Week in Review: Union battle, lottery expansion and education funding


By PA Independent Staff

The week started off with plenty of noise about paycheck protection legislation that would force public-sector unions to collect their own dues, fair-share fees and political money — versus the state automatically deducting them from paychecks.

Union members showed up in full force at the state Capitol in Harrisburg to protest the proposal, filling the Rotunda and balconies on Tuesday. Amid that cacophony, lawmakers also talked about the possibility of legalizing medical marijuana, plans to expand the Pennsylvania Lottery and the all-too-familiar topic of education funding.

Here’s a look back at the past week:

Protesting the paycheck

LOOKING BACK: Paycheck protection, medical marijuana and education funding all drew attention the week before Gov. Tom Corbett announces next year’s budget.

A fight that began bubbling to the surface last week erupted into a full-out firestorm this week as unionized workers converged on the Capitol to protest paycheck protection legislation.

Boilermakers, sheet metal workers and employees from the state liquor stores filled the Rotunda after lining up in the cold for their chance to push back against the proposals from state Sen. John Eichelberger, R-Blair, and state Rep. Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster.

“This is discrimination, this is revenge and this is wrong,” said Bill Jones, a corrections officer at Lancaster County Prison.

Conservatives have painted the legislation as a good-government initiative that would stop public resources from being used to collect money that can be used for political purposes.

Union leaders, though, see it as legislation similar to a law that crippled organized labor in Wisconsin, and they swarmed the Capitol in attempt to make sure the same doesn’t happen in Pennsylvania.

Counter-protesters sprinkled amid the unionized workers held signs decrying automatic deductions. Some contained messages comparing the issue to the political corruption scandal of years past, contending unions have received a “get out of jail free” card when others were sent to prison for using taxpayer resources for political purposes.

Amid the clamor, there were also public employees who broke rank to support paycheck protection, saying it’s a matter of personal choice where their money should go.

Medical marijuana legalization gets a hearing

Mothers of children who suffer from debilitating seizures were the star emotional witnesses at a hearing this week on medical marijuana.

“I would like the opportunity to try medical cannabis for my son’s seizures, but I can’t because there are outdated laws that prevent me from doing so,” said Denna Kenney, a resident of Bethlehem. “Laws that were made before we had the scientific ability to effectively study this plant. Laws that say it is dangerous.”

She said she doesn’t know if medical marijuana would improve Christopher‘s condition, but she knows that it won’t damage his kidneys, turn his skin blue or cause blindness — all potential side effects of legal drugs that Kenney has used in one failed effort after another to bring Christopher’s condition under control.

Pennsylvania soon might join 20 other states and Washington, D.C., in legalizing cannabis for medical purposes, but the bill did not move after this week’s hearing. No vote scheduled.

State Sen. Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery, and state Sen. Mike Folmer, R-Lebanon, have teamed up to sponsor the measure, SB 1182. It’s an odd pairing of one of the state Senate’s most liberal members and one of its most conservative.

Senate Dems reveal plan for education funding

In advance of Republican Gov. Tom Corbett’s budget announcement next week, Democratic state senators on Thursday unveiled a plan to direct at least $300 million in new funding toward education.

Their proposal features 10 policy ideas ranging from expanding Medicaid, which would bring federal dollars back into the state, to ending the pension double-dip for charter schools.

“There’s nothing in there adventurous. All very simple things,” said state Sen. Vincent Hughes, D-Philadelphia.

But it’s not all good news for taxpayers.

Revenue is expected to come from taxes on tobacco products and the elimination of business tax deductions, such as the vendor sales tax discount.

Corbett also gave a glimpse of an education priority in his upcoming budget when he announced Thursday he wants to increase funding to a pre-Kindergarten program for at-risk children by $10 million.

Unemployment falls below 7 percent as labor force declines

The state Department of Labor and Industry last week reported an unemployment rate of 6.9 percent for December 2013, the first month since January 2009 that the most prominent indicator of a state’s economic health dropped below 7 percent, though it is still higher than than 6.7 percent national unemployment rate for December.

Unemployment in Pennsylvania had been as high as 8.2 percent as recently as January 2013 – and 7.7 percent last August – but the sharp decline has been driven more by a dropoff in the size of the state’s workforce than by the growth of new jobs.

The number of people listed as “unemployed” by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics declined by more than 50,000 during 2013. But the size of the state’s labor force fell as well, by more than 109,000 individuals.

The unemployment rate is an important, if crude, tool voters’ use to measure public officials. It is sure to be part of this year’s gubernatorial election.

Of the five governors to be successfully re-elected since 1970, four of them enjoyed unemployment rates below 6 percent in the month before they faced the voters.

The two most recent governors before Corbett enjoyed particularly good economic timing. Tom Ridge was re-elected in 1998 with an unemployment rate of 4.5 percent, and Ed Rendell won a second term in 2006 with the same unemployment rate of 4.5 percent.

But even high unemployment doesn’t guarantee a defeat for an incumbent governor.

In 1982, in the midst of a recession and with unemployment in Pennsylvania at a staggering 12.2 percent, voters gave Gov. Dick Thornburgh a second term in office.

Revenue secretary: Lottery needs help from lawmakers

The Pennsylvania Lottery wants to expand — and, in particular, it’s looking at adding Keno — but first it must get some help from lawmakers.

As the population ages, lottery officials want to grow programs that help older Pennsylvanians. For that to happen, Revenue Secretary Dan Meuser said, the lottery needs the Legislature to relax a state law requiring it to reach certain returns each year.

In 2008, lawmakers temporarily reduced the profit-margin requirement from 30 percent to 27 percent, and they extended that reprieve in 2011. The reduction expires next year, which is problematic, considering the continued popularity of instant games that don’t bring as much profit as terminal-based games such as Cash 5, The Daily Number and Treasure Hunt.

“Without margin relief, we’re not going to get anywhere near delivering for older Pennsylvanians,” Meuser said.

Lawmaker charged with corruption

The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office charged state Rep. Jose P. Miranda and his sister, Michelle Wilson, with political corruption after a grand jury investigation revealed the lawmaker had a “ghost employee” in his office.

Prosecutors contend Miranda, D-Philadelphia, got creative when he learned he wasn’t allowed to hire his sister as chief of staff. Instead, he hired Timothy Duckett to a cushy legislative assistant job that came with one catch: Duckett had to funnel part of his public salary to Wilson.

The plot unraveled, prosecutors said, after the Fox 29 news station captured footage of Duckett working at an auto repair shop when he supposed to be working for Miranda.

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