- Legislative Review
- All Issues
- Bishops’ Statements
PENNSYLVANIA CATHOLIC CONFERENCE
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE – August 12, 2020 Contact: Al Gnoza 717-585-1548
PCC CONDEMNS RECENT INCREASE IN ANTI-SEMITIC ACTS
HARRISBURG, Pa. — The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference (PCC), on behalf of all the Catholic Bishops in Pennsylvania, today responded to the recent increase in hateful anti-Semitic acts in the commonwealth. These crimes have included the painting of swastikas on synagogues.
“These acts are offensive and hurtful to all of us,” PCC Executive Director Eric Failing said on behalf of the bishops. “Hate is never right, but it is especially heartbreaking when you see innocent people targeted because of their religious beliefs. We remain resolute in standing beside our Jewish brothers and sisters as we condemn the attacks and the hateful sentiment that fuels them.”
The Anti-Defamation League says incidents against Jewish institutions more than tripled in Pennsylvania last year. The latest one took place at a synagogue in Harrisburg, just a few miles away from PCC headquarters. The swastika is one of the most painful hate symbols for Jews, harkening back to the Nazis and the genocide of World War II.
The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference is based in Harrisburg and is the public affairs arm of Pennsylvania’s Catholic bishops.
# # #
For every lawmaker you see or hear about at the Pennsylvania Capitol, there are many more staff members that work behind the scenes. Many of those staffers have been at the Capitol for years, even as elected officials come and go.
Jon Castelli is the Executive Director of the House Urban Affairs Committee on the Democratic side. In October he will be celebrating 33 years of service at the Capitol. He started there right out of college and has held a number of positions.
“I started with the House Local Government Committee as a research analyst,” Castelli told me on a recent visit to his Capitol office. That was back in 1987. He also worked with the Office of Research and Legislative Development before transitioning to his current committee as a research analyst and then as Executive Director.
“It’s an interesting committee,” Castelli said. “In a way it’s similar to the local government committee because we deal with governance of cities, the larger counties, but we also deal with things like affordable housing, revitalizing older communities, dealing with blight and trying to eradicate blight.”
The PA Catholic Conference worked with Castelli and Rep. Tom Caltagirone in recent years on a measure known as the “Land Bank Bill,” which would call for run-down properties to be renovated into shelter for the homeless.
“Land banks are entities that the legislature provided for in statute a number of years ago,” Castelli said. “Every county’s allowed to establish a land bank–the larger cities and larger municipalities–they deal with the problem-property inventories—your blighted properties, your properties that basically nobody wants.”
Castelli said the focus is then to acquire the property and re-develop it, or see that it gets to a non-profit entity that will do the renovation. House Bills 896 and 897 would add a homelessness component to the Land Bank Act.
“We envision the program would work by conveying the property for maybe a dollar to a non-profit community development organization and then they would seek funding through the State Neighborhood Assistance Act to redevelop it and get it back onto the tax rolls and provide housing for those who were formerly homeless.”
As active as Castelli has been at the Capitol, many of you in the Harrisburg area may have seen him in some of his other roles—including taking part in mass at St. Pat’s.
“I’ve been long involved at the Cathedral. I’m a lector there,” Castelli said. He is also a Grand Knight with the Knights of Columbus, which is very active in the church.
“We have a program of feeding the hungry,” Castelli said. “We have a Saturday morning breakfast for the needy and then a Sunday evening dinner. The Knights of Columbus help with that dinner once a month—well now we’re suspended because of COVID. We also deliver to some of the shut-ins of the parish and others from the community who could no longer make it due to health reasons to the actual dinner at Cathedral Hall.”
PHILIP J. FROMUTH. Ph.D.
PENNSYLVANIA HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
JUNE 17, 2020
Good afternoon Chairman Sonney and members of the House Education Committee. Thank you for the opportunity to be with you to share a few thoughts about the challenges that will face Catholic schools to re-open in the upcoming school year. My name is Phil Fromuth, I am Superintendent of Catholic Education for the Diocese of Allentown and I am also the Moderator of the Education Department of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference. Catholic schools provide faith-based education to 140,000 of the 200,000 non-public school students in Pennsylvania. This is my 40th year in the field of Catholic education and the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the landscape of education and will continue to shape that landscape in our Commonwealth more dramatically than any other event in my four decades in education.
As we begin to wrap up the 2019-2020 school year in the virtual world and plan ahead for the 2020-2021 school year, I would like to share a few thoughts and concerns with the re-opening of our schools in a live, virtual or hybrid format in the upcoming months.
I am so proud of our Catholic school educators in the Diocese of Allentown and across the state who pivoted so quickly to provide ongoing educational opportunities and a continuity of education for all our students while they were not physically in school. Our schools are tuition based, so if we were to ask parents to continue to meet their tuition obligations, we needed to meet our part to deliver a quality and challenging curriculum.
We did have an advantage that many of our schools had either developed or had worked on Flexible Instruction Day plans to continue education remotely either in a virtual format or by packet education in case of inclement weather or other emergency that would prevent school from being open. This was a significant advantage as educators and administrators had already begun to think and plan how to not only deliver quality instruction, but also how to monitor progress, measure academic achievement and plan for the necessary follow up and communication that is so key to effective instruction. My thanks to Chairman Sonney for amending the Flexible Instruction Day legislation last year and allowing non-public schools to participate and to the Education Committee for unanimously supporting the amendment.
However, the Flexible Instructional Day Plans were developed for being out of school for up to five days. So, while our educators may have been ahead of the learning curve, I don’t want to mislead you, the last ten weeks also were categorized by a fair amount of trial and error. Our educators were both flexible and adaptable as to what worked, what didn’t work and always cognizant of the external factors going on impacting our nation and our communities, and the pressures on families to balance health and safety issues, work issues, financial issues and the increased responsibilities on parents regarding their child’s education. This was an enormous shift and was not always uniform from school to school or classroom to classroom, but our educators stepped up in a significant way to provide a quality educational experience for the children entrusted to their care.
Now, as we look ahead to the new school year, all schools will have challenges, but there are five that I believe are unique Catholic schools.
The recently released Preliminary Guidance for the Phased Re-Opening of Pre-K to Gr. 12 Schools puts a heavy emphasis on Health and Safety plans, as so it should. The health and safety of our students and our employees is of paramount importance and I believe the school nurse will play an integral role at the building level. So, at this critical time in education, in this time where, for so many reasons, we need to get our children back to school, school nursing for non-public schools in Pennsylvania has slipped to measuring heights and weights, eye exams and record keeping for immunizations. Is this the best this Commonwealth can do for their youth on an ongoing basis, yet alone in a pandemic? In the plan from the PDE it is mentioned that “Private and Parochial schools are strongly encouraged to create a Health and Safety Plan tailored to their unique needs.” While we appreciate the encouragement, we would prefer the ongoing interaction with local school health care professionals to help DEVELOP and EXECUTE Health and Safety Plans that include adequate nursing services in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Also, in regard to the re-opening plan shared by the Department of Education, many Catholic schools serve students from more than one county. A number of public school districts also serve multiple counties. The plan does not address situations where one county may be in a different Safety Phase than a neighboring county serving a number of students in a school or school district. Will there be guidance issued when a neighboring county that a school serves, possibly slips back into a more restrictive phase?
