By PA Independent Staff
This week brought one big surprise — another lawmaker was charged with of using a public office for political purposes — continued scrutiny on a Philadelphia union and more information about the cost of addressing Pennsylvania’s pension problem.
Here’s a look back at the week’s coverage:
Candidates divided over Ironworkers’ campaign donations
The Philadelphia Ironworkers Local 401 union has been in the news recently after 10 members were indicted last month for alleged crimes, ranging from arson to assault.
LOOKING BACK: A state lawmaker is facing charges of misusing her public office, and taxpayers are facing more costs to study pension reform.
But the union is no stranger to Pennsylvania politicians, who have benefited from its contributions for years. A PA Independent review of campaign finance reports found the union spent more than $1.25 million on politics since 2004.
In the past two years they’ve thrown $10,000 behind gubernatorial candidate Allyson Schwartz. But after the indictments, Schwartz gave that money to charity and distanced herself from the union.
Congressional candidate Brendan Boyle and state Senate candidate John Kane are not doing the same. Boyle got $14,500 from the union in the past two years, and Kane got $7,500 from the Ironworkers. Neither plans to return the money.
Kane’s race in the 26th state Senate district is one to watch. With Republicans holding a slim 27-23 edge in the chamber, it is one of several races that could flip control to Democrats. The seat is held by state Sen. Ted Erickson, R-Delaware, who is retiring.
State senator charged with misusing her office
A Pennsylvania state senator was slapped with charges this week that she misused her taxpayer-funded office after a grand jury alleging she directed her staff to organize her annual birthday bash, which doubled as a campaign fundraiser.
The charges against state Sen. LeAnna Washington, D-Philadelphia, represent another possible stain on the Legislature’s reputation after the bonusgate scandal left two former House speakers in prison and led to more than 20 convictions when taxpayer resources were used for political purposes.
Barry Kauffman, executive director of Common Cause Pennsylvania, which advocates governmental accountability and transparency, said the allegations raise serious concerns.
“With everything that has happened in the last few years, you’d think public officials would have taken note and gone the extra mile to ensure they are not using state resources for political purposes,” Kauffman said.
Taxpayers pay big bucks for study of pension reform
Last month, the Corbett administration renewed a contract with Milliman Inc., an actuarial accounting firm based in Seattle, and now plans to spend more as much as $1.1 million for actuarial services.
The administration has paid $900,000 to Milliman since 2012 for actuarial analysis in various efforts to change the state’s public pension systems, but the renewed contract says “changing circumstances and changing needs” required more actuarial work.
“They were brought on to do the actuarial analysis of the governor’s pension reform plan and provide analysis for all the proposals that are out there,” said Jay Pagni, Gov. Tom Corbett’s spokesman.
The administration initially contracted with Milliman in August 2012, then renewed the contract in February 2013 and again in April 2013. The latest renewal was signed last month.
So far, the administration seems to favor a plan from state Rep. Mike Tobash, R-Schuylkill, which would lower the state’s contributions to the pension plan in exchange for long-term funding reforms that would save money by creating a new type of pension plan for future hires.
But each time a new proposal surfaces in the Legislature or gets produced by the governor’s office, the actuaries go to work —and they don’t come cheap.
Under the terms of the contract with Milliman, the administration is paying up to $419 per hour.
House approves ‘stalking bill’
The state House on Wednesday passed a bill to eliminate a special exemption in the state law that defines stalking.
Under state law, union members engaged in a labor dispute are now exempt from the state’s anti-stalking law, which defines the crime as “repeated activity which causes fear of bodily injury or emotional distress in another.” Business groups and conservative Republicans say that’s an unreasonable carve-out for one of the state’s most powerful political special interests.
Democrats and labor unions were opposed to the bill, but there was little debate when the final vote was taken Wednesday. It passed 115-74, with all voting Republicans and 10 Democrats in support.
The state Senate could take it up soon, probably before the budget session in June.
“We’re going to allow people to weigh in on it,” said Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Chester. “I haven’t heard any arguments against it yet (from members of the Republican caucus).”
Use of executive sessions under scrutiny
State Rep. Rick Saccone, R-Allegheny County, has grown weary of hearing about public bodies retreating into closed-door executive session to do business that should be conducted in the open.
Saccone has introduced legislation to amend the state’s open-meetings law in an attempt to curb abuse of executive sessions. His bill would narrow the reasons for them and require the closed meetings be recorded so complaints can be verified in court.
Though Pennsylvania State Association of Township Supervisors objected to the proposal, Saccone’s legislation drew ample support at a public hearing that included several anecdotes of abuse.
The Lock Haven Express newspaper has investigated the use of executive sessions. In one instance, an attorney laughed at a reporter who challenged a board’s wish to go behind closed doors, publisher Bob Rolley told the committee.
“I’m here to tell you there a lot of violations,” he said. “I’m here to tell you that there are local elected government officials out there who could give a crap. I’m being honest. That’s what we found.”
State considers allowing universities to authorize charter schools
Granting universities the power to authorize charters could strengthen schools in Philadelphia and across Pennsylvania. And that’s one of the aims of Senate Bill 1085.
Advocates of expanding authorization and oversight say it would open opportunities for the tens of thousands of students on waiting lists for charter schools and would lead to higher quality in the charter sector.
Penn State President Rodney Erickson said he would be reluctant to have the university take on the role of authorizer, but the hope is for other colleges to get involved.
Opponents of university authorizers argue that local school districts will lose control and accountability.
The charter school reform bill, introduced by state Sen. Lloyd Smucker, was approved by the Senate Education Committee and awaits further debate.
Legislation would let schools leave the state system
Two state senators think it’s time for the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education to adapt.
Specifically, state Sens. Tommy Tomlinson and Andy Dinniman want to allow successful members of the 14-institution system to buy their way out and become state-related schools. The idea is to give universities more flexibility and another choice as declining enrollment and financial challenges threaten the sustainability of PASSHE.
“I think we have a train wreck coming financially. I think we have to do something about that,” said Tomlinson. He said he doesn’t want to see any of the schools close.
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