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Below is a recap of last week’s legislative activity in the Senate, including Sunday activity. Unless otherwise noted, it should be assumed final votes were unanimous and therefore, I voted in support of the bills highlighted below.
The most pressing work last week and this week is crafting a budget plan, which is constitutionally required to be done by June 30th. The Senate is set to pass a budget bill today, but the Governor has vowed to veto it.
As always, I welcome your feedback and input. Please don’t hesitate to contact me via my website.
Scott R. Wagner
In this Edition:
The Senate approved legislation on Wednesday that would allow the direct shipment of wines in Pennsylvania. House Bill 189 would allow all wineries to apply for a license to deliver wine directly to customers. Shippers would be required to verify the customer’s age and mark packaging to indicate its contents.
Currently, out-of-state wine retailers may obtain a direct shipper's permit through the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board. However, the permit limits the amount of wine to be shipped and excludes any wines currently available for sale through state-owned stores. In addition, wine cannot be shipped directly to a resident's home but must be picked up at a state-owned store by the purchaser.
The bill passed with a vote of 31-18, and I voted in support of it. Now the legislation returns to the House of Representatives for concurrence on Senate amendments.
On Wednesday, the Senate unanimously adopted a Senate Resolution that would review the numerous state boards and commissions with an eye toward providing savings to the Commonwealth.
Senate Resolution 138 directs the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee to study the Commonwealth’s board and commission members’ salaries, compensation, and fringe benefits, such as health care and pensions.
With more than 250 independent and departmental boards and commissions, Pennsylvania has panels in place to monitor a plethora of professional activities and a wide array of issues, yet the Commonwealth does not track the costs of running those various panels.
Several bills received final legislative approval and were sent to the Governor last week, including a comprehensive update to Pennsylvania’s 911 emergency communications law, which Governor Wolf signed into law as Act 12 of 2015.
The Senate unanimously concurred on House amendments to House Bill 911 on Thursday wrapping up an extensive process that involved several committee meetings and substantial changes to the bill in both chambers of the General Assembly.
As I explained last week on this issue, funding for county 911 services comes from a fee on telephone services. The current $1/month fee on wireless devices is set to expire on June 30th. HB 911 not only reauthorizes the collection of the fee, but it sets the rate for all phone services – not just wireless – at $1.65 per month.
In addition, the legislation creates a 911 Board, which will be charged with advising the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency (PEMA) on related matters including regulations and cost saving measures.
Also receiving final legislative approval this week were two bills intended to help veterans through the sales of a special motorcycle license plate. They were approved unanimously by the Senate in May but achieved House passage this past week.
Senate Bill 284 authorizes the special “Honoring Our Veterans” license plate for motorcycles and Senate Bill 285 allocates a portion of the funds raised through sales of the plate to the Veterans Trust Fund. The trust fund assists veterans in need of help with food, utilities, mortgage or rent payments, health care and other necessities of life.
Other bills sent to the Governor this week include:
House Bill 131, a measure that provides in-state tuition rates at community colleges and state-related/state-owned institutions of higher learning for veterans, their spouses and dependent children. The Governor signed the bill into law as Act 11 of 2015.
Senate Bill 397, a measure that would privatize and regulate the Bail Bondsman industry in Pennsylvania.
The Senate passed two bills last week to help Pennsylvania’s volunteer first responders.
On Tuesday, the Senate unanimously approved Senate Bill 299 which gives municipalities the option to reduce or waive their local earned income tax for volunteer firefighters and volunteers at nonprofit emergency medical service agencies.
Under the legislation, municipalities would have the authority to set the amount of the tax credit and the guidelines of the program, including specifying the number of calls to which a volunteer must answer and the level of training they must have.
On Wednesday, the Senate unanimously approved legislation that would expand the timeframe restriction on state grants for local fire departments and ambulance services that merge operations.
Currently, if two or more fire and/or EMS companies merge, the newly formed entity is authorized to continue to receive an individual grant from the state Fire and EMS Grant Program for up to five years after the merger.
Senate Bill 370 extends the sunset provision to 10 years. Both bills now go to the House of Representatives for consideration.
The Senate approved legislation on Wednesday that will strengthen the rights of rape victims who have conceived a child as a result of the rape.
Under Senate Bill 663, also known as the Rape Survivor Child Custody and Support Act, courts could terminate the parental rights of a convicted rapist, thereby eliminating the abuser’s access to full, partial, or supervised custody of a child conceived by rape. The measure maintains an offender’s obligation to pay child support even if parental rights are terminated by court order.
Current law only allows for the termination of parental rights of convicted rapists pending adoption. Furthermore, if the parental rights of the offender are terminated, the obligation to pay child support is also terminated.
Senate Bill 663 now goes to the House of Representatives for consideration.
On Thursday, the Senate approved legislation addressing punitive damages awards against personal care facilities.
Senate Bill 747 requires the state Insurance Commissioner to investigate the awarding of punitive damages in cases brought within the health care industry over the past 10 years and caps punitive damages in cases against personal care homes, assisted living communities, long-term care nursing facilities and their employees and officials at 250 percent of the compensatory damages awarded in a lawsuit.
