Week in review: Voter ID, abortion, taxes take hold in PA
By PA Independent Staff
HARRISBURG — Controversy swirled in the Pennsylvania Capitol this week after the passage of a bill requiring photo identification at the polls and the governor’s comments about potential legislation requiring ultrasounds before abortions.
The voter ID measure passed Wednesday after three days of debate on the House floor and a Senate vote last week. Gov. Tom Corbett signed it into law Wednesday evening.
Meanwhile, the House moved to place limits on a debt-spending program, which has directed taxpayer dollars to various public and private development projects in the past decade. And plans to reform the state’s property tax system — a holy grail of Pennsylvania politics — have again popped up.
Voter ID bill approved, signed by Corbett
He said the legislation would ensure the legitimacy of elections and uphold the principle of "one man, one vote" by preventing voter fraud.
The state Senate approved the bill last week, and the state House concurred Wednesday.
The Democrats reiterated arguments of the voter ID bill being used to suppress votes and thwart democracy in action at the polls.
"This is clearly an attempt to suppress voters, so that (Republicans) can have an upper hand in the election," said state Rep. Greg Vitali, D-Delaware. "We're spending taxpayer money for a problem that doesn't exist. It is designed to influence the presidential election and beat Barack Obama."
However, House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, scoffed at the notion his party was trying
to steal an election.
"That is simply not true. It's about making sure that one person has one vote," Turzai said.
Some poll workers said this week they were concerned that the ID checks might cause longer lines for the November election. A “soft rollout” of the bill is planned for the April 24 primary election; people will be allowed to vote without an ID but will be reminded to bring one in November.
Corbett in hot water over ultrasound bill
Corbett’s comments about a controversial proposal that would require women to have an ultrasound before undergoing an abortion has drawn national media attention and scorn from Democrats and women’s rights groups.
Corbett was asked about his support for the measure — sponsored by state Rep. Kathy Rapp, R-Warren — during a news conference at the state Capitol on Tuesday.
“I don’t know how you make anybody watch,” said Corbett. “Because you just have to close your eyes.”
Corbett indicated he would support a bill that required an external ultrasound, the traditional form of the procedure, rather than a transvaginal ultrasound, which the bill, as-written, would require.
Opponents of the bill have criticized Corbett’s comments for being insensitive to women and characterized his support for the measure as being the result of emotionally driven politics.
A vote on the bill was scheduled to happen two weeks ago, but it was pulled from the state House calendar. House GOP leaders pointed to concerns from the medical community and said the bill would not receive a vote until a consensus resolution on those issues was formed.
House approves reforms to economic development program
Pennsylvania taxpayers are less likely to pay for private redevelopment projects under a debt-reduction bill that passed the state House, but the program behind such controversial projects as the Arlen Specter Library still exists.
With an overwhelming bipartisan majority of 184-9, the state House approved House Bill 2175 on Monday afternoon, sending it to the state Senate for consideration.
“We’re not eliminating them,” Turzai said of the projects. “We are giving them boundaries, we’re giving them focus and we’re reducing overall debt.”
The RACP program — pronounced “R-Cap” — was created in 1986 and capped at $400 million, which grew to a debt ceiling of $1.2 billion by 1999. In the past 12 years, it has been increased six times, bringing the spending cap to more than $4 billion after an increase was approved in 2010.
RACP has financed hundreds of projects, including sports stadiums, shopping malls, convention centers, hotels, the new Tastykake factory in Philadelphia and the now-infamous Arlen Specter Library at Philadelphia University.
The House-approved bill would restore the cap to $1.5 billion over a 20-year period, requiring annual spending reductions.
It also would redefine eligible projects to focus on “transformative projects” with substantial economic impact, job creation and infrastructure development, said Turzai, who sponsored the bill.
Another attempt to reform property taxes in PA
Changing Pennsylvania’s property tax system should be paired with spending reforms, or else it’s not effective, said the top Republican on the House Finance Committee.
“If you don’t discuss the cost side of the equation, finding new sources of revenue is just a dog chasing its tail,” said state Rep. Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, chairman of the House Finance Committee. "It's not an isolated issue."
Local government organizations and business groups echoed that message during a committee hearing Monday to consider a bill from state Rep. Seth Grove, R-York, that would give local governments two options for generating revenue, if they wanted to reduce property taxes.
The bill is intended to broaden the base of local taxes used to fund the bulk of basic education costs and relieve what is widely viewed as an unbalanced tax on the state's residents.
State Rep. Phyllis Mundy, D-Luzerne, the minority chairwoman of the committee, said the property tax is unfair, but changing it has been tough.
“Trying to do one statewide fix is difficult to come by given the diversity of Pennsylvania,” Mundy said, referring to the variance in local economic conditions in the state, which are reflected in school district budgets.
Disability group sues PA over budget proposal; administration says its premature
The Pennsylvania Disability Rights Network filed a lawsuit Wednesday in Commonwealth Court, seeking to protect critical services threatened by Corbett's proposed cut of $319 million, effectively killing the state's General Assistance Program.
The network is a nonprofit designated as the federally mandated organization to advance and protect the civil rights of adults and children with disabilities.
The “ill-advised attempt to balance Pennsylvania’s budget on the backs of people with mental illness and disabilities is a recipe for social and economic disaster,” said Debbie Plotnick, director of Advocacy for the Mental Health Association of Southeastern Pennsylvania.
However, the $27.1 billion budget unveiled last month was simply a proposal that has yet to be negotiated with lawmakers, Corbett spokeswoman Kelli Roberts said.
"There is still a long way to go," Roberts said.