In addition, we wait to see Pennsylvania’s plan for the Governor’s Emergency Education Relief Fund or GEERS Program as part of the CARES Act. In California, these funds are being used to help all schools, public and private schools to procure necessary PPE’s, supplies and equipment. In California, this is being done to support the safe re-opening of all schools and to protect the public health. So, GEER’s funds are being allocated to purchase and then distribute such items as no-touch thermometers, face shields, masks, hand sanitizers and other supplies, all leveraging buying power of the state to supply these needed materials to benefit all students in the state. Again, we await the plan for this Commonwealth’s use of the GEER’s funds.
We ask your help in the areas I have shared with you. As I began my testimony, over 140,000 students are receiving an education in a Catholic school in this state.
and we hope that the plan being developed by the Pennsylvania Department of Education to re-open schools is shared in a timely manner that allows for regulatory flexibility and a fair amount of local decision making.
Thank you for your time today and for your service to the citizens for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
Good afternoon Chairman Sonney and members of the House Education Committee.
Thank you for the opportunity to share a few needs that all Catholic and nonpublic schools will face this fall in re-opening their school year. My name is Sean McAleer, I am the Director of Education for the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference and the Co-State Director for PACAPE, which represents over 90% of all private schools in Pennsylvania. Catholic schools provide faith-based education to 140,000 of the 260,000 non-public school students in Pennsylvania. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the landscape of education and will continue to shape that landscape in our Commonwealth more dramatically than any other event either man-made or natural.
As we wrap up the 2019-2020 school year in the distance learning world and plan ahead for the 2020-2021 school year, I would like to share the Catholic and nonpublic school needs with the re-opening of our schools in a live, blended learning or distance learning platform. Catholic and nonpublic schools have two legislative and two administrative needs, as outlined below:
Legislative Fixes (Two Requests):
Nursing: All school reopening plans (public and nonpublic) for the Coronavirus pandemic must start with a school nurse on site. A nurse needs to review the plans to make sure a school is compliant with all CDC, PA DOH and local guidelines. A school nurse will also need to monitor anyone that enters the building and have protocols in place if the nurse suspects someone of potentially having Coronavirus. The nurse will also have to implement mitigation protocols to both identify and stop the spread of the Coronavirus. It is readily apparent that the nurse is the most vital person to have present in the school building during the Coronavirus pandemic. That is why Catholic and nonpublic schools are requesting the following nursing legislation:
SCHOOL HEALTH SERVICES.
Section 1401. Definitions. (Two Requests)-
Add: (8.1) “School nurse services” means a mandated school health service provided by a school district or joint school board to all children of school age who attend either a public or private school within the Commonwealth on an equitable basis.
The Public Affairs Agency of the Catholic Dioceses of Pennsylvania Since 1960
214 State Street, Box 2835, Harrisburg, PA 17105 ?ph: 717-238-9613 ? fx: 717-238-1473
Such services shall include the development of appropriate plans of care, medication administration, first aid and emergency care, as well as the other duties and responsibilities prescribed by regulation for school nurses by the Department of Health in 28 PA Code Chapter 23, or as prescribed under any additional standards issued by the Department of Health with respect to those regulations.
Add: (17) “Nonpublic school” means a nonprofit school, other than a public school within this Commonwealth, wherein a resident of this Commonwealth may legally fulfill the compulsory school attendance requirements of this act and which meets the applicable requirements of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Public Law 88-352, 78 Stat. 241).
Section 1402. Health Services. (Two Requests)-
Add: (a.1) In addition to the services specifically enumerated in this section, every child of school age shall be provided with school nurse services in the school which the child attends by the school district where the school is situated: Provided, however, That the number of pupils under the care of each school nurse shall not exceed one thousand five hundred (1,500). After timely and meaningful consultation between school district officials and appropriate nonpublic school officials, children who attend nonpublic schools shall be furnished school nurse services by the school district in which their nonpublic school is located, on an equitable basis, individually or in combination as requested by the nonpublic school officials to best meet the needs of such children, and as compared to the services provided to public school children of the district.
Add: (g) In addition to any other remedies that may be available by law or regulation, aNY violation of this section regarding the furnishing of services to children attending nonpublic schools may be remedied by means of the issuance of injunctive relief, upon an application for such relief filed on behalf of any such student in the court of common pleas in the county in which the school district providing services is located.
Section 1410.1. Employment of Additional School Health Personnel.(Five Requests)-
Add: (a) Notwithstanding any other provision of law, a nonpublic school may employ a registered nurse or a licensed practical nurse who is not certificated by the Department of Education as a school nurse to provide first aid services and emergency care for ill or injured children. Registered nurses and licensed practical nurses shall only perform acts as permitted by the Professional Nursing Law(63 P.S. § 211 et seq.), the Practical Nurse Law (63 P.S. § 651 et seq.), and the Department of State regulations (49 Pa. Code Chapter 21).
(b) A registered nurse or licensed practical nurse employed by a nonpublic school shall supplement the school nurse services required to be provided by the school district or joint school board to nonpublic school children, and shall not relieve the school district or joint school board from providing school nurse services as set forth in this Article or the Department of Health regulations.
(c) When appropriate, school nurse services that are provided by a school district or joint school board to nonpublic school children may be furnished by a registered nurse or licensed practical nurse who is employed by a school district or joint school board and who is acting under the supervision of a school nurse employed by a school district or joint school board.
(d) Nothing in this section shall be construed to do any of the following:
(1) Create, establish or expand any obligations on the part of any nonpublic school to comply with section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Public Law 93-112, 29 U.S.C. § 794).
(2) Create, establish, result in or expand any contractual obligations on the part of any nonpublic school.
(e) No nonpublic school employe or nonpublic school shall be liable for civil damages as a result of the provision of first aid services or emergency care for ill or injured children, except that an employe may be liable for willful misconduct.
Liability Waivers: Public and nonpublic schools will all be seeking general Coronavirus pandemic liability waivers. Public schools already enjoy immunity protections, so they will not face the same types of potential legal challenges Catholic and nonpublic schools could face, but since there are still many unknowns out there, all schools would need a Coronavirus pandemic liability waiver.
Administrative Fixes-PDE Guidance (Two Requests):
Transportation Q & A’s-(Two Requests): PDE offers transportation Q & A’s, but they haven’t been specifically updated for the Coronavirus Pandemic. Catholic and Nonpublic schools need to have two Coronavirus Pandemic questions added:
Question: Do School Districts have to provide transportation to both public and nonpublic students during the Coronavirus Pandemic?
Answer: Yes, A school district is required by law to provide transportation, regardless of whether the public school students are receiving in person or virtual education. The school district still must provide transportation to all its nonpublic school students.
Question: Do School Districts have to furnish transportation that follows a nonpublic school schedule during the Coronavirus Pandemic?
