Legislative Redistricting Work Group Agrees on Reform Principles

Harrisburg, March 16, 2016 – Stressing the urgency to act soon, a bipartisan, bicameral legislative work group today announced agreement on redistricting reform principles and said they hope to reach consensus on a specific bill soon. The group urged the inclusion of these principles into any redistricting reform bill.

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[divider top=”0″] “The rallying cry is our shared determination to jettison politics from the redistricting process,” said Sen. Lisa Boscola (D-Northampton), who has introduced legislation (Senate Bill 484) that would establish an 11-member independent citizens’ commission to draw state and congressional district boundaries. “As we advance in our effort to build a legislative consensus, I am pleased that our group is calling for an open, transparent and publicly accountable redistricting process.”

Rep. David Parker (R-Monroe) added, “My home county has been the poster child for the problems associated with our system of legislative redistricting. For 12 years, Monroe County was split among six Pennsylvania Senate districts, even though the population justified one or two. This was corrected in the latest round of redistricting, but to ensure that this does not occur again to any of the commonwealth’s counties, my bill (House Bill 1835) contains language to prevent counties from being carved up to the point where they lose representation. The measure also establishes a citizen commission and new updated standards to ensure a more open, transparent and fair process.”

In honing in on what specific bill the work group will support, its members announced that any reform measure should contain these seven core principle:

  • Assign redistricting authority to an independent citizens commission
  • Reform both congressional and legislative redistricting.
  • Prohibit districts from being drawn to favor or discriminate against a political party or candidate;
  • Use sound methodology when setting district boundaries;
  • Ensure transparency in the process with meaningful opportunities for active public participation
  • Make all districts as equal in population as possible with a minimum range of deviation; and
  • Respect political subdivisions and communities of interest.

Formed last June, the group said it hopes to soon hammer out an agreement on legislation that can pass both the House and Senate. To get a new redistricting process in place before the next redistricting round in 2020, lawmakers must pass legislation twice to change the state’s constitution – within two consecutive two-year legislative sessions. The proposal must also be approved by voters via referendum.

Responding to local government leaders who criticize the process for needlessly splitting municipalities between different districts, the group said it is urging municipal leaders around the state to pass resolutions in support of redistricting reform.

Group members said the last Legislative Reapportionment Commission largely ignored sound redistricting tenants such as compactness and community of interest. After the state Supreme Court ruled that the commission’s maps were “contrary to law,” lawmakers were forced to go back to the drawing board. This culminated in the reapportionment process finishing up two years late, causing confusion and the need to use of the old maps for the 2012 elections.

Many members of the work group also criticized the current system for producing Pennsylvania’s many oddly shaped, gerrymandered districts. They claim the current system is unfair, discourages competition and is used by political powerbrokers to protect allies and isolate opponents. With huge majorities of Democratic or Republican voters packed into districts, critics also claim that primary elections have become more important than general elections in those regions, producing lawmakers who are more likely to toe the party line and less willing to negotiate and find common ground on issues.

“The protracted budget impasse is a good example of what can happen when so many legislators are politically hesitant about supporting negotiated agreements because they are afraid of being ‘primaried,’” Boscola said. “During the 112th Congress, a meager seven members accounted for 98 percent of cross-party votes. The public needs to understand that gridlock is just a symptom. Our corrupt reapportionment system is the disease.”

Other lawmakers at the news conference included Senators Rob Teplitz (D-Dauphin/Perry), John Eichelberger (R-Blair), Mario Scavello (R-Monroe), John Blake (D-Lackawanna), John Wozniak (D-Cambria) and Representatives Mary Jo Daley (D-Montgomery), Pam DeLissio (D-Phila./Montgomery), Sheryl Delozier (R-Cumberland), Brian Sims (D-Phila.) and Mike Carroll (D-Luzerne). Also on hand were advocates and organizations that favor redistricting reform.

Carol Kuniholm, executive director of the Fair Districts PA coalition said, “We applaud the legislators who are working to make our electoral mapping process transparent, impartial and fair. We encourage public support for this effort and ask all of our legislators to help restore a government of, by and for the people.”

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Senate Hearing Focuses on Budget Impasse’s Impact on Schools

Harrisburg – October 28, 2015 – At the request of state Sen. Vince Hughes (D-Phila.), the Senate Democratic Policy Committee today held a hearing on the devastating impact that the state’s 120-day budget impasse is having on schools across the state.

