HARRISBURG – New session, but old fights.
Both parts of the General Assembly were in session this week in Pennsylvania, and many of the issues look familiar as unfinished business from 2012 (or, in some cases, years earlier) bubbles to the top. With Gov. Tom Corbett’s budget address less than two weeks away, tantalizing details about transportation, pensions and the push to privatize state liquor stores seem right around the corner.
Corbett changes gears on transportation
After promising last week that a statewide transportation funding package would be made public before his budget address, Gov. Tom Corbett shifted gears this week and told the Philadelphia Inquirer editorial board that the plan would be part of his state budget address, scheduled for Feb. 5.
The governor has been sitting in neutral on transportation since August 2011, when a commission appointed by Corbett recommended raising a portion of the state’s gasoline taxes and increasing fees for vehicle registrations and drivers’ licenses.
Technically, the gas tax increase would be an uncapping the state’s oil franchise tax – essentially a sales tax on fuel purchased by gas stations that is currently only applied to the first $1.25 per gallon of gas.
Corbett’s transportation commission said levying the fee on the full price of gas would generate about $1.7 billion in new annual revenues.
Questions about how those dollars would be spent, including the all-important breakdown between highways and mass transit, will have to wait for now.
Six House lawmakers, including state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler, introduced legislation this week to make Pennsylvania the nation’s 25th “right-to-work” state by prohibiting unions from collecting dues from nonmembers.
“In right-to-work states, people can be a union member if they choose to. We’re just saying, ‘Let union members choose if they want to be in a union,’” Metcalfe said. “Why do they need the government to enforce it?”
Metcalfe and other lawmakers have introduced the topic before, though bills have not made it the House floor for a vote. But this time, the legislation comes after Michigan, a state with a strong union presence, passed right-to-work laws late last year.
Advocates for Pennsylvania’s unions say they are prepared to fight the legislation, which they call a political attack on working people.
Rick Bloomingdale, president of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, said that nonmembers who pay dues have the same protections as members that go beyond salaries and benefits. For example, a nonmember has the same rights against discrimination from a boss, he said.
“You take away unions, you take away the middle class,” he said. “The two are inextricably linked in this country. We didn’t have a middle class before the labor movement got strong.”
Lottery contract concerns continues post-signing
While the state awaits for Attorney General Kathleen Kane to sign off on the legality of its contract with Camelot Global Services to manage the Pennsylvania Lottery, elected officials are sounding their own concerns.
Top Senate leaders, including Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware, sent a letter to the administration requesting clarification that proposed changes to lottery management would not compete with the state’s casino industry.
“There is a concern that the contract would allow Camelot Gaming or its subcontractors to expand the lottery from what is generally considered to be ‘keno’ and provide unlimited types of Internet and monitor-based interactive games,” the senators wrote. “Not only is this a broader expansion of gambling than has been described, but these games will directly compete against our highly regulated casinos.”
The senators warned that they may pursue legislation on the matter.
Treasurer Rob McCord also voiced his continued concerns about the lottery procurement process at an unrelated press conference on Thursday. McCord has said he is not sure if his office will be legally allowed to pay Camelot, and that he is looking at the situation with “increasing concern.”
He also questioned if the Camelot deal is the best business decision for senior citizens in Pennsylvania, who benefit from programs supported by lottery profits. The lottery, he said, is already one of the best-run in the country.
“As we work to continually improve it – and I believe we should be open to innovation – I believe having the legislature thoughtfully involved in the conversation is constructive as a point of public policy,” McCord said.
At the first House Finance Committee of the legislative succession, a majority of lawmakers supported a measure to eliminate the state’s inheritance tax on business assets.
The legislation, sponsored by state Rep. Steve Bloom, R-Cumberland, comes after lawmakers passed an exemption for family farms last session.
Department of Revenue calculations estimate a loss of $9.9 million in fiscal year 2013-14 if the exemption is passed.
The idea behind an exemption is that businesses would be able to stay in the family after the owner’s death. Now, businesses are now faced with the reality of selling off assets, reorganization, dipping into savings, or closing down altogether to pay an inheritance tax bill, according to Bloom and other supporters.
Bloom said he sees the inheritance tax exemption as part of a larger discussion about making Pennsylvania more appealing to business.
“We can’t sustain our economic well being if we’re continually losing our best and brightest to other states that have a more favorable tax environment,” he said.
Some legislators want to scrap Pennsylvania’s practice of electing judges to the state’s Supreme Court, Superior Court and Commonwealth Court.
Supporters say the current system opens the door to corruption and conflicts of interest stemming from the millions of dollars in campaign contributions. Instead, a newly created commission would identify a short list of judicial candidates to fill vacancies in the state’s highest courts, and the governor would choose from that list.
The bill seeks to amend the state constitution to implement the new merit selection process.
State Sen. Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia, the lead sponsor of the bill, said the merit selection proposal was intended to ensure the integrity of the bench.
“As citizens, we have to have utmost confidence in our judiciary, and right now, that’s simply not the case,” Williams said.
The proposed commission would include 15 members. Four would be appointed by the governor, four would be appointed by the General Assembly and the remaining seven would be members of the public, but the bill is silent on how they would be selected.
Williams said the mechanism for selecting commission members would be determined later, but political officeholders and staffers would be barred from serving.
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