Pennsylvania State Capitol, Harrisburg. Photo: Waldteufel – Fotolia

Following is a listing of executive and legislative action for the week of Oct. 15. Both houses of the General Assembly were in recess at press time. The Pennsylvania Senate is scheduled for a session day on Nov. 14. The state House of Representatives is set to reconvene on Nov. 13.

DUI Penalties

The Pennsylvania Senate on Oct. 17 approved on a 45-4 vote the final version of a bill that would increase penalties for repeat offenders convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol or other substances.

Senate Bill 961, sponsored by state Sen. John Rafferty, R-Montgomery, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, would have Pennsylvania join the vast majority of states that treat repeat DUI as a felony.

The bill, which now proceeds to the governor’s office, would create a new crime of felony DUI for a person convicted of their third DUI with blood alcohol content of 0.16 percent or higher—twice the legal limit of 0.08 percent–and all persons convicted of their fourth or subsequent DUI. It also would increase from three years to five the mandatory minimum prison sentence for a person with a prior DUI conviction who unintentionally causes the death of another person while intoxicated. Persons with two prior DUI convictions would face a minimum prison term of seven years for the offense.

“We are sending a strong message to dangerous repeat DUI offenders who show reckless disregard for the health and safety of our commonwealth,” Rafferty said. “If you are a repeat DUI offender and get behind the wheel again and kill someone, you are more liable and you will be held more accountable.”

License Suspension

Driver’s license suspension would no longer be a penalty for drug convictions and six low-level offenses under a measure unanimously passed on Oct. 17 by the state Senate. On the same day the state House agreed to the Senate version on a 179-1 vote.

House Bill 163, sponsored by state Rep. Rick Saccone, R-Allegheny, originally cleared the House in April.

The bill, which now goes to the governor’s office, would drop license suspension as a penalty for federal and state drug convictions when they do not involve driving a vehicle. It also spells out six offenses where license suspension would no longer be among the penalties—among them underage drinking and carrying a false ID.

“This driving privilege shouldn’t be taken away because of a low-level crime that has nothing to do with driving,” Saccone said in a statement. “Let’s give these individuals the best chance at turning their lives around by being active, employed and productive citizens.”

It would not remove mandatory license suspensions for crimes that occur while an individual is operating a vehicle, such as driving while under the influence of alcohol or substances.

Domestic Violence

A bill aimed at protecting domestic violence victims who live in public housing was approved Oct. 17 on a 179-2 vote in the state House.

Senate Bill 919, sponsored by state Sen. Art Haywood, D-Montgomery, would allow public-housing tenants who have been victims of domestic abuse or sexual assault to demand that local housing agencies relocate them.

“Survivors now have mobility options that otherwise could have been threatened,” Haywood said.

The bipartisan bill was co-sponsored by Sen. Camera Bartolotta, R-Washington.

“Current law does not allow local authorities to adequately protect victims, even when the abuser still poses a real threat to the victim’s safety,” Bartolotta said. “This bill offers a pathway for housing authorities to help victims who would otherwise be trapped in a dangerous situation.”

The measure, which cleared the Senate in March, will now go to the governor’s office.

Opioid Crisis

Gov. Tom Wolf on Oct. 17 announced a new state program that aims to direct $15 million for a housing initiative that will fund a minimum of eight pilot projects in eligible urban and rural communities. The pilot programs would be required to help persons suffering from opioid addiction maintain housing stability so they can get treatment and other support services.

“Through these grants, we are supporting programs that help those working toward recovery find and maintain a place to live and we are offering one of the most basic necessities for a healthy life,” Wolf said in a statement. “For those in or hoping to achieve recovery, a home can be an important factor in finding and continuing treatment and other services.”

Housing instability, combined with unmet basic needs, are hurdles on the road to recovery and independence. According to national studies, about one in five people experiencing homelessness has a chronic substance use disorder, a Wolf administration statement said.

Developed by the Pennsylvania Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs and the state Department of Human Services, the program’s goal is “to support innovative practices that will increase access to treatment and supports for individuals with opioid use disorder and help prevent overdose-related deaths.”

Temporary Guardianship

The state Senate on Oct. 16 unanimously approved a measure aimed at helping those affected by the opioid epidemic by granting temporary guardianship to grandparents or other adult family members stepping in as caregivers for the children of parents who have been affected by drug or alcohol addiction.