Act 89 Services to Nonpublic Schools-(One Request): PDE issues guidelines on Act 89 Services to Nonpublic School. Catholic and Nonpublic schools would need to have one Coronavirus Pandemic guideline added:
If an LEA or IU cannot provide in person Act 89 instruction services during the Coronavirus Pandemic, a nonpublic school may seek a third party vendor to provide the Act 89 in person instruction services.
Respectfully submitted by,
Sean P. McAleer, MGR
Director of Education
Pennsylvania Catholic Conference
PA Rep. Aaron Bernstine (R-Beaver, Butler, Lawrence) is not one to pull punches or mince words. He will tell it like it is. So it is no surprise that Bernstine is backing a bill to make local government in Pennsylvania more transparent. Transparency was the basis of his campaign when he ran for the seat he now holds.
His commitment to that is even stronger now.
“After being in Harrisburg for the last 3-1/2 years, it is even more imperative that our state governments are transparent to the people that they represent,” Bernstine told me on a recent phone conversation. “It really impacts the Sunshine Act and ensures that meeting agendas are posted at least 24 hours ahead of time so people will know what is actually going to be voted on. The more information that you can have out there for folks the better….Transparency isn’t there to just catch people doing bad things, it’s there to stop them from doing bad things in the first place.”
Bernstine also had success in getting House approval for his bill “Marky’s Law,” which would toughen penalties for crimes committed in prison.
“It ensures that people who commit crimes behind bars are held accountable for those crimes when convicted,” he said. “Oftentimes when people are convicted of crimes behind bars they are given concurrent sentences and they’re not given sentences that are added on to the existing crime that they’ve been convicted of.”
Bernstine named the measure after seven-year old Marky Mason, who was stabbed by a man that he feels should never been let out of prison in the first place.
“We’re going to get that done. We got it through the House of Representatives. It is currently through a Senate committee. It will be taken up—probably in September when the Senate comes back. We look forward to getting that done. It’s a good, common-sense piece of legislation and looking forward to working with people to get it done.”
Rep. Bob Merski (R-Erie) has seen just about every side there is of Catholic education.
“K through 8, I went to Holy Family, educated by the Sisters of St. Frances,” he told me on a recent phone interview. “Then I went to Cathedral Prep, which is the all-boys Catholic school here in Erie for high school and then I went to Mercyhurst University with the Sisters of Mercy here in Erie as well.”
But it didn’t stop there. Merski then moved to the front of the class– so to speak– for Catholic education.
“There was a program at Mercyhurst. It was the cadet teaching program. It put pre-service teachers in Catholic schools. I went to school—I was the last cadet, that’s my claim to fame at Mercyhurst. Basically I took two years straight through of classes and then I taught in a Catholic school classroom under intense supervision while I finished my degree.”
Merski then taught full-time and served as a City Council member in Erie for seven years. He says he misses the kids and the cycle of the school year. He’s still giving back to the community, just in a different way.
“I think that goes back to my faith. It’s in giving that we receive. I have in my core values that you have to give back. God puts you on earth—You were created for a purpose, on purpose. You have a mission in life and you have to figure it out…Whether it be teaching, public service through elected office or even the stuff I do in our parish, being an usher, those types of things…Giving back, my parents taught us that. It’s part of who I am.”
Merski is also one of a handful of Democrats in the Pennsylvania House that are prolife.
“I have a consistent life ethic. I believe in the seamless garment of life, where we have to protect the unborn but we also have to protect people while they’re here and honor their dignity while they’re alive and then especially at the end of life. At the beginning and end is where we focus on as a church and the middle we kind of forget about.”
Merski says it’s very hard to legislate morality.
“When we make laws we have to keep in mind, this is what society accepts. That’s sometimes what I struggle with—not just with life issues, like abortion votes but also in taking away general assistance for the poorest of the poor…We have to help people that are poor, the least among us.”
When you spend time talking with lawmakers in Pennsylvania, you realize how much they care about their residents, the people they serve. That has become especially evident over the past several months as these legislators find out how much their people have been suffering from the pandemic and resulting shutdown.
PA Sen. Ryan Aument (R-Lancaster) talked to us about that on a visit to his Capitol office.
“Each and every day comes heart-breaking phone calls from constituents, from business owners, who have been impacted,” he said, “either from a public health standpoint or they’ve been separated from loved ones, who’ve been in a nursing home–spouses who’ve been separated, who’ve been isolated in a nursing facility. Employers who’ve invested their life’s work into creating and building a business that they had hoped to be able to pass on to their children and grandchildren and being forced to make very difficult decisions about closing their doors and perhaps never reopening.”
Aument said he has also heard from countless workers, who have been forced out of a job and have had to go several weeks without getting an unemployment check because of back-ups in the system. That has made it tough to pay bills and even put food on the table.
“Just heart-breaking and devastating conversations, each and every day,” Aument said.
The senator says one of the real criticisms he has of how Governor Wolf has handled the whole shutdown has been his unwillingness to listen to other perspectives—from a medical standpoint and from an economic standpoint.
“I, like many, believe that we can both protect public health and restore our economy. We can protect public health. We can take the steps that we need to take to protect folks. Businesses can make those decisions so they can safely reopen.”
Aument says business owners have every incentive to protect workers and customers.
“Many of these folks have come to me with terrific plans to safely reopen. I’m really proud of the work that’s being done in Lancaster County, the collaboration that’s taken place between government entities, between municipal officials, school district leaders, business leaders, county officials, our leaders from the main health systems in Lancaster County: UPMC, Wellspan, Lancaster General Health. There’s been tremendous collaboration to develop a Lancaster County plan to reopen our economy and to protect citizens. Our health systems have done a great job providing phenomenal care for our residents…We can make informed, data-informed decisions in real-time in a way that is very difficult to do on a state-wide level.”
Lawmakers have long been called public servants because they work for the people. Never has that been truer than for these past four months when the pandemic and resulting shutdown sent countless numbers of frustrated Pennsylvanians to their local reps and senators for help.
“Been very busy here in the office,” Sen. John DiSanto (R-Dauphin, Perry) told me in an interview at his Capitol office. “There’s a lot of confusion going on with the re-opening and the Governor’s orders backing up restaurants and bars to 25% capacity. There are still a lot of people struggling with unemployment. They haven’t received their unemployment for weeks—months actually. Other people are calling in and they’re getting double payments. It never stops over there at L&I. We’ve never been busier in the office since COVID has started.”
DiSanto had called for the resignation of Labor and Industry Secretary Jerry Oleksiak over his response to problems with PA’s unemployment system. The senator also pointed out the dysfunction and management of the office within the department even before Oleksiak took over. A performance audit had revealed that nearly $180-million in taxpayer dollars had been spent under the previous secretary on an unsuccessful modernization project.
But that has certainly not been the extent of Sen. DiSanto’s work this summer. He was able to steer a bill through the legislature this year that will give ex-offenders a second chance at a career. The PA Catholic Conference was in full support of DiSanto on this measure, as were lawmakers from both parties.
