.  
PennDOT also noted, as it has many times before, the choice of the Senate and House to fund the State Police out of money set aside for road and bridge projects and having the Turnpike Commission pay for mass transit costs by floating debt based on toll increases is not sustainable.  Read more here.
PennDOT also talked about testing other funding ideas, like rush-hour congestion pricing to pay for infrastructure.  Read more here.
PennDOT noted a 2019 Transportation Advisory Committee report found Pennsylvania was $4.3 billion short on road spending and $1.2 billion short on mass transit funding.  Read more here.
Here are some other random comments made at hearings on the Governor’s budget request last week-
-- Broaden Bill Subsidizing Natural Gas Use In Manufacturing: In response to questions in the House and Senate hearings, DCED Secretary Davin said the Wolf Administration has concerns with House Bill 1100 that would provide a tax credit subsidy for the use of natural gas in manufacturing.  (Gov. Wolf has promised to veto the bill, passed by both the Senate and House, but not yet on his desk.)  Davin said the Administration is looking at ways to broaden the impact of the bill to encompass a number of different areas (no more details).
-- $204 Million For Horse Racing Or College Scholarships: The highlight of the House hearing on Agriculture’s budget was Gov. Wolf’s proposal to take $204 million away from the Horse Racing Fund and give it to state-owned university students as scholarships.  Secretary Russell Redding was confronted with the fact he opposed transfers in the past. Redding acknowledged his position had changed saying after investing about $3 billion into the industry since 2004, maybe the state needs to focus on other needs.  Read more here.
At the same time, the Chancellor of the State University System was encourage faculty to take the offered early retirement package, saying faculty cuts are possible if they do not hit their retirement target.  Read more here.
-- Addressing Lead, Asbestos In Schools: A number of Senators thanked the Wolf Administration for proposing an initiative to fund the removal of asbestos and address other hazards in schools. Read more here. Sen. Pat Browne (R-Lehigh), Majority Chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said it was important to have a full assessment of the problem statewide that could justify a decision funding these projects.
-- Mental Health Needs In Schools Significant: In the Senate, Education Secretary Pedro Rivera said the scale of the need for mental health services in school is significant.  The first year of the Safe2Say Something tip line received 40,382 tips from students, teachers and administrators helped bring the issue to light.  The top five reasons for the calls were-- bullying/cyber bullying; cutting/self-harm; suicide/suicide ideation; drug use/distribution/posession; and depression/anxiety.  It was not to warn of threats of school violence, which was the original intent of Safe2Say. Read more here.
-- Updated REAL IDs: PennDOT told the Senate only about 821,000 of the roughly 9.8 million people with state IDs and driver’s licenses have made the switch to the required REAL IDs.  PennDOT anticipates at least 1.3 million people will get REAL IDs before the October 1 deadline. Read more here.
Mixed Signals
While legislators were grilling cabinet Secretaries on their budget requests, sometimes down to a few thousand dollars, Spotlight PA broke a story that Senate and House members were literally blacking out details of where they spent some of the over $360 million they get from taxpayers to run their operations.   They claimed “legislative privilege” allowed them to hide how the money was spent from the public.  Read more here.
And while Senate and House members were complaining about requests for more funding by agencies, they were also reminded they have a $172 million surplus in their operating accounts that hasn’t been returned to taxpayers to fund needed programs.  Read more here.
Redistricting Reform
On February 24, Sen. Tom Killion (R-Delaware) announced he introduced legislation designed to end congressional gerrymandering in Pennsylvania. Senate Bill 1023 would establish an 11-member Independent Redistricting Commission to redraw congressional district lines.
Senate Bill 1023 is closely related to Senate Bill 1022, introduced by Sen. Lisa Boscola (D-Lehigh) which would amend the state constitution to establish an independent citizens commission to reform the way in which state legislative and senatorial districts are drawn.  Read more here.
20,000+ Sign Up For Mail-Ins
On February 27, Gov. Wolf announced more than 20,000 Pennsylvania voters have already used the Commonwealth’s new online application to sign up to use a mail-in or absentee ballot for the April 28 primary election. The Department of State just launched the online application February 11. The deadline for county election offices to receive applications is 5 p.m. April 21. Read more here.