House Bill 1539, sponsored by Rep. Eddie Day Pashinski, D-Luzerne, cleared the House in April. It now goes to the governor’s office.

“I’m thankful that grandparents will now have legal rights when they step up to the plate and take over primary care for their grandchildren when the parents are not in the picture,” Pashinski said in a statement.

The bill would allow grants of temporary guardianship of 90 days not to exceed one full year.

According to a statement from the House Democratic caucus website, in Pennsylvania, an estimated 82,000 grandparents are the sole caregivers of nearly 89,000 grandchildren. The increasing opioid epidemic has worsened an already growing problem. Research has shown that children achieve higher levels of success when they’re able to stay in a stable household situation with close family members. In addition to that, grandparents keeping their grandchildren out of the foster care system saves the state over an estimated $1 billion per year.

Business Assistance

The General Assembly has passed a bill aimed at streamlining processes and procedures for opening and running businesses in Pennsylvania.

House Bill 1284, sponsored by state Rep. Michael Peifer, R-Pike, provides for the “Pennsylvania Business One-Stop Shop” to be a function of the Department of Community and Economic Development. The bill, which cleared the state House of Representatives in June, was approved on a unanimous vote in the Senate on Oct. 17.

The “Business One-Stop Shop” initiative was first articulated in Gov. Tom Wolf’s budget addresses and launched earlier this year by executive action. HB 1284 “will cement the PA Business One-Stop Shop into statute and secure its future,” according to a Wolf administration statement.

The PA Business One-Stop Shop consolidates information from many agencies into a single website, addressing business planning, registration and securing permits, hiring employees, capital funding and technical assistance. The site received more than 70,000 unique visitors since February, the Wolf administration reported.

“As a former business owner, I know that for too long the processes and procedures for starting and running a business were a barrier to entry for so many entrepreneurs across the commonwealth,” Wolf said in a statement. “I’m proud that my PA Business One-Stop Shop has successfully eased that burden on entrepreneurs.”

Price-Gouging

A bill that would exempt some businesses from the state’s anti-price gouging law, which is triggered by emergency declarations, was approved by the state Senate on a 42-7 vote. Senate Bill 1172, sponsored by Sen. Randy Vulakovich, R-Allegheny, had passed the Senate unanimously earlier this year but seven senators balked at amendments added in the state House.

The bill, which would amend Act 133 of 2006, was needed because of Wolf’s statewide declaration of an emergency because of the opioid crisis, Vulakovich said. Act 133 was aimed at preventing price gouging for supplies when a natural disaster strike and generally relate to events that are contained to discrete regions.

The opioid emergency declaration applies statewide.

“Even though this was not a natural disaster, the declaration triggered the Price Gouging Act and all manufacturers, distributors and retailers statewide are subject to pricing restrictions,” Vulakovich said. “This situation brings into sharp focus the need to amend the law so that its restraints on commerce apply only to the extent necessary.”

The bill moves to the governor’s office.

Bills Approved

Among the bills approved in the General Assembly’s last scheduled week of voting sessions before the November elections were the following:

• Senate Bill 554, sponsored by Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery, which would prevent child victims of human trafficking and sexual exploitation from being criminally prosecuted for crimes they have been forced or coerced to commit, was unanimously approved in both houses.

Senate Bill 897, sponsored by Sen. Pat Stefano, R-Fayette, which would enable governments, nonprofit organizations and businesses to collect restitution if they are victims of a crime, unanimously cleared both houses of the General Assembly.

Senate Bill 915, which would extend the time period for the filing of a post-conviction relief petition from 60 days to one year when new evidence is discovered, and Senate Bill 916, which would expand the use of post-conviction DNA testing to prove innocence, each of which were sponsored by Greenleaf, gained approval in both houses of the General Assembly.

Senate Bill 1205, sponsored by Sen. Dan Laughlin, R-Erie, which would update and streamline reporting requirements for insurance companies, passed the House on a 182-3 vote.

House Bill 1013, sponsored by Rep. Stephen Barrar, R-Delaware, which would require insurance companies and Medicaid to reimburse emergency medical services agencies for services provided when care is rendered, but transport to a hospital does not take place, was unanimously approved in both houses.

All of the bills were sent on to the governor’s office.