“While many of the budget dispute points remain unresolved, what is clear is that the consequences of this impasse are far-reaching,” said Sen. Lisa Boscola (D-Northampton), who chairs the committee. “This hearing gives lawmakers a sense of how schools are handling the funding shortfall, and what problems they’ll face if this stalemate continues to drag on.”

Hughes added, “A growing number of schools have been cornered into borrowing money and taking out credit lines just to keep their doors open. Hopefully, this hearing’s focus on this worsening statewide financial crisis will encourage greater urgency, cooperation and compromise in the ongoing budget negotiations.”

During the hearing, state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale testified that at least 27 school districts have taken out loans totaling more than $431 million. He projected that interest payments will total $30 million if the stalemate reaches mid-November.

Those who testified decried how the impasse has harmed students, depleted reserves and how taxpayers will be needlessly saddled with paying the interest on the growing number of loans and credit lines that schools are obtaining to keep their doors open.

Erie Public Schools Superintendent Jay Badams lamented that his district will need to borrow $30 million just to get through January.

“That’s $114,000 in wasted interest money that could have been used for so many badly needed educational expenses,” Badams said.

Dr. Joseph Roy, who serves as superintendent of the Bethlehem Area School District in Northampton County, added that “choices at the state level continue to hammer school districts.” He said the diversion of funds to charter and cyber schools and a “punitive” approach to public education has blown up school expenditures.

Dr. Rula Skezas, who serves as superintendent of the McKeesport Area School District in Allegheny County, noted that even if the district receives its proposed funding it would still fall short of what it received during the 2011 school year. She said McKeesport has taken out a $5 million line of credit to make it to December. She said the district has already eliminated 110 staff positions to try and make ends meet.

Hughes, who serves as Democratic chair of the Appropriations Committee, said public, charter and private schools are already reeling from years of being underfunded. He noted that the Philadelphia School District has already borrowed $275 million during the impasse. Fran Burns, who serves as chief operating officer for the School District of Philadelphia, testified that the district has struggled to contend with a “structural deficit.”

Lamenting the impact on local working families who fund schools through property taxes, Boscola pointed toward an educational survey conducted earlier this year showing that nearly 75 percent of districts were planning to impose property tax hikes, 30 percent were planning on making additional program cuts, and 41 percent were making more staff cuts. She said the state has withheld approximately $3 billion in school funds since the budget impasse began in July.

Joining Boscola and Hughes at the Capitol committee hearing were Senators John Blake (D-Lackawanna), Jim Brewster (D-Allegheny), Andrew Dinniman (D-Montgomery), Christine Tartaglione (D-Phila.) and Sean Wiley (D-Erie),

Those testifying included:

  • The Honorable Eugene DePasquale
    Pennsylvania Auditor General
  • Fran Burns
    Chief Operating Officer, School District of Philadelphia
  • Joseph Gorham
    Superintendent of Schools, Carbondale Area School District
  • Dr. Joseph Roy
    Superintendent of Schools, Bethlehem Area School District
  • Dr. Jay D. Badams
    Superintendent, Erie Public Schools
  • Dr. Rula S. Skezas
    Superintendent, McKeesport Area School District
  • Marjorie Neff
    Chair, School Reform Commission
  • Anthony Pirrello
    CEO, Montessori Regional Charter School of Erie, and Vice President of Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools
  • Matt Przywara
    Member, PASBO
    Chief Financial and Operations Officer, School District of Lancaster
  • Bill LaCoff
    President, Pennsylvania School Boards Association
  • Susan Gobreski
    Education Voters of Pennsylvania
  • Dr. Pearl English
    School Nurse, School District of Philadelphia

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Wolf Budget Offers PA Restoration, Hard Choices, Sen. Blake Says

HARRISBURG, March 3, 2015 – In response to Gov. Tom Wolf’s just-proposed $29.8 billion budget for 2015-2016, state Sen. John Blake said he is looking forward to studying the details of the newly elected Democrat’s proposal.

“For four years, failed leadership in this state had us falling behind as our neighboring states invested in education and job growth and where they demonstrated a commitment to working-class citizens by raising the minimum wage,” Blake said following the governor’s budget address before a joint session of the General Assembly. “Gov. Wolf demonstrated today a necessary and a positive change-in-course for Pennsylvania.”

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If enacted by the legislature, the governor’s budget would deliver $3.8 billion in property tax relief, restore the $1 billion that Gov. Tom Corbett cut from basic education, inject $1.75 billion for job creation and restore critically important social safety net programs.

In other words, according to Sen. Blake, Gov. Wolf is proposing what Senate Democrats have been championing since 2011.