“That was Senate Bill 637, now known as Act 53,” DiSanto said. “It deals with second chances and inmates trying to get out of prison or people that have criminal records, helping them obtain licenses so that they can mainstream back into society. We’ve eliminated a lot of cumbersome language—moral turpitude, good moral character has been removed. The licensing boards have had to provide a clear list of crimes that would prevent people from holding a license, prior the them even applying for a license. It also streamlines the process so that people can get back into work and become productive parts of society. Very proud of that. It was a great piece of legislation. Got bipartisan support. That was a big win for the citizens of Pennsylvania.”
She may be the most recognizable person in the Pennsylvania Senate, and very likely one of the hardest-working people connected with the chamber. I’m talking about Megan Martin, the Secretary of the Senate and the first woman to serve in that position. She is also the Parliamentarian, Chaplain during the virtual sessions and the Right-to-Know Law Appeals Officer.
If you tune in PCN for a Senate session, you will see her, right beside the presiding officer who is running the session. That person can change, depending on the day. But Megan is always there. Or so it seems!
“As the Secretary I’m the Chief Legislative Officer of the Senate, so I’m responsible for all the legislative operations of the Senate,” she told me on a recent visit to her fourth-floor Capitol office. Incidentally, that’s a long climb and she insists on taking the stairs instead of the elevators—always busy in some way!
Martin says she has a great legislative team.
“They are responsible, for example, for creating the bill calendars that we use for session every day, for creating the executive nominations calendars when the Governor nominates individuals to serve on boards and commissions. Basically my office is the legislative heart of the Senate in terms of the legislative operations—not the policy side—we leave that to the caucuses but in terms of the processes and procedures. My folks on my team touch every bill from the moment that it’s introduced and created and then throughout the process until it’s signed by the Governor or vetoed by the Governor, or sent to a committee or laid on the table.”
Martin also has seven other departments that come under her charge—Senate Library, Senate Reporters Office, Senate Page Room, Senate Security, Tour Guides Office, Senate Bill Room and the Senate Print Shop. And she’s also a product of the PA Catholic School system–attending Villa Maria Academy in Chester Co.
Martin is not an elected official but she is elected to her position. She’s an institutional officer which means she’s elected by the senators every other year on opening day. She serves all the members equally, regardless of their political party or affiliation.
That’s all just part of her job as Secretary, which does not include what she does on the floor of the Senate. That is part of her role as Parliamentarian.
“As such I advise the presiding officer when we’re in session, which is typically the Lt. Governor, who is the President of the Senate. Or I will advise the President Pro Tempore. That is Sen. Joe Scarnati, or if another senator has been designated by the Pro Temp to preside, I will advise them during session. I help them as they manage the business of session day to day.”
She also advises members and the staff when they have questions on the meaning and the application of the precedent of the Senate or the rules of the Senate as well as processes and procedures of the chamber.
“Basically I try to make sure that the session day flows as smoothly as the session day can flow.”
Martin says she owes a lot to Sen. Scarnati, who selected her for the position.
“He has truly given me the professional opportunity of a lifetime. He has supported me in every aspect of the position and on every endeavor I’ve taken as Secretary and Parliamentarian to modernize, professionalize and energize my 80-person operation.”
You can tell she has a lot to do and monitor in the Senate. That would really be a grind if you didn’t like your job. No problem for Megan Martin.
“I really enjoy what I do,” she said. “I feel very blessed. I am excited. I pinch myself when I walk into this building. It’s a privilege to come here to the Capitol every day and get to the work that I do for the people of Pennsylvania. I love that. I’ve devoted almost my entire career to public service. I was inspired by the best—people that I’ve worked for over the years and I really love what I do.”
Martin says that when she was young she wanted to be a doctor but changed her focus to law when she was in college. She was originally involved in family law, but got a chance to work for Governor Ridge and that made an impression on her and changed her perspective. She worked there for seven years.
“I was very privileged because I learned how state government works from the top down. I worked in 225 Main Capitol for my first four years….I learned from the best, and I learned by listening and observing high-quality individuals and how they handled themselves at meetings and how they treated people, particularly Tom Ridge. He surrounded himself with good, quality people. I learned very early that you are only as good as the people you surround yourself with.”
One of the more substantive debates in the PA Senate this summer has been over Senate Bill 1166, which was designed to put a limit on the length of an emergency in Pennsylvania that was declared by the Governor. One of the big supporters of that bill has been Sen. David Argall (R-Berks, Schuylkill).
“The basic fact is that the people of Pennsylvania elect representatives. They elect senators. They elect a governor. They don’t elect a king,” Argall explained to me during a visit to his Capitol office this past week. “We’re all supposed to be in this together in this difficult time. We understand this is a very serious emergency but we believe that the law should say that an emergency can’t last forever and that no governor—not this governor, not the next governor, not the one after that—should be able to continually extend the emergency time after time after time.”
The General Assembly passed that measure as a bill but the PA Supreme Court said that lawmakers could not do that. They then went the route of a constitutional amendment.
“The governor doesn’t get to veto constitutional amendments,” Argall said. “It has to pass the House and Senate. That has been done. It will have to pass the House and Senate again after the November election. Then it goes on the ballot and I believe the people of Pennsylvania will approve that.”
The measure has gotten at least some measure of bipartisan support in both chambers.
“We did four public hearings across the state, looking at the economy, Argall said. “People are hurting. This idea that you need to close down restaurants and bars in counties with no cases…don’t blame them for what’s happening in Miami or Pittsburgh or Philadelphia….This one man determining all the rules, and then telling the rest of the state what to do, ignoring the House, ignoring the Senate, ignoring the public, ignoring the local governments—we believe that’s just wrong.”
Lawmakers and government officials have faced many issues and challenges over these last couple of months. But two of the more pressing problems as far as state Senator Judy Schwank (R-Berks) is concerned are the troubles with the state unemployment system and the question of how to educate our children and young people this fall.
Perhaps the most frustrating issue so far has been with unemployment.
“That has been something that we have really tried to step up to the plate in our district. Unfortunately I can’t go into the computers in Harrisburg and fix some of the problems that people have faced,” Schwank told me on a visit to her district office just outside of Reading. “We have staff dedicated, that have worked really 24-7 practically trying to assist people that have contacted us that have not received their payments or have gotten some payments and then they stop. There have been so many problems. The Department of Labor & Industry was simply overwhelmed by the number of people when we’re talking about 40% or 20% on the state level and even higher here.”
Sen. Schwank says she has been also busy working on the schooling issue. That is not settled either.
“We’ve been talking with superintendents, talking with teachers and parents about their concerns,” Schwank said. “There’s no clear-cut answer and there’s no really good answer because everybody faces different issues but if there is one issue regarding the pandemic that I think is so important, it is how we get our children back to being educated, whether it is virtually or whether it is in person, or a hybrid model of some sort. We can not afford to let children slip through the cracks and not get the education that they need. You don’t get any do-overs in childhood. Your education every year builds on the previous year.”
The senator says she’s not sure when they will be back in session in Harrisburg, maybe early or late September. She pointed out that they were in session almost immediately after the pandemic started.
