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State Roundup: Campaigns and Courts Wrap up Summer Season

This weekend marks the unofficial end of summer and the official start of campaign 2012. Here's a wrap up of the news this week from Harrisburg.

By PA Independent Staff

HARRISBURG — The lazy, languid days of summer are officially on their way out, as the final week of August saw plenty of activity as politicos gear up for Election Day.

On the national front, Mitt Romney accepted the Republican presidential nomination, supported by one-time primary foe and former Pennsylvania U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum.

Statewide candidates are beginning to push their campaigns to the forefront, like those in the auditor general’s race and Pennsylvania’s Senate race. Meanwhile, the administration continues to find ways to carry out the controversial voter I.D. law.

The week also saw significant court decisions, including a tax increase for the financially strapped city of Harrisburg and the salary removal of suspended Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin, accused of public corruption.  

Judicial panel revokes Orie Melvin’s pay

The Court of Judicial Discipline ordered Thursday that Justice Joan Orie Melvin cannot receive her salary while suspended from the Supreme Court.

Orie Melvin and her sister, Janine Orie, face multiple corruption charges, accused of instructing state employees to do Orie Melvin’s campaign work on the commonwealth’s time.

Orie Melvin was suspended from her duties as a Supreme Court judge in May. Per that order, the six-judge Court of Judicial Discipline held two hearings to determine if she could still receive her annual salary of about $195,000 while standing trial.

The court’s opinion said the charges against Orie Melvin “describe conduct so egregious” that they merit pay suspension.

Orie Melvin’s overall conduct also played a role.

“In examining that conduct we see this Respondent as so singlemindedly occupied with achieving personal aggrandizement that she pressured, intimidated and bullied her clerks and secretaries into performing work on her political campaigns in violation of a pledge each had made as a condition of their employment pursuant to an Order of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania,” the opinion reads.

Republican National Convention wraps up

Mitt Romney and Rep. Paul Ryan officially accepted the presidential and vice-presidential nominations this week at the Republican National Convention held in Tampa, Fla.

Romeny’s acceptance speech on Thursday night touched on his plans for job creation and where President Barack Obama has failed. Earlier in the week, his wife Ann Romney spoke on why her husband is the right choice for commander in chief, sharing details of how they met, while Rep. Ryan rallied the crowd the next night.

Former presidential candidate and ex-U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum also took the stage on the first night, taking conservative values to the forefront. Santorum served two terms before being defeated by current U.S. Sen. Bob Casey in 2006.

Auditor General hopefuls focus on Penn State funding, water pollution

In the run-up to November, statewide elections, too, are beginning to take on a fervent approach.

So far, both candidates in the race for the auditor general’s seat seem to agree on major issues: both promise to investigate the use of money by Penn State University and the efficacy in keeping natural gas drilling pollution out of waterways.

The campaign, rather, will focus on credentials of State Rep. Eugene DePasquale, D-York, elected to the house in 2006, and state Rep. John Maher, R-Allegheny, elected to the House in 1997.

DePasquale points to his history in the legislative and executive branches — he worked for the state Department of Environmental Protection prior to becoming a lawmaker. He’s also an attorney.

“I know that I know how to read a budget, and I know how to work with people in the field,” he said. “My qualifications are as strong as anyone who has ever held the job, and my goal is making sure that government works.”

Maher is a certified public accountant, and said he is the only candidate who can bring teeth to the office.

“It seems to me that Pennsylvania is ready for an auditor general who knows how to audit,” Maher said.

Public Policy Polling, a national, independent polling firm based in North Carolina, conducted the most recent poll of the auditor general race in July, showing DePasquale with a slim lead of 36 percent to 34 percent over Maher.

That survey included 758 registered voters and had a margin of error of 3.56 percentage points.

Senate challenger remarks gain national attention

Tom Smith, the Republican challenger to U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, gained a moment of national attention this week after his remarks about abortion drew controversy.

Smith was speaking to the Pennsylvania Press Club on Monday when asked to weigh in on Rep. Todd Akin’s recent comments about abortion. Smith’s comments appeared to liken having a child outside of marriage to rape, though he backtracked through his comments.