The cap on punitive damages was sparked by the actions of a Florida-based law firm which placed ads in newspapers, targeting Pennsylvania care facilities. The Pennsylvania Health Care Association has tracked 33 full-page advertisements attacking over 40 nursing facilities just since the beginning of 2015. Resulting lawsuits from similar ads drained more than $91 million from the state in 2013, money that could have been better utilized for patient care.
Senate Bill 77 provides regulatory relief for beagle trainers.
Senate Bill 129 amends the County Pension Law to clarify that county pension cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) need not be calculated retroactively.
Senate Bill 307 requires the appointment of an independent counsel to the Environmental Quality Board.
Senate Bill 352 makes substantial changes to Pennsylvania’s horse racing industry. (Vote: 35-12; I voted against the bill because of changes to the structure of the racing commissions and because two new bureaus would be created within the Department of Agriculture. I did not see how this would prove to be a cost-saving measure for the Commonwealth.)
Senate Bill 356 amends the Local Tax Enabling Act to further provide for filings and quarterly payments of the local earned income tax by persons who make their living from farming.
Senate Bill 398 redesigns driver’s license and identification card applications to include the question “Do you wish to have organ donor designation printed on your driver’s license?” It also requires the addition to all forms the following: “Pennsylvania strongly supports organ and tissue donation because of its life-saving and life-enhancing opportunities.”
Senate Bill 524 addresses the ongoing substance abuse problem in communities across the commonwealth by better utilizing FDA-approved medications for the prevention of relapse to opioid dependence. I am a co-sponsor of this legislation.
Senate Bill 609 creates the Prostate Cancer Surveillance, Education, Detection and Treatment Act.
Senate Bill 655 amends the Fiscal Code to extend the expiration date for the State Workers’ Insurance Fund to invest in equities to June 30, 2019.
Senate Bill 737 allows for the limited use of semi-automatic sporting rifles for hunting coyotes and woodchucks.
Senate Bill 775 updates and revises the Third Class City Code.
Senate Bill 792 amends the First Class Township Code to further provide for property maintenance codes, reserved powers, and the Uniform Construction Code.
Senate Bill 793 amends the Second Class Township Code to further provide for property maintenance codes, reserved powers, and the Uniform Construction Code.
Senate Bill 875 promotes the beneficial use of treated mine water in oil and gas operations by clarifying liabilities associated with this water source. I am a co-sponsor of this legislation. (Vote: 34-15; I voted in support of the bill.)
The Senate confirmed the nomination of Timothy Reese to serve as state Treasurer on Friday. Reese fills the vacancy created when Rob McCord resigned on January 30 before pleading guilty to federal extortion charges. The term runs through 2016.
A recap of activity by the Senate committees I serve on.
Urban Affairs and Housing Committee
The Senate Urban Affairs and Housing Committee , which I chair, approved the following bills on Wednesday:
House Bill 613 allows developers and property owners to receive a tax abatement incentive once they apply and are approved to rebuild upon an abandoned or blighted property or in a deteriorated area.
Senate Bill 877 eliminates spot appeals of property assessments in Pennsylvania.
House Bill 447 provides an optional early termination of a lease, without penalty, if the tenant has died and was the sole tenant of a residential unit.
The Senate Appropriations Committee approved the following bills:
Senate Bill 6 allows schools that remain in the lowest-performing tier to be transferred to a new entity called the Achievement School District. (Vote: 15-9, a party-line vote; I supported the bill.)
House Bill 400 establishes the Work Experience for High School Students with Disabilities Act.
Senate Bill 104 creates a task force to make recommendations regarding standardizing and expanding dual enrollment and advance placement opportunities for high school students.
Senate Bill 404 establishes procedures governing the investigation of correctional officers as a result of a complaint of alleged misconduct.
Senate Bill 566 provides additional funding for the Pennsylvania Housing Affordability and Rehabilitation Enhancement Fund.
The Senate Transportation Committee approved the following bills Friday:
Senate Bill 923 designates Exit 26 from the Mon-Fayette Expressway in Luzerne Township, Fayette County, as the Ronald F. DeSalvo Memorial Interchange.
House Bill 88 designates a portion of State Route 309 North in Lynn Township, Lehigh County as the LCPL Brandon J. Van Parys Memorial Road.
House Bill 834 designates a portion of Route 443 in Orwigsburg Borough, Schuylkill County as the Corporal David F. Heiser Memorial Highway.
Senate Bill 925 updates language mainly for the qualification standards for the commercial driver learner’s permit and commercial driver’s license in conformity with new regulations issued by the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Senate Bill 926 repeals the elimination of vehicle registration stickers that was integrated in Act 89 of 2013.
Law and Justice Committee
House Bill 466 privatizes the state liquor system through the gradual closing of state stores and by providing current licensees the option to obtain an expanded license, allowing them to sell liquor and wine; the wholesale market would also be privatized and displaced workers would be provided assistance through PHEAA grants.
This week, work continues to pass a final budget plan, as well as legislation to address liquor privatization and pension reform.