It was on July 15th that the PA Senate passed House Bill 196, by Rep. Russ Diamond (R-Lebanon). It would call for appellate court judges in Pennsylvania (Commonwealth, Superior and Supreme Courts) to be chosen by district. Now they are chosen by total vote across the entire state.
“For the last 50 years, the result of that has been that Allegheny and Philadelphia County have taken about 60% of those seats,” Diamond told me last week on a visit to his Capitol office. “That is three-times their population—21.8%.”
Diamond says he believes there should be more geographic diversity on those courts because there are different judicial temperaments and attitudes toward the law across the state. He has introduced the bill in each of his three terms in office, but this time around it has gotten some traction.
“It’s a constitutional amendment which would divide the state into seven Supreme Court districts, nine Commonwealth Court districts and 15 Superior Court districts so that every region in the state has a fair shot at having a judge getting a seat on that bench.”
The measure passed the House in December. Since it is a constitutional amendment, it will have to be passed by both chambers again next session and then it would be placed on the ballot for voter approval. The governor would have no say in the matter, which is pertinent in this instance because Governor Wolf has shown a penchant to veto Republican-backed bills.
There has been opposition to the bill. Diamond says it’s from legislators who are calling for merit selection.
Rep. Rob Kauffman (R-Franklin) has been around long enough in public service to appreciate a good challenge. He’s been seeing exactly that–right along with the rest of us these last couple of months. But as a public servant, his challenge has been a bit tougher.
“I’m in my eighth term in the General Assembly,” Kauffman told me on a recent visit to the Capitol. “My first term was the infamous pay-raise back in 2005. This has topped everything that I’ve been through in the eight terms that I’ve been here.”
Kauffman said it’s been especially painful watching his constituents, their businesses and the community in general that he serves and loves, suffer through the pandemic and the resulting shutdown. Kauffman is one of many lawmakers who feels that being safe and being open in a responsible way are not mutually exclusive.
“It’s a balance. It really is. When you talk about things like shutting down schools, I understand the concerns that are out there but what about the concerns of those who are severely disadvantaged economically and otherwise who depend on schools for everything from their nutrition to mentorship to really (protecting kids against) child abuse—those mandated reporters are in schools…the schools mean a lot of things other than just education these days.”
Kauffman says the educational part is vital as well and that we will see kids falling behind. He says we all need to look at the larger picture, but that it’s hard to do that when people keep hearing about the number of COVID-19 cases on a daily basis.
“For those of us in public service, this has really been about community,” he said. “The community as a whole, not just the numbers of the virus, but livelihoods and things that people have built for generations falling apart, seeing people who are depressed or turning to substances or, horribly, even suicide. We have to look at the whole picture, because those of us in public service care about the entire community and there are so many components that we have to figure into this mess.”
The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference applauds the Supreme Court’s decisions in Little Sisters of the Poor v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and in Our Lady of Guadalupe School v. Morrissey-Berru and St. James Catholic School v. Biel. In both cases, the Court reaffirmed the religious liberties guaranteed in the United States’ Constitution.
“These are incredibly important rulings for so many groups across the country,” said Eric Failing, the Executive Director of the PCC. “They take a big stand for religious liberty as a First Amendment freedom, which is continually being threatened. We are happy the Court has clearly recognized the importance of religious liberty to our nation.”
By Al Gnoza
By Al Gnoza
We at the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference once again applaud the job that all of our schools did over the past several months to continue to provide quality education to our students across the state. We thank teachers, students, parents and administrators for their flexibility and sacrifice.
As we look ahead to the upcoming school year, the plan is starting to take shape over how instruction and extra-curricular activities will shake out. We at the PCC are also joining education leaders in the dioceses in looking at the financial picture and how much money will be coming in from the state and federal government.
Every year as the state budget is being finalized, we keep our eye on how much will be available through the EITC (Educational Improvement Tax Credit Program) and the OSTC (Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit Program). These programs enable residents and businesses to donate to scholarship programs for non-public schools in exchange for tax credits.
PCC Education Director Sean McAleer says both the EITC and OSTC were level funded from last year. The EITC allocation is $185-million and the OSTC allocation is $55-million. Non-public schools will get $135-million of that.
The amount of money coming from the federal government is a different story. Many of you may remember the pleas that were sent out from the PCC and from within your respective dioceses to reach out to legislators to make sure that Catholic and other non-public schools would get a fair and equitable share of money awarded in COVID-19 relief through the CARES Act. We started this campaign when we got word that the PA Department of Education was looking to funnel more of that money to public schools than to non-public schools. That flew in the face of intentions set forth in the CARES Act, which called for a fair and equitable share to be given to ALL schools.
Well, the battle is not over, but it appears that the U.S. Department of Education is backing down to demands from state officials and that non-public schools will get a lesser share. We estimate that we could lose as much as $47-million.
We have stressed to both state and federal officials that Catholic schools will feel the crunch of the pandemic and resulting shutdown just as much public schools will. Maybe more so when you take into account that non-public schools are heavily dependent on tuition. Job losses have hit a wide range of families across Pennsylvania and many of them may be unable to continue to afford tuition in the coming year.
Despite the recent turn of events, there is still a long way to go and there is much that we can still do to work for our rightful share of the money. The good news is that our schools will still get at least some federal money. The PCC and Catholic education officials across the state are always working to keep costs down, knowing full well that it is not always easy making those tuition payments.
We promise to continue those efforts and to keep you posted on our efforts.
PCC APPLAUDS PASSING OF LEGISLATION TO GIVE EX-INMATES A SECOND CHANCE
HARRISBURG, Pa. — The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference (PCC) applauds both the PA House and Senate for this afternoon’s passage of SB 637–sponsored by state Sen. John DiSanto (R-Dauphin, Perry)–which will remove certain obstacles that prevent an ex-inmate from getting a professional license.
The House unanimously approved the measure around 2:30 and the Senate concurred a short time later.
“This is a great component of the criminal justice reform measures that the PCC has been working on,” said PCC Executive Director Eric Failing. “This is not getting soft on crime, this is helping prior offenders avoid more trouble. Once people have paid their debts to society we should not block them from becoming productive members of society. We think this will help lower recidivism and will help repair families by giving their loved ones a second chance.”
Over 30 occupational fields require a government license or registration in Pennsylvania. In an effort to combat recidivism, our state correctional institutions regularly train inmates in professional skills. Yet, after they have been released, the state often denies them a professional license to practice in the very industry we trained them in, due to convictions unconnected to their desired profession. Senate bill 637 corrects this discrepancy.
The PCC supports Senate Bill 637 by Sen. John DiSanto, which removes employment barriers for certain residents who are convicted of crimes unrelated to their intended profession. We believe this type of legislation helps people turn their lives around.
As it stands now, our laws deny many individuals a professional license to practice in the very industry we’ve trained them in, due to convictions unconnected to the practice of their desired profession. Senate bill 637 corrects this discrepancy by changing the law to state that convictions shall not automatically preclude the issuance of a license, certificate, registration or permit.
Once people have paid their debts to society we should not block them from becoming productive members of society. Furthermore, without the opportunity to become productive members of society, many individuals will end up back in our correctional institutions.
