PA week in review: Pressing issues left for another day

By PA Independent Staff

Pennsylvania lawmakers left Harrisburg this week without addressing pension reform and the future of the state-owned liquor stores and gave no clear indication of how they’ll address a budget deficit that’s creeping closer to $2 billion next year.

But hey, they spent plenty of time raising campaign money while in town, a practice at least one reform-minded state lawmaker wants to end.

Elsewhere, schools districts across Pennsylvania used a loophole to raise taxes without voter approval, legislators worried about the use of drones to interfere with hunting and fishing and one legislative perk — vanity license plates for lawmakers — could be on the chopping block.

Here’s a look back at our coverage from the week:

Budget season collides with campaign season

June might be budget season in the capital, but it’s also campaign season.

LOOKING BACK: Lawmakers left Harrisburg without addressing big-ticket items such as pension reform and liquor privatization.

Lawmakers are trying to figure out how to fill a deficit approaching $2 billion next year. At the same time, they’re spending the breakfast, lunch and evening hours shoring up their campaign accounts.

Some lawmakers will argue the point, but fundraisers “absolutely” affect the work hours of the General Assembly, said Barry Kauffman, executive director of good-government group Common Cause Pennsylvania.

“Quite often the chambers’ schedules are customized to accommodate the needs of political fundraisers rather than the business of the people,” Kauffman said.

State Rep. Tom Murt, R-Montgomery, believes time spent on political get-togethers could be better spent discussing legislation and finding common ground. He’s introduced legislation, House Bill 2071, that would prohibit legislators from fundraising on session days.

As of 2011, 29 states restricted campaign contributions during legislative sessions, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Fifteen of those states banned any contributions, and 14 prohibited lobbyist contributions during sessions.

Schools take advantage of loophole to raise taxes

One in three school districts in Pennsylvania is raising property taxes without the consent of residents, thanks to a loophole in a state law meant to relieve the burden of rising education costs.

Under state law, the state Department of Education sets an inflation index to create a cap on each of Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts and their ability to increase property tax rates in a given year. If school districts need to go above it, the increase is supposed to be put before voters.

That idea, however, has been scuttled by a program through which districts can receive voter referendum exceptions.

Of the 164 school districts granted exceptions for the coming school year, 163 applied because of pension obligations.

“School districts have been able to raise property taxes at will to pay for the pension spike,” said David Baldinger, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Coalition of Taxpayers Association and coordinator of Pennsylvania Taxpayers Cyber Coalition.

Legislation would stop drone interference in hunting, fishing

Some state legislators want to send a warning shot to activists who might consider using drones to interfere with lawful hunting and fishing.

Legislation that would ban the use of aircraft from meddling in those outdoor activities is making its way through the General Assembly, even though Pennsylvania hasn’t encountered a problem to date.

There’s still reason for hunters and anglers to worry about who could be watching from above. Last year, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals conducted a test flight of drones as part of a program to keep watch over hunters. The organization began offering drones for $324.99 as part of its online catalog, describing the “Air Angels” as “The New Hobby for Animal Protectionists.”

The animal-rights activist group has painted its “Air Angels” as tools to capture evidence of hunters illegally shooting deer from the side of the road or cracking open a cold one while pursuing their next trophy buck. That footage could then be used to alert authorities to problems, PETA said.

“The idea is that poachers need to rethink the idea that they can get away with murder out there alone in the woods with no one watching,” Byrne said.

While activists might catch illegal activities on tape, they could also scope out hunters and anglers doing nothing unlawful. It makes for a privacy problem in the eyes of state Sen. Richard Alloway, R-Franklin, an outdoorsman and chairman of the Senate Game and Fisheries Committee.

“Most Americans don’t want drones spying on us or watching our activities for any reason, particularly if they’re not criminal,” Alloway said.

Legislative license plates targeted

Murt has also introduced legislation that ban legislative license plates after constituents expressed concern they could be a “license to speed” and might make police reluctant to stop them.

“There’s really no legislative purpose for an elected official to be driving around with a special license plate,” Murt said. “You don’t get diplomatic immunity from the motor vehicle law or anything like that. At least you shouldn’t, and the mere appearance of this is an area for concern.”

Thirty state senators and 48 state representatives use the legislative license plates, while another 52 retired lawmakers have them, said Jan McKnight, a spokeswoman with the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.

Others have said it’s a distraction from meaningful reform and an issue that isn’t on lawmakers’ minds.

Proposal to cut legislature gets complicated

An idea to reduce Pennsylvania’s Legislature started simply in the state House, which approved two clean bills last year that would cut the General Assembly by about 25 percent.

It’s been a little more complicated in the Senate.

That’s largely because a Senate bill that would reduce the 50-person chamber was amended to also make cuts to the judiciary and eliminate the position of lieutenant governor.

State Sen. Vincent Hughes, D-Philadelphia, said there hasn’t been enough public dialogue about a plan that “impacts the democracy of this commonwealth.” And state Sen. Judy Schwank, D-Berks, said while she supports reductions to the House and Senate, the bill wasn’t ready for “primetime.”

“There’s a lot of unreadiness,” Hughes said.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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