Smith is running against Casey on the grounds that the incumbent has failed to pass bills, and too often votes with President Barack Obama, calling him “Senator Zero.” The Casey campaign has fought back against Smith by criticizing his apparent allegiance to Tea Party ideals.

Financially, Casey has more muscle to throw behind his campaign, with $10.6 million raised as of the end of June. Smith had raised $7.9 million by the same deadline,, according to federal records compiled by the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics.

Court overrules city leaders, calls tax increase a necessity

The Commonwealth Court handed down its decision on increasing the earned income tax for city of Harrisburg residents, ruling in favor of the increase.

Judge Bonnie Leadbetter agreed with the state-appointed Office of the Receiver that the tax increase is a necessary part of Harrisburg’s recovery plan. The City Council failed to increase the tax on its own, causing receiver Maj. Gen. William Lynch to petition for the increase in court.

Some Harrisburg City Council members oppose the increase, saying residents have been subject to too many other tax increases in recent years.

City Councilman Brad Koplinkski said he disagreed with the judge’s decision the situation required an intervention of the separation of powers.

“The fact remains, democracy in the city of Harrisburg has taken a very serious blow in that we were elected by the people to make decisions on behalf of the citizens of Harrisburg and not carry out the orders of the state,” Koplinkski said.

Daley calls for top officials to resign because of mounting turnpike debt

Citing escalating debt and new borrowing, state Rep. Peter Daley, D-Washington, on Wednesday called for two of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission’s top officials to resign.

In a letter, Daley wrote that CEO Roger Nutt and COO Craig Shuey should leave, because they showed a “lack of leadership, inability to manage funds and failure as a fiscal watchdog for the Turnpike Commission.”

Daley pointed to a recent article in the Philadelphia Inquirer, which discussed the Turnpike Commission’s $7 billion debt.

In January, Auditor General Jack Wagner said Act 44 of 2007 — which required the turnpike to pay the state Department of Transportation $450 million annually — was the major reason the Turnpike Commission was “drowning in debt.”

PennDOT spent that money on mass transit and various road and bridge projects statewide.

The commission’s total debt has increased from $2.6 billion to $7.3 billion since Act 44 was passed, said Wagner, who described Act 44 as creating a “debt time bomb” for the commission, resulting in higher tolls every year.

Audit calls out risky borrowing at SEPTA

A performance audit of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority criticizes the agency for engaging in high-risk financing deals known as “swaps,” that ended up costing $41.4 million in tax dollars.

Swap transactions are made between borrowers and banks on bond interest rates to hedge against rising interest rates. In Pennsylvania, Auditor General Jack Wagner has turned a critical eye toward this type of borrowing.

“What we strongly recommend is that public agencies issue fixed interest rate conventional bonds that are very transparent and reliable and are understood by the decision makers and the public in terms of the dollars that are being spent,” he said.

But SEPTA officials say its deal could have worked out had it not been for legislation that put new restrictions on transit-authority financing, forcing it to terminate the swap agreement before they could re-adjust interest rates.

SEPTA officials also disagreed with the audit’s calculation of how much the whole transaction wound up costing in the long run. The audit’s total of $41.4 million takes into account a $7.7 million interest payment with an 18-year term, not only the costs of the swap and its termination.

Special ‘voting-only’ ID cards now available

The Department of Transportation is now distributing photo identification cards for voting purposes, aiming to reach residents who may otherwise be unable to obtain photo ID.

Residents who want the new ID card will need to provide their name, address, Social Security number and proof of residency. Applicants must complete an application form and sign a document affirming they are registered to vote, but have no other form of identification that can be used at the polls.

“Our goal is to ensure that every person who needs an ID can get one, and this new ID serves as a safety net for those who can’t find or obtain verification documents normally required for a PennDOT secure identification card,” said Barry Schoch, the state Secretary of Transportation, in a statement.

Pennsylvania’s voter ID law was passed in March and upheld by Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson earlier this month. But the plaintiffs appealed the decision, and now the case is scheduled to go before the state Supreme Court on Sept. 13 in Philadelphia.

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