The bill is now before the PA House.
HARRISBURG, PA – The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference today highlighted testimony given to the PA House Education Committee by Dr. Philip Fromuth, the Superintendent of Catholic Education for the Diocese of Allentown and the Moderator of the Education Department of the PCC. The committee hosted an informational meeting this morning on safely reopening schools in the fall.
Dr. Fromuth pointed to several important issues affecting the 140,000 Catholic school students across Pennsylvania, with nursing at the top of the list.
“Nursing for non-public schools in Pennsylvania has slipped to measuring heights and weights, eye exams and record-keeping for immunizations,” Fromuth told lawmakers. “Is this the best this Commonwealth can do for their youth on an ongoing basis, yet alone in a pandemic?”
Fromuth also talked of the deep concerns that are being raised about efforts in PA to take federal CARES Act money away from non-public schools. The U.S. Department of Education has directed Catholic and non-public schools to receive about $66-million.
“But under the directive from PA Secretary of Education Rivera, non-public schools in Pennsylvania will receive only about $19 million,” Fromuth said. “Students, families, and schools in all 67 counties in this Commonwealth have been suffering from the COVID-19 pandemic and (federal) funds are to be used to help schools and will be essential as all schools look to re-open.”
Eric Failing, the Executive Director of the PCC, also re-emphasized the fact that the pandemic and resulting shutdown have affected -all- schools.
“The fall-out may be even more acute for Catholic schools, which rely so heavily upon tuition,” he said. “Many people around the state have been out of work, which may affect their ability to pay tuition. That would be a huge concern for public schools if many of those students are forced back into their home districts.”
From Archbishop Nelson Perez:
On Saturday morning at the Cathedral Basilica of Sts. Peter & Paul I had the honor of ordaining 13 men to the Diaconate – nine men were ordained as Permanent Deacons and four men were ordained as Transitional Deacons for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia; the Diocese of Mymensingh, Bangladesh; and the Congregation of the Mission (Vincentians). The Rite of Ordination took place during Mass following the Liturgy of the Word.
Permanent Deacons are members of the clergy of the Catholic Church, and have completed six years of formation at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary. As ministers at the altar, Deacons assist the priest and bishop at the Liturgy. They proclaim God’s Word, preach and teach, baptize, may witness marriages, carry out funeral rites at the vigil and the grave, administer Holy Communion to the sick and dying, and perform other works of charity.
Those ordained to the Permanent Diaconate are: Gerald J. Cassidy, Henry C. Fila, Franz N. Fruehwald, Matthew A. Horvath, Gregg W. Hoyer, James V. Nash, Mark D. Nowakowski, Paul F. Stoyell-Mulholland, and Thomas N. Verna.
Transitional Deacons will serve in parishes for a year as they also complete their studies toward eventual ordination as priests next year. Their diaconate ministry is one of transition and a part of the normal progression to the priesthood.
Those ordained to the Transitional Diaconate are: Kenneth L. Cavara, for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia; Prodip P. Mrong, for the Diocese of Mymensingh, Bangladesh; Erik R. Sanchez Martinez, C.M., for the Congregation of the Mission (Vincentians); and Mark A. Tobin, for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.
The Mass was streamed live via St. Charles Borromeo Seminary Facebook Page, https://www.facebook.com/StCharlesSem/, and at https://vimeo.com/424912591.
Please join me in offering prayers and best wishes for all on this joyous day in our local Church!
A lesson on walking together as brothers and sisters:
Reflections on the death of George Floyd
June 5, 2020
In the immediate days following the brutal killing of George Floyd, the world reacted with horror to the images of his struggle to breathe and to hold on to life. Countless numbers of individuals from throughout our country and world offered words of condemnation, sorrow and grief. I penned my name to a statement along with six other U.S. bishop chairmen of committees within the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Peaceful protests ensued in cities and towns throughout our land with participants crying out for an end to the injustice of racism and the hatred associated with that sin.
For me, however, the message and power of this time of upheaval and pain were most vividly captured in the visit of Terrence Floyd to the makeshift memorial located at the site of his brother’s killing. Floyd knelt for a moment and then, surrounded by signs that simply said “Black Lives Matter,” rose and addressed the gathered crowd with these words, “My family is a peaceful family. My family is God-fearing. … Let’s do this another way. Do this peacefully, please.”
The combination of Terrence’s spoken message with those three words, “Black Lives Matter,” teach a lesson that we would all do well to sear into our minds and hearts. Floyd challenged the crowds to speak to the injustice of his brother’s death “peacefully,” echoing the very words of Jesus in the Beatitudes, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” The silent, printed words proclaiming “Black Lives Matter” captured an essential component of the Gospel message. Black lives do matter. For black lives, like every life, are made in the image of our Creator. And as such, peace will only come to pass when every life is treated with respect and dignity as the gift of God that it is.
As I watched George Floyd’s brother continue to address that crowd in Minneapolis and challenge them to a peaceful way forward, I couldn’t help but wonder what so many of those who listened to his words were thinking. I wondered if many of them feared to walk in their neighborhoods simply because of the color of their skin. Considering our history, particularly in recent years, I cannot imagine what it would be like to grow up as a young black man in America today.
It occurred to me at that moment, more than ever before, that Terrence Floyd’s call for peace in the face of the brutality and sin that so mercilessly snuffed out the life of his defenseless brother, far from being political or ideological as some might suggest, was nothing short of a plea for justice in our land. His words were a reminder to all of us that as a people who have proclaimed so boldly the absolute value of human life from the moment of conception until natural death, every life in between is just as deserving of respect and reverence.
We Christians are proud to assert our commitment to life. Sadly, however, we often lose our focus upon this noble cause – by the violence, looting and destructive elements that have infiltrated the peaceful efforts of so many who rightfully seek justice and equality – or by a host of other distractions that many of us do subtly or even unknowingly until we turn inward and examine ourselves. In turn, we can begin to pick and choose what is worthy of respect and what is not, at least in our own minds. Yet, nowhere in our faith tradition is it ever suggested that we are meant to determine who is worthy of redemption and who is not. That is a task left to God alone.
May we be humble enough in the face of division to admit our need for conversion as we seek to confront the evil of racism in our land. May we resolve at this moment in our lives and in our history as a nation to embrace the call of Isaiah the prophet to beat our swords into plowshares and our spears into pruning hooks and so labor for God’s gifts of peace, reconciliation and unity. And may we finally begin to live with authenticity the one command of Jesus: “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12).
Pentecost statement on racism from Bishop Lawrence Persico
On this Pentecost Sunday, we pray that the Holy Spirit enlighten the hearts and minds of all people to see that racism in all forms is an evil.
We should not be surprised by the riots that have taken place across the country, as well as here in the city of Erie. I do not condone violence in any form. But the outrage being ex-pressed is the result of decades of oppression and injustice.
It is my hope that churches, synagogues and mosques in northwest Pennsylvania can find meaningful ways to collaborate, bringing about real change in our region. People from every background and culture deserve a voice and opportunity. It will not happen unless we work together.