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“Four years of Republican trickledown economics have decimated our economy, our schools and our communities,” he said. “Major tax breaks to big business have failed to translate to jobs and we plummeted from eighth to 50th in job growth in four years. What remains is a structural deficit of more than $2 billion.

“The Corbett administration’s decision nine months ago to use gimmicks and one-time money transfers to plug last year’s deficit means the commonwealth cupboard is bare,” Blake said.

Under Gov. Wolf’s proposal, Pennsylvania would be able to cover the current deficit and increase spending by a moderate 2.7 percent through fair adjustments in our state’s tax policy, including the imposition of a new severance tax on the natural gas industry.

Blake also noted Gov. Wolf’s proposals to make important and necessary cuts in business taxes, including a significant reduction of the corporate net income tax and phasing out the regressive capital stock and franchise tax.

The governor also called for an increase in the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour.

“We have to fix the mess we’re in and it will take bold, decisive, comprehensive and necessary action. Simply treading water and making another set of bad short-term decisions is not acceptable,” Sen. Blake said. “We need to re-think our state’s position in the global economy and advance a spending plan that not only guarantees the quality of life for our citizens now but assures growth and prosperity for generations to come in this great commonwealth.”

Blake said he is looking forward to better understanding how the governor’s proposals and new policy initiatives will affect residents of his 22nd Senatorial District.

“I look forward to adding value in the negotiations for a balanced budget by June 30. Again, none of the choices we face are easy and nothing is free. We will need to balance the needs and concerns of a diverse state but the governor has boldly mapped a promising future. It is up to the General Assembly to find the way forward using his map,” Blake said.

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To learn more about Sen. John Blake, follow him on his website or via Facebook.

Bill to Expand Open Records Law for State-Related Universities Approved by Senate State Government Committee

HARRISBURG,  June 18, 2014 – Legislation to dramatically expand how Pennsylvania’s Open Records Law applies to the four state-related universities – Pennsylvania State University, Temple University, the University of Pittsburgh and Lincoln University – was unanimously approved today by the Senate State Government Committee.

As amended by the State Government Committee, Senate Bill 444 will require Penn State, Temple, Pitt and Lincoln to create searchable, sortable and downloadable databases on their freely accessible public websites. The databases will include extensive budget, revenue and expenditure data; the number of employees and aggregated, non-personal employee data; and the number of students and aggregated, non-personal student data.

State-related universities will also be required to post information about contracts valued at $5,000 or more on Pennsylvania’s online contract database, and most of the universities will be required to report the top 200 employee salaries. State-related universities with fewer than 2,500 employees will continue to report the top 25 salaries, as required by the existing law.

“For the first time, the public will have easy online access to detailed budget and academic data for Penn State, Temple, Pitt and Lincoln,” said Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R-9), author of Pennsylvania’s Open Records Law and the prime sponsor of Senate Bill 444. “Given the level of public support that goes to these universities every year, it makes perfect sense to take this important step.”

“This bill will be another big win for taxpayers,” said Senate State Government Committee Chairman Lloyd Smucker (R-13). “In recent years, citizens have seen too much of the serious ethical problems and the scandals that secrecy is conducive to. In contrast, the Open Records Law has improved accountability and given the public a much better look at what their government is doing. That’s the sort of transparency we want to build on.”

“Under this amended Senate Bill 444, our state-related universities will be held accountable for every state dollar the institutions receive,” said Senator John Blake (D-22), who has been a strong advocate for expanding the law’s coverage of state-related universities. “This necessary improvement in the Open Records Law dramatically increases the amount of information subject to public scrutiny and enhances the ease with which citizens can obtain that information. I was glad to work with Senator Dominic Pileggi in achieving these important reforms.”

“This is an important step in providing greater transparency and accountability in how significant public funds are being spent,” said Senator Matt Smith (D-37), the Democratic Chairman of the State Government Committee. “This was a collaborative bipartisan effort to ensure that state tax dollars are best serving students of the commonwealth.”

The underlying bill includes additional improvements to the existing Open Records Law, such as ensuring that campus police departments are covered by the law just as local police departments are, clarifying that safety inspection reports are public, establishing a new fee structure for commercial requests, and creating a new section to address records requests made by inmates.

A separate amendment adopted today by the State Government Committee clarifies the news media’s exemption from the commercial request provisions, ensures that the Office of Open Records – even as a fully independent agency – will receive appropriate payroll and administrative support, and makes a number of smaller changes.

