Week in Review: PA Senate tackles cash gifts, McCord defends past work


By PA Independent Staff

Legislation banning cash gifts for lawmakers rocketed through the state Senate this week, marking a quick response to potentially embarrassing ethical lapses that have stained the Pennsylvania Legislature’s reputation yet again.

Elsewhere, gubernatorial hopeful and state Treasurer Rob McCord found himself defending his record on outsourcing, while the issue of property tax reform continues to vex stakeholders across the state.

Here’s a look back at the week’s coverage.

Ethics reforms start with ban on cash gifts

The state Senate passed legislation that would prohibit lawmakers from accepting cash gifts the same week lawmakers unveiled the bill.

Gift reform has been the reform du jour in Harrisburg since several Philadelphia lawmakers were caught on tape accepting money as part of a sting operation. Attorney General Kathleen shut down the operation, contending it was flawed beyond prosecution, but that didn’t stop the General Assembly from acting quickly.

LOOKING BACK: The Pennsylvania State Senate moved quickly in passing a ban on cash gifts for lawmakers.

The bill bans lawmakers from accepting United States or foreign currencies, money orders, checks, prepaid debit or credit cards and gift cards or certificates from lobbyists or people looking to influence public policy.

“The principle couldn’t be more simple: No public official in the state should take cash from anyone who wants to influence their official actions,” Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Chester, said in a statement. “The citizens of Pennsylvania are outraged — and rightly so — at recent reports of elected officials accepting cash hidden in napkins from a man claiming to be a lobbyist.”

The bill now moves to the state House. about the legislation here.

McCord defends record on outsourcing

McCord, Pennsylvania’s state treasurer and a Democratic candidate for governor, is defending his former role as the leader of a business group that helped companies outsource jobs during the 1990s and early 2000s.

It leaves McCord walking a thin line.

His candidacy has attracted several major endorsements from labor unions. He’s backed a $10.70 minimum wage for Pennsylvania workers, despite his earlier support for outsourcing. He says the outsourcing was limited to certain sectors, did not hurt employment in Pennsylvania and does not relate to his call for higher wages for workers, even as opponents are jumping at the chance to label him a “job-slayer.”

McCord’s campaign says the minimum-wage effort and the outsourcing are distinct and separate issues.

“Part of what the Eastern Technology Council did was work with local, Pennsylvania companies that were seeking to expand their reach globally,” said Mark Nevins, a spokesman for McCord’s campaign. “There’s simply no connection between that small part of what they did and Rob’s plan to increase the minimum wage in a way that would lift more families out of poverty more quickly.”

Read the full story here.

In certain poaching cases, it doesn’t help to plead the Fifth

You have the right to remain silent — as long as the Pennsylvania Game Commission isn’t questioning you about possible poaching.

It seemingly runs counter to Fifth Amendment protection from self-incrimination, but the state’s Game Code makes it illegal for someone to “refuse to answer, without evasion, upon request of any representative of the commission, any pertinent question pertaining to the killing or wounding of any game or wildlife.”

State Rep. Mark Keller, R-Franklin, has plans to excise that part of the law after one of his constituents was slapped with a summary violation and $150 fine after he wasn’t entirely forthcoming with a wildlife conservation officer investigating a possible case of poaching.

Travis Lau, Game Commission press secretary, said there have only be four instances of charges related to the provision over the past dozen years. It’s part of a sub-chapter that covers the killing of deer for agricultural protection, he said.

Lau hadn’t heard about Keller’s proposal until Tuesday, but said, “whether we’d be all right with it, I think at this point we would.”


Philly school grappling with violence

Spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on school safety isn’t paying off at John Bartram High School in southwest Philadelphia.

The school has budgeted $349,000 for safety measures this academic year, but it’s done little to quell the violence. Since the beginning of the school year, more than 30 serious incidents were reported at Bartram, including robberies and sexual assault.

“Police officers aren’t going to change this kind of culture of failure, where students have little hope. The school needs an overhaul in its education and management,” said Priya Abraham, senior policy analyst at the Commonwealth Foundation, a free-market think tank.

Read the full story here.

Senate passes bill closing stalking loophole

The state Senate voted unanimously Monday to close a loophole in state law that exempts individuals engaged in a labor dispute from being charged with the crime of stalking.

The bill needs another vote from the state House before it can move to Gov. Tom Corbett’s desk.

Conservatives and business groups have pushed for the legislation, arguing the exemption gives labor unions a free pass to engage in activities that would otherwise be unlawful. The bill gained considerable momentum in Harrisburg after the indictment in February of several members of the Ironworkers 401 union in Philadelphia for crimes including arson and assault.

“We believe the existing loophole encouraged even more lawlessness,” said Kevin Shivers, executive director of the Pennsylvania chapter of the National Federation of Independent Businesses, which represents small businesses. “There has been testimony by NFIB small business owners with open shop companies who’ve not only been harassed or had their children stalked.”

Read the full story here.

Property tax reform is percolating again in the state Capitol.

Senate Bill 76, a proposal to eliminate school property taxes and replace them with money from personal income and sales taxes, returned to the spotlight this week after 41 organizations joined forces to speak out against the legislation, known as the Property Tax Independence Act.

“We’re getting wind that this is getting legs,” said Sam Denisco, vice president of government affairs for the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry.

The chamber has teamed with the left-leaning Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center and 39 other groups, hoping to make their own noise about the bill, Denisco said. They don’t like it, arguing it could hamstring retailers, hurt poor people and leave schools with a volatile funding stream.

The prime sponsor, state Sen. David Argall, R-Schuylkill, said the legislation would create a fairer system to fund public schools.

“The current tax can make people homeless, and I can’t believe that these groups would be defending the status quo,” Argall said.

Read the full story here.

State audit of Philadelphia school district underway

Pennsylvania state auditors have started to examine the School District of Philadelphia and its use of taxpayer money.

It will cover 2009 to 2012 to determine how well the district has addressed recommendations from previous audits relating to staff certification, financial solvency, governance, and school safety.