I support the powerful statement made by the bishops of the United States, which says, in part, that racism is not a thing of the past or simply a throwaway political issue to be bandied about when convenient.
“It is a real and present danger that must be met head on,” they write. “As members of the church, we must stand for the more difficult right and just actions instead of the easy wrongs of in-difference. We cannot turn a blind eye to these atrocities and yet still try to profess to respect every human life. We serve a God of love, mercy, and justice.
Too many communities around this country feel their voices are not being heard, their com-plaints about racist treatment are unheeded, and we are not doing enough to point out that this deadly treatment is antithetical to the Gospel of Life.”
We have much work to do. Let us begin by praying in earnest that the Holy Spirit give us the eyes to see, the ears to hear and the voice we need to speak the truth.
Sr. Dorothy Ann Busowski, OSBM Provincial Superior
The Sisters of the Order of St. Basil the Great express deep sorrow and regret at the needless death of George Floyd. This occasion demands prayer, reflection, and urgent attention to the present moment. In a spirit of mourning we address this letter to the community.
Few symbols are as powerful as breath, and Mr. Floyd’s words, “I can’t breathe.”, call to mind biblical precedent. In Genesis we read, “the LORD God formed the man out of the dust of the ground and blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” Thus Adam, which in Hebrew means man, begins his life in this moment.
There is a beautiful Easter connection to this creation account. On the Sunday of His Resurrection, Jesus appeared to the disciples and twice said to them: ‘Peace be with you.’ Simultaneously, “he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the holy Spirit.’” So we find breath in the foreground from the moment God created humanity to the moment of the new creation. Breath and life are inseparable.
What else do we find amidst the Risen Lord’s breathing act? Peace. Of all the things Jesus could have said, he chose to greet his friends with peace–twice. The message is clear, just as breath and life belong together, so do peace and life in Christ.
We need Christ’s peace now more than ever as social unrest spreads coast to coast. Righteous anger is an appropriate response to injustice, even called for, yet we must never allow it to devolve into rage. Peaceful demonstrations honor the spirit of Christian social action, while violence and theft betray it.
Those who serve in law enforcement deserve our respect and gratitude. In fact, some of the most hopeful images to emerge in the last few days include police officers marching arm in arm with protesters against racism. In order to heal the wounds of racism and injustice we cannot antagonize and alienate one another. We must find common ground and work together.
These days, weeks, and months have been long difficult. But there is hope, there is always hope. And we Sisters assert that Jesus Christ is the only true source of peace and reconciliation. Let us turn to Him now and always as we restore our communities and ourselves.
Sr. Dorothy Ann Busowski, OSBM Provincial Superior
In his Homily on Pentecost, Bishop Alfred Schlert spoke of the fruits of the Holy Spirit and how they should guide us, and should guide our country, during these difficult times.
Here are excerpts from that Homily:
“If Jesus is the body of our Church, the Holy Spirit can be said to be the soul of our Church. It’s what enlivens us.
It is a good time for us to review the fruits of the Holy Spirit. We talk a lot about the gifts of the Holy Spirit – gifts like wisdom and knowledge and piety and courage. But let’s think about the 12 fruits of the Holy Spirit: Charity or love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, modesty, self-control, and chastity.
I think it’s good for us during these very difficult, strife-ridden, violent days in our country to think about the presence of these gifts in our society, in our own lives, and in our Church.
Some would say these gifts are not present in our society because of things like political divisiveness and nastiness, or racism, or violence.
But I would say that those are not causes, they are symptoms. They are symptoms that our country is losing its soul. It is losing its moral moorings to the Judeo-Christian traditions that have built this country. We are not living them. We are not cooperating with the Holy Spirit in our lives.
Listen again to that list of those fruits of the Holy Spirit, and see how many we see present in society right now: Charity or love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, modesty, self-control, chastity.
We have seen tremendous acts of generosity and heroism during the pandemic. They are beautiful examples. We know how we feel when we see those things. We also know how we feel when those things are absent. And right now, especially in these very violent days of rioting, we see their absence. And we have to search our souls to ask, “Why are we not cooperating with the Holy Spirit?”
It’s because our religious mores are very tenuous. Our country is quickly becoming a secular society, where people not only don’t believe in Jesus, they don’t believe in God. The fruits of that lack of belief filter in to every part of our public life.
The Holy Spirit will renew us, but we need to allow the Holy Spirit to accomplish His task, by our free will choice to live in accordance with the Holy Spirit and the mandates thereof.
When Jesus appeared in the Upper Room on the night of Easter Sunday, where the Apostles were hunkered down, he gave them peace, he gave them the Holy Spirit, and he gave them the forgiveness that the Church can offer. These are the three things that must be operative in the Church at all times.
Today we ask our Lord to send us the Holy Spirit. To renew us. To energize us. To give us the courage necessary to confront the world in a way that brings the Gospel and the love of Christ to every person. That is our task today, and has been our Christian task since the first Pentecost.
Our goal as a Church is to make use of the gifts of the Holy Spirit in our lives, and to use them so that they will produce the fruits of the Holy Spirit each and every day.
Our Church needs that. Our nation needs that. Our world needs that.
Come Holy Spirit. Renew the face of the Earth. Renew the face of our Nation. Renew the face of our Church. May God bless you.
Statement from Bishop Edward C. Malesic on death of George Floyd
Like most people, I too was shocked and saddened by the brutal treatment and death of Mr. George Floyd and join the call for an end to racism. On this Feast of Pentecost, we hear Jesus tell his disciples, “Peace be with you.” We also recall the words of Pope Paul VI, “If you want peace, work for justice.” I support peaceful means to make our voices heard in working to secure justice and peace for all people of all races, colors and creeds.
The joint statement of several bishops, with whom I stand in agreement, is here.
Statement from Bishop David Zubek of the Pittsburgh Diocese
“Watching a peaceful protest against racial injustice break down into violence in Pittsburgh, I am sending out an urgent call for calm as we work for justice. I ask all believers to pray and act for peace, unity and that perfect balance of justice and mercy that is the hallmark of God’s work in our world.
I mourn with the family of George Floyd and all who have lost loved ones to inexcusable violence. I especially pray with and for the members of the African American community.
Racism is a sin. We must all work to overcome the injustice with which this sin infects our society. Some of the protests are occurring near Freedom Corner, which is an historic gathering place to call for unity and the true justice whose fruit is peace. It happens as we Christians prepare to celebrate the Feast of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit’s flames inspired a movement to preach God’s love and mercy — Who is Jesus Himself. May Jesus now give us that peace which only He can give and no one can take away.”
STATEMENT OF MOST REVEREND NELSON J. PÉREZ REGARDING THE DEATH OF GEORGE FLOYD
The hearts of Americans across the country are joined together in collective mourning following the tragic, disturbing, and unnecessary death of George Floyd. In the name of the people of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, I express my prayerful condolences and join with all who are struggling to cope with this heavy burden of sorrow and grief.
Recent events in Minneapolis are a stark reminder that the vile evil of racism has not been stamped out in this country. Rather, it has been resurgent in communities throughout our land for the last several years with old wounds being painfully ripped open time and again.
