Week in Review: Pennsylvania lawmakers raise familiar issues in new session


By PA Independent Staff

HARRISBURG, Pa. — Welcome to the new legislative session, same as the old legislative session.

State lawmakers started their latest two-year session Dec. 1, but the major issues already sound familiar. There’s a renewed push for medical marijuana, and the ongoing debate over liquor privatization is starting to percolate.

Outside capital politics, a Philadelphia artist fended off a government land grab, allegations of nepotism surfaced in northwest corner of the state and Pennsylvania received poor marks on a recent National Council on Teacher Quality report.

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

LOOKING BACK: A new legislative session might have started in Pennsylvania, but the issues sound familiar. Liquor privatization and medical marijuana talks have both returned.

Lawmakers will renew efforts to legalize medical marijuana

Two state senators who pushed for legalization of medical marijuana during 2014 announced this week they will re-introduce the same text of a bill approved by the state Senate with a 43-7 vote in September. The bill didn’t receive a vote from the House before the two-year legislative session ended Nov. 30.

Since it will be a new legislative session when lawmakers return to Harrisburg in January, the bill will have to start over again at the beginning of the process. But there is good reason to believe 2015 could be the year Pennsylvania legalizes marijuana as a treatment for some chronic ailments.

Although there could be trouble getting the bill through the House, it will receive a warmer welcome from the governor’s office next year.

Outgoing Gov. Tom Corbett was opposed to broad legalization of marijuana for medical purposes. He favored a limited clinical trial run by a handful of hospitals instead. Governor-elect Tom Wolf, however, says the state should legalize medical marijuana.

The senators’ bill would allow people suffering from cancer, epilepsy, seizures, Parkinson’s disease, ALS, MS, PTSD and other brain and neurological diseases to use medical marijuana.

Another round of liquor privatization debate on its way

There has been no official move to re-introduce legislation that would privatize the state’s about 600 liquor stores, but the sense is it’s just a matter of time. The debate is likely to surface again in the state House, where Republicans who already passed liquor privatization built their majority.

“There haven’t been any talks or anything, but I would be shocked if it wasn’t one of their top priorities,” said Michael Herzing, communications director for the Democratic Caucus.

The legislation still faces an uncertain future in the Senate. One of the biggest champions of privatization, Corbett, is leaving office after losing to Wolf.

Wolf favors modernization of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, leaving privatization legislation in doubt even if it clears the General Assembly. One lawmaker, state Rep. Gene DiGirolamo, R-Bucks, is also already pushing his own modernization plan.

Report finds teachers woefully unprepared for classroom challenges

The National Council on Teacher Quality released a scathing report this week that questions just how prepared the nation’s teachers are to help students meet higher standards. Pennsylvania got particularly poor marks on its ability to retain effective teachers and get rid of unsatisfactory ones.

Overall, Pennsylvania received a C-minus. For the past five years, the state’s grades have shown modest improvement, going from a D in 2009 to a D-plus in 2011 to a C-minus in 2013.

Pennsylvania scored poorly in getting rid of bad teachers. That’s because the state awards automatic tenure after three years on the job, has a lengthy appeal process for dismissed teachers and maintains a system that rewards seniority over performance, according to the report.​

Town angry with northwest PA nepotism policy violation

Residents of Millcreek Township, nestled against Erie in northwest Pennsylvania, are unhappy about the township hiring a supervisor’s niece. While a majority of the supervisors now agree the hiring violates the township’s nepotism policy, the decision will still apparently stand.

John Groh — the non-uncle that voted for her — said that one of the biggest issues is lack of communication between the supervisors.

“This girl made it through three rounds of interviews — nothing was ever raised, by anybody,” Groh told Watchdog.org.

Until the meeting, anyway.

In contrast, “My understanding was that our director of HR made everyone aware of the nepotism issue,” said Supervisor Brian McGrath. He had checked and “our labor attorney said that it clearly violated (the nepotism policy).”

Groh said he checked with the attorney after the meeting and was told “the hiring was contrary to township policy.”

Audit: Pennsylvania gave millions to businesses that missed job numbers

An audit released this week found that Pennsylvania directed $93.5 million in taxpayer-backed grants and loans to businesses that failed to meet their job creation or retention numbers.

But Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, whose office conducted the examination, doesn’t think the state should scrap the incentives. Doing that would be “dumb,” given the need to compete against the rest of the country, he said.

“You can’t unilaterally disarm,” DePasquale said. “So unless there’s a deal from 49 other states, and I would recommend if there is, I would recommend Pennsylvania sign that document. But until that day happens — and I will not hold my breath — these tools are critical for job creation.”

The audit, though, recommended the Department of Community and Economic Development improves its oversight over its job creation programs.

Philadelphia artist thwarts government land grab

After two years of trying to seize James Dupree’s art studio to make way for a state-subsidized grocery store, the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority abandoned its land grab this week.

The PRA said that the legal costs stemming from Dupree’s appeal of condemnation proceedings made it “impossible” to continue the pursuit.

Melinda Haring, activism manager for the Institute for Justice, called it an “enormous victory.” Dupree had partnered with the institute to bring awareness to his situation.

“Dupree lost many years of his work and life fighting this illegal and unconstitutional land grab,” Haring said in a written statement. “James’ victory puts the City of Philadelphia on notice: The city cannot take private property for private development ever again.”