State Roundup: Court to Rule on how Your Vote Should Count
Voter ID Law goes back to court. Here's a wrap up of the news this week from Harrisburg.
By PA Independent Staff
HARRISBURG — How much does your vote really matter? A pair of Pennsylvania Supreme Court hearings this week will make that determination.
The state’s controversial voter ID law found support from Republicans who argued before the justices that it is needed to counter potential voter fraud, while opponents said it will disenfranchise some voters.
The Supremes also heard arguments about the newly revised General Assembly district maps. Opponents say the largely Republican-drawn maps are designed to protect incumbents rather than represent voters, while supporters said redistricting is an inherently political process.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has to sort out a bit of a mess before deciding whether to uphold Pennsylvania’s controversial voter ID law.
The eight plaintiffs — who are seeking an injunction to prevent the law from taking effect before the Nov. 6 election because thousands of Pennsylvanians couldn’t obtain the necessary identification in time — possess the required photo identification or other documentation the new law requires to vote.
No matter, say their attorneys, because the law could still disenfranchise about 100,000 other Pennsylvanians who do not have those credentials.
“The vice is not in requiring photo identification, the vice is in requiring photo identification that not everyone has or has the ability to obtain,” David Gersch, an attorney for the challengers, told the Supreme Court during oral arguments on Thursday in Philadelphia.
Meanwhile, attorneys for the state — who are defending a law aimed at preventing voter fraud — have said they cannot provide any examples of in-person voter fraud occurring in Pennsylvania.
No matter, they say, because the law is within the constitutional authority of the General Assembly.
While the right to vote is fundamental, voting cannot take place without state regulation, and fashioning that regulation is the legitimate role of the General Assembly, said John Knorr, representing the state Attorney General’s Office.
Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson upheld the voter ID law last month. That ruling was appealed by the plaintiffs.
Legal observers expect a quick ruling from the high court, though a vacancy on the bench could result in a 3-3 deadlock if all justices vote on party lines. In that case, the law would be upheld, because a majority is required to overturn the lower court ruling.
Lawyers representing Pennsylvania’s bipartisan redistricting commission argued Thursday before the state Supreme Court in Philadelphia that their new proposal for state House and state Senate districts doesn’t have to be perfect — just good enough.
More than eight months after the state’s high court sent the commission back to the drawing board in January to rework its proposed district maps, justices heard a new round of arguments on the revised plan.
Opponents argued that the redistricting commission’s revised plan still falls short of constitutional standards by dividing counties and municipalities to produce districts giving political advantages to one party.
Attorneys for the state said they did not have to produce a map that was necessarily better than any alternative designed by the public — in fact, they argued the political process inherent in redistricting made it impossible to do so.
Joseph Del Sole, the lead attorney for the commission, said the key difference is the commission is a political body consisting of members from both parties that has to seek consensus on maps.
A report released Monday by the state Public Utility Commission shows Pennsylvania is set to collect more than $200 million in retroactive fees from natural gas drillers who operated in the state during 2011.
The commission is charged with collecting and distributing the impact fee approved by state lawmakers in March. Counties and local governments will claim about 60 percent of the drilling fee revenue, but those totals will not be finalized until Dec. 1.
The commission has collected about $197 million so far, but has more than $8 million in outstanding payments. The impact fee revenue for 2011 is about $26 million higher than the $180 million the state estimated when the fee structure was passed in March.
Local governments can use their impact fee dollars to fund transportation projects, water and sewer projects, emergency preparedness and local tax reductions.
The state will divide its share of the bounty among infrastructure, water, sewer and environmental projects.
Washington County Commissioner Larry Maggi said he was “pleasantly surprised” by the higher-than-expected revenue.
“Government has a habit of overestimating, so we didn’t expect that,” he said.
Report: Capital city to be out of cash by November
The city of Harrisburg, burdened by more than $1.5 billion in debt, may not be able to make payroll by November, the Harrisburg Patriot-News reported this week.
William Lynch, the city’s state-appointed receiver who oversees all financial decisions, said Harrisburg would skip a $3 million payment on outstanding bonds next week. Even so, the city’s cash will run out before the end of the year, he said.
The city has $4 million in cash, but an expected year-end budget deficit of more than $11 million.
In August, Commonwealth Court Judge Bonnie Leadbetter ordered Harrisburg City Council to double the income tax on city residents — raising the tax rate from 1 percent to 2 percent — in order to pay for basic services like trash pickup and firefighters.
The City Council has not passed the tax increase, which would generate an estimated $1.7 million during the remainder of 2012.
Contact Eric Boehm at Eric@PAIndependent.com and follow @PAIndependent on Twitter.