Pennsylvania State Capitol. Photo credit: Zack Frank/Shutterstock.com

BUDGET ADDRESS

In his 2018-19 ​budget address​, Gov. Tom Wolf on Feb. 6 asked the General Assembly to pass a severance tax that he said would help ensure all Pennsylvanians benefit from the prosperity of the resources under their feet.

“Let’s understand exactly what a severance tax is,” Wolf said. “It’s a tax paid by people mostly outside of Pennsylvania to use our natural resources. And by failing to put in place this common-sense tax, we’re paying other states’ taxes—when we fill up our cars, or heat our homes—we’re paying for Alaska’s schools and Texas’ roads.”

He argued further that Pennsylvania is an outlier when it comes to not having a severance tax. “Pennsylvania is blowing most other states out of the water when it comes to production,” he said. “And by joining every other gas-producing state and passing a severance tax, we could also join them by bringing billions into our own coffers. Ask these oil and gas behemoths to pay their fair share for extracting Pennsylvania’s bountiful resources, and we can build a brighter future for Pennsylvania.”

The call for a severance tax came in the midst of a speech in which Wolf laid out a spending plan focused on buttressing Pennsylvanians’ skills and education to succeed in 21st century jobs as the state economy continues to grow. The proposal includes the first major investment in workforce development and skills training, including dedicated funding for STEM and computer science education.

The budget proposal continues investments in education and workforce development by providing an additional $225 million to improve education for every student across the state, regardless of ZIP code, and ensures a workforce ready for the 21st century, including $100 million for basic education funding, $20 million for special education, $30 million for Pre-K Counts, $10 million for Head Start, and $15 million for the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education.

State Sen. President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, said he was “​encouraged to see that the governor has finally joined us in opposing broad-based tax increases.” But he sounded warnings about the overall level of spending and questioned some of the cuts in the plan.

“His proposed budget increases state spending at a time when we should be living within our means, just as working families across our commonwealth are forced to do,” Scarnati said. “The governor’s cuts to health and veterans programs and drastic cuts to agriculture are immensely troubling.”

The Wolf administration has created a website, ​budget.pa.gov​, to provide more details of the plan.

REDISTRICTING ROW

 

The U.S. Supreme Court on Feb. 5 declined to intervene after the state’s high court declared unconstitutional Pennsylvania’s existing House map, which it concluded had been heavily gerrymandered by Republicans, The Associated Press reported. A reshuffled map is expected to make several districts friendlier for Democratic candidates in November.

Wolf and the leaders of the General Assembly faced a court-ordered Feb. 9 deadline to find a compromise approach to drawing the new boundaries. The hustle to redraw the state’s congressional maps has left many candidates wondering what district they’ll ultimately represent if they win.

The new maps will not affect a March 13 special election in southwest Pennsylvania, where state Rep. Rick Saccone and Democrat Conor Lamb are vying to replace Republican Tim Murphy, who resigned amid a sex scandal. But the winner in the 18th Congressional District could still find himself in a redesigned district running for re-election in November.

The current boundaries resulted from Republicans who controlled the legislature and governor’s office breaking decades of geographic precedent when drawing boundaries after the 2010 census. They shifted whole counties and cities into different districts and produced contorted boundaries in an effort to protect a Republican advantage in the congressional delegation, the state Supreme Court said.

Under the post-2010 maps, Republicans hold a 13-5 advantage in congressional seats in a state where Democrats have 800,000 more registered voters and hold all but one statewide elected office.

Competition also has suffered under the Republican-drawn maps. With the three previous House maps after the Census in 1980, 1990 and 2000, between two and six Pennsylvania congressional seats changed party hands during a given decade. Since the 2012 elections, when the new boundaries went into effect, none has.

Pennsylvania Republican Party Chairman Val DiGiorgio insists the GOP’s advantage is a natural result of Democrats’ concentration in cities. He said a more even map would require another form of gerrymandering by carving up Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

FIREFIGHTER TRAINING

The Pennsylvania Senate on Feb. 5 unanimously approved SB 955​, legislation sponsored by Sen. Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, and Sen. Randy Vulakovich, R-Allegheny, that creates an incentive for community colleges to establish firefighter training programs within secondary schools.

SB 955 would establish a three-year pilot program—providing $150,000 per year to three community colleges—one each in the eastern, central and western parts of the state. Those colleges would be charged with establishing partnerships with secondary schools to provide firefighter training classes for high school students.

Senate Bill 955 now goes to the House for consideration.

RAPE KITS

Auditor General Eugene DePasquale on Feb. 5 urged Wolf and lawmakers to include funding for testing rape kits in the 2018-19 budget. “At last count 1,214 rape kits remained backlogged in Pennsylvania,” DePasquale said. “That’s potentially 1,200 people seeking results from the hours-long, invasive exam they endured.”

“We know some of these kits date as far back as the 1990s. It is beyond unconscionable that these kits continue to sit on a shelf, denying victims a chance for healing and closure,” DePasquale said, noting that 13 other states have already provided funding to eliminate their backlogged rape kits.

“We are making progress,” DePasquale said. “Since 2016, 700 backlogged kits were tested meaning that 700 Pennsylvanians received answers about their rape kits. Sexual assault victims deserve justice and testing the kits provides them a chance for justice.”

In September 2016, DePasquale released a special report on the state’s untested rape kits​ that found inadequate communication to local law enforcement agencies, errors in DOH’s official 2015 report and resource shortages that could be leading to delayed justice for victims. •