Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Unfinished business in Pennsylvania, Part 2

Here are some additional issues the Pennsylvania Legislature is expected to take up during the fall session, according to state Sen. John Rafferty, R-44th Dist., and state Rep. Tom Quigley, R-146th Dist.

Health care

The governor is also pushing his Jonas Salk Legacy Fund, which passed the House by a 103-98 party-line vote. Getting it through the Senate will be difficult.

"The problem with this plan is that it takes money from the tobacco settlement that is earmarked for research and development for cures, and puts the money toward 'bricks and mortar' building of research facilities," Quigley said. "It's another opportunity for the governor to hand out checks and take photos at groundbreaking ceremonies.”

Rafferty predicts a tough time for the governor’s plan in the Republican-controlled Senate. "I'd rather see the money go for actual research and development" of bio-medical technology instead of construction of facilities, Rafferty said.

The much-debated public smoking ban will be brought up this fall, but don't expect a quick compromise. The Senate rejected the House version of the bill in the spring and won't consider it unless the House agrees to major exclusions supported by the Senate. “They need to come up with a new bill,” Rafferty said matter-of-factly.

As for Gov. Rendell's proposal to provide health insurance to Pennsylvania residents who don't have coverage by forcing employers to pay a 3-percent surcharge, Rafferty and Quigley said it has no chance of passing the Legislature.

Transportation funding

One area supposedly resolved in the spring — long-term funding for mass transit and repair of roads and bridges — unraveled over the summer and could create major contention this fall.

Rendell and the Legislature agreed on a proposal to fund transportation needs by installing tolls on Interstate 80, but two Pennsylvania members of Congress have introduced measures in Washington, D.C., to prevent the state from carrying out the plan.

This would jeopardize $1 billion in anticipated revenue that was going to subsidize the state’s failing mass transit systems and help repair roads and bridges.

Pennsylvania ranks No. 1 in the nation in "structurally deficient" bridges.

The potential collapse of the I-80 toll plan has prompted the governor to resurrect his controversial plan to privatize the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

Leasing the Turnpike to a private company received little support in the Legislature earlier this year.

"The governor is talking to himself a lot," Rafferty said. "We’re not interested."

What Rafferty wants to see in the area of transportation is more transparency in the way the state seeks bids and award contracts.

Government reform

Reform and open government will be hot topics of discussion this fall.

"On the reform front, look for something to happen on open records and campaign finance," Quigley predicted.

The House State Government Committee held hearings on these issues over the summer, and a vote, particularly on open records, is expected, Quigley said.

Rafferty, who has championed open government for years, has new ammunition for his crusade with the growing scandal over bonuses and excessive spending by the agency that provides student-loans in Pennsylvania.

The Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency came under fire this year when it was revealed that it spent nearly $900,000 on lavish trips to resorts and provided expensive gifts for its executives, their spouses and members of the board that oversees it. The agency also spent $400,000 in legal fees in an unsuccessful bid to keep its expense reports secret when several news agencies sought access to them.

The final straw for many legislators was news that the PHEAA board approved $570,000 in bonuses to the agency’s highest-paid executives, all of whom collect six-figure salaries.

"There's been a very blatant example of where reform is needed and that's PHEAA," Rafferty said. "All three branches of government need to be examined more closely. This sort of thing may be going on in other agencies and we just don’t know about it."

Rafferty and Sen. Jane Clare Orie, R-Dist. 40, have co-sponsored legislation to restructure the PHEAA board, which consists mainly of fellow legislators. The bill would also force the agency to submit to independent audits.

Quigley said the House will take up more of the recommendations from the Speaker's Commission on Legislative Reform.

Illegal immigrants

One area that has been bubbling under the surface in the state Legislature could heat up this fall, according to Rafferty. Both the House and Senate are expected to take up measures to deal with the growing illegal immigrant population in Pennsylvania. Rafferty has two bills pending that would penalize employers who hire illegal immigrants. Republicans have also complained that Pennsylvania has done a poor job of policing its welfare rolls, allowing illegal immigrants to collect benefits. Senate Majority Leader Joe Scarnati, R-25th Dist., said in a recent television interview that Pennsylvania hands out $285 million a year in welfare benefits to illegal aliens.

(If you want to read the entire 1,800-word story in one sitting, you can go to The Mercury Web site.)

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