Senator Pileggi said he intends to continue work on the legislation through the summer. “Pennsylvania’s new Open Records Law is widely recognized as one of the best in the nation,” he said. “This bill makes a number of important and necessary changes, and it’s important to get them right.”

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CONTACTS:

Erik Arneson (Senator Pileggi), earneson@pasen.gov, 717-787-4712

Matt Parido (Senator Smucker), mparido@pasen.gov, 717-787-6535

Luc Miron (Senator Blake), lmiron@pasenate.com, 717-787-6481

Lauren Fraley (Senator Smith), lfraley@pasenate.com, 717-787-5839 (cell 724-747-0692)

Blake, Senate Democrats Detail Budget Priorities, Highlight Corbett Budget Failures

Carbondale, January 30, 2014 – Senate Democrats gathered in seven communities across Pennsylvania today to challenge Gov. Tom Corbett to produce a spending plan that is aligned with the needs of Pennsylvanians.

Sen. John Blake, Carbondale Mayor Justin Taylor and representatives from area economic development organizations gathered in Carbondale City Hall to highlight the negative impact of previous Corbett budgets and describe why the upcoming budget is so important.

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“Pennsylvania’s state budget is an identification of priorities and a strategy for investment,” Sen. Blake said. “We can do better than what Gov. Corbett and his administration have provided.

Blake and Senate Democrats said their budget priorities reflect needs shared by all Pennsylvanians, including job creation, expansion of health care through Medicaid, increasing the minimum wage, repairing the social safety net and restoring education funds.

“Under Gov. Corbett’s leadership, Pennsylvania has fallen to the bottom in job creation and government efficiency, and we must do a better job of identifying policy priorities,” Blake said. “Senate Democrats have concrete plans to move the state forward and our payment method does not involve a broad-based tax increase.”

Senate Democrats said they will push for the following in this budget:

  • Creating jobs by funding targeted water and sewer rehabilitation projects, strengthening school-to-work programs and expanding community economic zones throughout the state;
  • Investing in education with a $300 million boost, bolstering funds for early education and committing to a long-term financing plan that restores funding;
  • Increasing the state’s minimum wage to at least $9 per hour, indexing the wage to inflation and raising the tipped minimum wage;
  • Expanding Medicaid and extending health care to 500,000 Pennsylvania families while generating budget savings of $400 million; and
  • Repairing holes in the social safety net by using $85 million in Medicaid budget savings for human services programming such as drug, alcohol and mental health.

Sen. Blake said he realizes the investments and initiatives identified cost money so the Senate Democratic Caucus has devised a savings-and-revenue plan of more than $1.1 billion to fund the priorities.

“There is no question that there is budget latitude and savings for investing in jobs, health care, human services and our workforce,” Blake said. “Lack of resources should not be an excuse that the administration uses for inaction on key funding initiatives because we’ve proven that savings and revenues are available.”

Senate Democrats said a new direction is needed because the state has gone in reverse since Republican Tom Corbett became governor. Pennsylvania has gone from eighth in job creation to 48th nationwide and has a jobs deficit of more than 180,000 when compared with national economic growth rates.

In addition, Democrats pointed to a recent study of the fiscal health of states placing Pennsylvania 42nd.

“Unfortunately, Carbondale is a good example of a bad result caused by Corbett administration policies,” Blake said. “Even as the state’s economy was beginning to list, the commonwealth was supporting local community and economic development initiatives that created good jobs and helped downtowns revitalize and increase business.

“There has been zero effort by this administration to properly address local community problems or help companies grow and prosper. Years of high unemployment are the result of this lack of direction,” the senator said.

Ken Okrepkie, Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Northeast Pennsylvania’s Pocono Northeast manager, said his organization has wisely used state investments to help businesses grow and become established entities in their communities.

“The companies that received an investment from Ben Franklin generated over 140,000 jobs in the commonwealth,” Okrepkie said. “And not only do we create jobs; for every dollar invested, $3.60 is returned to the commonwealth. That is an impressive return on investment for the citizens of Pennsylvania.”

Other speakers joining Sen. Blake this morning included Paul Browne, executive director of the Carbondale Technology Transfer Center; Chris Haran, senior vice president and CIO at TMG Health; and Eric Esoda, executive director, Northeastern Pennsylvania Industrial Resource Center.

“We look forward to learning details of the governor’s policies and going through the budget in depth,” Sen. Blake said. “It is critical that we revise the spending plan to better reflect the shared priorities of the citizens of Pennsylvania.”

Senate Democrats said they will provide immediate reaction to the governor’s budget address following his scheduled speech to the General Assembly Feb. 4.

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