PA Week in Review: As lawmakers return to work, education moves to forefront


By PA Independent Staff

HARRISBURG — As state lawmakers returned this week, education quickly emerged to the legislation forefront in 2014.

There’s also been political intrigue surrounding a freshly open state Senate seat, more fallout from a scandal that erupted within the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission and the progression of a bill that would protect crime victims from municipalities’ nuisance ordinances — which some believe can cause unintended collateral damage.

Here’s a run-down of all the week’s action:

Education key issue in election year

As lawmakers jockey for control of Harrisburg in 2014, expect to hear plenty of talk about education.

“We know that the number one issue with voters is education and how we fund our public schools,” said state Rep. Madeleine Dean, D-Montgomery. “How we educate our kids tells us how our economy will be.”

Dianne Piché, senior counsel and director of education program at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center in New Jersey, have raised the possibility of legal action to target fairness in education funding.

“The failure of states like Pennsylvania to guarantee all children an adequate education is among the most serious civil rights challenges in the United States today,” said Piché at a House Democratic Policy Committee hearing in Philadelphia last week.

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ACLU: House delivers ‘strong vote’ for crime victims

The state House approved legislation barring municipalities from penalizing residents or landlords for calling police to their properties.

State Rep. Todd Stephens pushed the legislation after a Norristown woman stopped reporting domestic abuse at the hands of her one-time boyfriend for fear she’d be evicted under the borough’s three-strike ordinance. She was later seriously injured by her ex.

“The House vote (Tuesday) was a strong vote both for victims of crime and for civil liberties,” Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, said in a statement. “The people have a fundamental right to contact the police in an emergency. The House stood for that concept today in passing this bill.”

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‘Backroom political maneuvering’ cost taxpayers $200K, candidate says

First, state Sen. Mike Waugh, R-York, announced he was retiring immediately to become executive director of the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex.

Then, Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley set a March 18 special election to fill the opening. And finally, state Rep. Ron Miller, R-York, declared his candidacy for his party’s nomination for Waugh’s seat.

All of it happened at a break-neck speed that raised questions from Scott Wagner, another Republican who covets the seat.

“What happened in a span of 36 hours is a blatant example of backroom political maneuvering at its worst,” Wagner said in a statement Wednesday afternoon. “The timing of it all is questionable at best.”

Wagner said the speed of the decision was not all that bothered him. The fact the special election is not being held on the same day as the state’s primary elections in May means taxpayers will have to pay as much as $200,000 to open the 111 polling places in the district for the special election.

For more, read the full story here.

Turnpike scandal yields first sentencing

Raymond J. Zajicek wasn’t one of the big fish in the corruption probe into the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission. The former manager just happened to be the first to be sentenced after he pleaded guilty to charges of abusing his post.

Zajicek will serve two years of probation, pay a $2,100 fine and fork over $2,128.40 in restitution after he collected salary for hours he never worked, used a turnpike vehicle for personal business and lashed out at a union official during a meeting.

That’s hardly the worst of what a grand jury alleged went wrong within the turnpike. A larger pay-to-play scandal has ensnared former state Sen. Robert Mellow, three high-ranking turnpike officials and two others while costing taxpayers millions, Attorney General Kathleen Kane said.

Read the complete story here.

Lawmakers call for more oversight of welfare

Two Republican state senators want more stringent oversight of Pennsylvania’s public assistance programs, a move that has already drawn Democratic criticism as an attack on the poor and election-year politics.

Senate President Joseph Scarnati, R-Jefferson, and state Sen. David Argall, R-Schuylkill, want to “strengthen the integrity of several areas within the state’s welfare department.”

Their proposal would make serious welfare abuse a felony, require the Pennsylvania Lottery to report individual winnings to the Department of Public Welfare, cap the value of exempt vehicles and charge a hefty fee if benefit recipients need a second replacement Electronic Benefits Transfer card in the same year.

Read the full story here.

Report delivers more bad budget news

Just weeks away from Gov. Tom Corbett’s budget address, there’s more bad vibes about Pennsylvania’s fiscal health.

Using financial data from 2012, the Mercatus Center at Fairfax, Va.’s George Mason University placed Pennsylvania among the bottom 10 states in terms of its fiscal condition. Pennsylvania clocked in at No. 42 overall and landed in the bottom half of all four categories the center used to determine the overall ranking.

That’s on top of the fact Pennsylvania could be facing a budget deficit as high as $1.4 billion in the next fiscal year.


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