House Republican Leader Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster) told the PA Press Club they may have to amend the new voting reform law after the April 28 Primary to let county election officials open mail-in ballots before the polls close to prevent a significant delay in tallying voting results.  Read more here.
College Voter Turnout Competition
The Department of State last week urged colleges and universities across the state to join its Pennsylvania Campus Voting Challenge to get more college students to register and turnout to vote in the November election.  The Challenge pits two and four-year colleges against each other to see who has the highest voter turnout.  Read more here.
Pennsylvania Battleground
Marc Levy of the Associated Press reported Saturday on efforts by Pennsylvania Stands Up to create a progressive coalition in the state to encourage citizens to register and vote on issues of concern to working people-- jobs, education, poor schools, collapsing infrastructure, the young and many others left behind by divide-and-control politics.  Read more here
Meanwhile the Trump Campaign announced it is opening 15 “Black Voices For Trump Community Centers” in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and thirteen other cities to try and reach out to Black voters. Read the AP article here.
We always knew Pennsylvania would be a “battleground” state.
Fake Census Forms
Fake census forms have begun to show up in some parts of Pennsylvania sent by a political organization, particularly in the Southeast.  Real 2020 Census officials are concerned the public will be confused and not fill out the real 2020 Census forms, which should start arriving March 12.  The deadline for filling out the real forms is April 1.  Read more here.
Disinformation Threats To The Election
The University of Pittsburgh’s Dick Thornburgh Forum for Law and Public Policy hosted a discussion on the topic of Can Democracy Survive the Internet?  Former Western Pennsylvania U.S. Attorney David Hickton said there is no doubt there will be aggressive misinformation campaigns to sow discourse among Americans and attempts will be made to hack into Pennsylvania’s election systems just like in 2016.
Hickton said he believes disinformation spread online is more of a threat than hacking into election computers, thanks to the replacement of Pennsylvania’s voting machines.  Read more here
The $90 million bond issue to actually pay the state’s share of those new voting machines the counties already purchased was just approved February 26, but no bonds have been sold yet.  Read more here.
Poll Position
A Morning Call/Muhlenberg College Poll released last week found the only Democratic candidate to lead President Trump is Bernie Sanders.  The other candidates are tied-- Biden, Warren-- or losing slightly to Trump-- Klobuchar, Buttigieg and Bloomberg.
The Quinnipiac University Poll last week found Trump losing to all Democratic opponents. Read more here.
Among other Morning Call/Muhlenberg College Poll results--
-- 54 percent feel Trump does not deserve reelection, 42 percent believe he does
-- 42 percent of voters do not support a ban on fracking proposed by some Democratic candidates and 38 percent agree with a ban
-- 44 percent of voters agree fracking poses a major risk to health, 36 percent do not.
-- 50 percent strongly or somewhat agree fracking has been a major boost to the Pennsylvania economy.
-- Most important issues in Presidential election -- economy-- 21 percent; health care-- 15 percent; getting rid of Trump-- 8 percent; environment--6 percent; character-- 5 percent, immigration-- 4 percent; keeping Trump-- 4 percent; social justice/Equality-- 4 percent; education-- 3 percent; and abortion-- 3 percent.
-- Biggest threat to a fair election: voter fraud-- 25 percent, voting machines malfunctioning-- 22 percent; voter suppression-- 21 percent; and foreign interference-- 17 percent.
On February 26, Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine outlined the Wolf Administration’s steps to prepare for community spread of the coronavirus known as COVID-19, as well as what Pennsylvanians can do now.  Read more hereRead NewsClips on the issue from around the state.
House Voting Schedule Changes
The House canceled scheduled voting days for April 8 and May 18, 29, 20 and added their fall voting session schedule this week. The Senate schedule remains unchanged.  Read more here.
What’s Next?
The Senate and House will wrap up their agency-by-agency budget hearings this week.  
The House hears from the departments of Education, Human Services, State Universities and the Governor’s Budget Secretary, among others.
The Senate hears from DEP, DCNR, Colleges and Universities and the Governor’s Budget Secretary, among others.
[Posted: February 29, 2020]  PA Environment Digest

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