In this Update:
General Assembly Approves Budget that Holds the Line on Taxes, Boosts Rainy Day Fund, Supports Schools, Roads and Nursing Homes
The Senate approved a 2021-22 state budget that supports Pennsylvania’s economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, while providing a financial safety net for the future. The plan now goes to the governor’s desk for enactment into law.
The fiscally responsible budget does not include any of the tax increases proposed by the governor in February — including a 46% Personal Income Tax hike.
While Pennsylvania is on pace to end the current fiscal year with $2.5 billion in surplus revenue, revenue projections for the current fiscal year were made as Pennsylvania was coping with the financial devastation caused by the global pandemic and the governor’s business closure orders.
People hear the term budget surplus, and the pressure increases for makeup funding for all sorts of services and projects. However, we cannot count on similar money coming through again next year. The biggest items in any budget – education, health care, community protection – are going to continue to rise. It would be fiscally reckless to put the entire surplus toward spending items this year.
The budget provides a three-tier approach to create a strong financial safety net for coming years:
The spending plan includes $300 million more for Basic Education Funding, $50 million more for Special Education, $25 million more for Pre-K programs and $5 million more for Head Start. The pandemic was especially disruptive in education. There is an emphasis on putting more money to help struggling students and schools to catch up and preventing learning gaps from widening. A lot of parents believe their kids benefit most from in-school instruction. There are significant federal dollars committed to enabling schools to safely reopen in the fall.
It also allocates $279 million in federal funding to support highway and bridge improvement projects. This will enable the Commonwealth to address its deteriorating transportation network while supporting employers and creating family sustaining jobs.
Federal funds are also directed to supporting Pennsylvania’s nursing homes ($247 million) and assisted care facilities and personal care homes ($30 million), many of which were severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Other notable funding increases include money to move 800 individuals off the waiting list for intellectual disability services, launch additional violence intervention and prevention programs, and help low-income housing projects cope with the rising prices for construction materials.
Bill to Enhance Penalties for Child Pornography Becomes Law
Governor Tom Wolf signed a law aimed at increasing penalties and upgrading sentencing for the reprehensible crimes of child pornography and sexual abuse. This action is a tribute to the late Senator David Arnold, who made an assault on child pornography his priority. I was pleased to work with him on this effort.
Senate Bill 87 boosts penalties in all cases of child pornography in which the child is under the age of 10 or prepubescent. This includes violations of possessing, disseminating, photographing, videotaping or otherwise depicting the sexual abuse of children.
The law also provides for sentencing enhancements for those who sexually abuse children that are known to them and allows the Pennsylvania Commission on Sentencing to develop guidelines for these crimes.
In addition, a special Task Force on Child Pornography will be created to review all laws pertaining to child pornography and to make recommendations to improve the investigation and prosecution of offenders to ensure the perpetrators of these crimes are held accountable.
In addition, the task force will create long-range plans and strategies for statewide community education about child sexual abuse and its prevention.
Senate Passes Comprehensive Voter Rights Bill to Transform Election System, Restore Faith
The Senate passed a comprehensive voter rights bill designed to transform our election system and restore public confidence in the outcome of elections.
I have had numerous discussions with the county officials in charge of running elections, and who badly need legal clarification or authorization on a wide range of practical matters. I have also heard voter concerns from both sides, those who want increased access and those who want tighter security.
The Voting Rights Protection Act is a wide-ranging plan that expands access, boosts election security and helps counties administer elections in an accurate and more timely manner. The bill will make it easier for Pennsylvanians to vote, but harder to cheat.
The bill protects voting access by:
The bill expands election security by:
The package contains critical reforms requested by counties to help elections run more smoothly. This includes changing voter registration and mail-in ballot deadlines, as well as giving counties more time before Election Day to count mail-in votes.
The bill also establishes a state Bureau of Election Audits that will be required to conduct ballot comparison audits to compare machine ballots to voter ballots; ballot-polling audits that will select ballots at random for individual review; and performance audits on county and state election systems every five years.
Unfortunately, the Voting Rights Protection Act was vetoed by Gov. Wolf. The conflicts arising from new laws, controversial executive actions, and complicating court rulings made it necessary for legislators to sort through the confusion and contradictions to find a responsible course of action. We will continue our work on these efforts.
Senate Passes Kayden’s Law to Protect Children during Custody Disputes
The Senate approved and sent to the House of Representatives legislation known as Kayden’s Law to increase protections for children during child custody disputes. This is a bipartisan effort with my counterpart on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator Steve Santarsiero.
The legislation is named after Kayden Mancuso, a 7-year-old Bucks County resident murdered by her biological father in 2018 during a visit ordered by the court, despite evidence of his abusive and violent behavior.
The bill imposes safety conditions and restrictions on visitation in cases of abuse, modifies the factors that a judge must consider in making a custody award to put the focus on the health and safety of the child, and recommends better training of all court personnel involved in custody cases.
Too many terrible tragedies are explained away with the unacceptable excuse that no system can protect everyone or anticipate the actions of individuals intent on violence. Our responsibility in protecting children is to take every reasonable step available to keep them from harm’s way and prevent a repetition of what happened to Kayden. Without this change in the law, the system would remain tilted to the detriment of the interests and safety of at-risk children.
Increased Support for Crime Victims Approved by Senate
The Senate approved legislation to improve communications with crime victims and ensure they receive any compensation they are owed.
The measure broadens the timeframes victims’ compensation may be sought and expands critical access to compensation. It requires the law enforcement officer responding to or investigating an incident to provide basic information about the rights and services available to crime victims.
The effort uses savings generated by the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, launched in 2012, to strengthen public safety and reduce prison and probation costs. The bill was sent to the House of Representatives for consideration.
Homeless Students and Students in Foster Care Aided by Senate Measure
Students experiencing homelessness or living in foster care face additional graduation challenges because they changed schools before earning full credit or are unable to take a required course at their new school. Their new school also may not honor the credits they earned.
The Senate approved legislation to create a smoother transition to high school graduation for these students by designating a point person to review past transcripts and provide the essential support needed to aid student graduation.
The bill would also provide students with other methods to demonstrate that their coursework has been satisfactorily completed so necessary credit can be awarded. The measure was sent to the House of Representatives for consideration.
Senate Advances Bill to Increase Vaccine Transparency
The Senate voted to increase the transparency of Pennsylvania’s vaccine rollout by requiring the Department of Health to make public the amount of vaccine doses that have been wasted.
The measure addresses the Department of Health’s unwillingness to release details of their pandemic response using a law from 1955. Media organizations across Pennsylvania have expressed their frustration throughout the pandemic with this refusal to publicize information.
The bill was sent to the House of Representatives for their consideration.
Senate Helps Open Agritourism to More Farmers
Agritourism includes farm markets, pick-your-own produce, corn mazes, paintball, petting zoos, hayrides and farm tours. They can make the difference between having a positive year on the ledger or ending up in the red, especially for small family farmers.
The Senate approved the Agritourism Activity Protection Act to create a statewide standard for agritourism and provide limited civil liability protection for persons who offer agritourism activities on a farm and meet requirements.
The legislation was returned to the House of Representatives for concurrence on Senate amendments.
Have a Happy Independence Day
The United States of America remains the world’s beacon of liberty, 245 years after the 13 colonies took the brave step of challenging the British Empire for independence.
Open displays of love of country might seem old fashioned to some, but it is found in abundance in the homes and communities of everyday Americans. I hope you have a wonderful 4th of July celebrating our nation’s birthday.
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