Racial hatred has no place in our world, including here in the United States, or in the hearts of people. Every life is a precious gift from God. Racism is a mortal sin and an attack on that gift. All of share a responsibility to bring an end to this evil and to do so in a way that seeks justice and peace. The perpetual cycle of pain and anguish must end.
May God give all of us courage and solace as we work together for social justice and to preserve our land as one of equality and opportunity for every citizen. May He bring peace to Minneapolis and to our Philadelphia region and may He rekindle within each of our hearts true love and respect for our fellow human beings.
Bishop Gainer Calls for Peace, End to Racism
HARRISBURG, Pa. – Bishop Ronald W. Gainer released the following statement in response to the brutal killing of Mr. George Floyd, a Minnesota man killed while being arrested by a Minneapolis police officer.
“As a Catholic, I was shocked and saddened by the senseless, brutal treatment and death of Mr. George Floyd. No person should ever be so mistreated, humiliated and murdered because of the color of his or her skin.
“The frustration and anger we are seeing unfold in cities in our Diocese, and across our country, through various protests is understandable. Racism has been and remains a plague in our society as insidious as any virus that sickens us. It affects us individually and as a nation. This is an opportunity that should not be lost. We should all take this moment to listen. Listen to the frustrations. Listen to the fears. Listen to the heartaches. Most of all we need to examine our own conscience regarding the dignity and sanctity of every human life.
“While the frustration is justified, the violence, especially against law enforcement officers, the random destruction of property and the looting is never justified and only leads to much greater losses than gains. This past weekend, we celebrated the Solemnity of Pentecost. When imparting the Holy Spirit, Jesus said to his apostles, “Peace be with you.” It is this peace we all need to bring into our hearts and strive to spread in our communities at this time. I ask the people of our Diocese and all people of good will to work to uproot every form of racism and to bring peace to our hearts and communities.”
HARRISBURG, PA – The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference today responded to reports of residents facing evictions from their homes for not being able to pay rent during the pandemic. The PCC is urging the PA Supreme Court to instruct all courts to continue to follow Governor Wolf’s moratorium on evictions.
“We urge compassion in all instances, but especially now, when people may have lost their livelihoods through no fault of their own,” said Eric Failing, the Executive Director of the PCC. “We certainly understand that landlords need their income, but we urge them to work with their tenants as much as possible during a time when so many people’s lives have been ripped apart by sickness and loss of income. These are not only tenants we’re talking about, they are families.”
Earlier this week in Cambria County, PA, President Judge Norman Krumenacker went against an order by Governor Wolf that had suspended all evictions and foreclosures until July 10. The judge ruled that magisterial courts can begin accepting evictions of any kind. Krumenacker did say that he hopes landlords and tenants can work together to solve their problems before getting the courts involved.
Failing said Catholic Charities in the Altoona-Johnstown Diocese is reaching out to families involved, as well as to Governor Wolf to see if there is anything he can do. Failing praised the work of Catholic Charities across the state and held them up as an example of how we should all be helping our neighbors during these challenging times.
The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference is based in Harrisburg and is the public affairs arm of Pennsylvania’s Catholic bishops.
PA CATHOLIC CONFERENCE PRAISES PA HOUSE FOR PASSING BILL TO STIFFEN PENALTIES FOR THOSE WHO ENCOURAGE SUICIDE
HARRISBURG, PA – The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference today praised the PA House for its passage of HB 1827, which increases criminal penalties for those convicted of aiding or encouraging another person to commit suicide.
“This is a sickening trend that has become all-too common because of the internet,” said Eric Failing, the Executive Director of the PCC. “The wrong people have been getting in the ear of those who are thinking of taking their own lives. These victims should be getting professional help instead of listening to hateful people who only want to harm others. We must send a message to them that this will not be tolerated.”
Failing agreed with the sponsor of the bill, Rep. Dawn Keefer (R-Cumberland, York), who said that those who guide or encourage others to kill themselves are committing murder by proxy. Under Keefer’s bill, penalties would be harsher for anyone who encourages another person to commit suicide who is under the age of 18 or has an intellectual disability.
The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference is based in Harrisburg and is the public affairs arm of Pennsylvania’s Catholic bishops.
PA CATHOLIC CONFERENCE APPLAUDS HOUSE PASSAGE OF BILL TO AMEND FOOD LIABILITY ACT
HARRISBURG, PA – The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference today thanked the PA House for passing House Bill 2477, which amends the Donated Food Liability Act. The bill will protect those who donate food from liability if the food has exceeded its labeled shelf life.
The PCC believes the measure is crucial during the current pandemic and resulting shutdown across the nation.
“While important during ‘normal times,’ HB 2477 is especially important now,” said Eric Failing, the Executive Director of the PCC. “It is becoming even more challenging to meet the increased food requirements of those impacted by the current pandemic. We hope that this clarification will correct the current misconception by many that donating past-date food will place the donor outside the Act’s protection. We salute Rep. David Rowe for his leadership on this issue.”
The action came just weeks after Tyson Foods warned of a meat shortage because of plant closures brought on by the efforts to fight Covid-19. A story published in Business Insider says supermarkets may see shortages for the next year and a half because of plant shutdowns.
The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference is based in Harrisburg and is the public affairs arm of Pennsylvania’s Catholic bishops
By Eric Failing
In late March, Congress passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act for short. In part, it calls for $13.2 billion to be provided for K-12 education across the country, with an estimated $523.8 million for Pennsylvania, according to the U.S. Department of Education. That money has been earmarked for ALL schools in our state. Yet, there are efforts underway by the Wolf administration to try to exclude private schools from the benefits of the CARES Act.
We are urging the U.S. Department of Education not to give in to these demands to squeeze out private school communities, many of which are serving vulnerable children in economically distressed communities throughout the state. These schools, in particular, will likely feel the devastating effects of the COVID-19 shutdown harder than those in wealthier areas.
On May 7, Pennsylvania Education Secretary Pedro Rivera sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Education for clarification on the CARES Act funding. He contends that the current formula would lead to huge increases in funding for “more advantaged students” at the expense of “most disadvantaged students.” He urged the department to clarify the guidance by letting districts set aside a much smaller share of the money. That followed a declaration from the American Federation of Teachers and the School Administrators Association that districts should ignore guidance from the U.S. Department of Education.
Secretary Rivera and these national groups seem intent on assessing the need for students across the state and country on a superficial standard that would be biased and questionable at best, even during normal times. There seems to be a misconception and stereotype that all private schools are rolling in money. Yes, some of them are doing OK, but guess what? So are many public school districts. A random tour of suburban schools in Pennsylvania would reveal modern facilities with up-to-date buildings and adequate land. Meanwhile, there are continued stories of private schools having to close or consolidate because, while they are saving students from failed public school systems in financially distressed communities, they also must address rising costs.
There are some Catholic schools that have been managing to survive financially. But then there are schools like St. Patrick’s Catholic School in Harrisburg. The kids have recess in a 30-square-foot parking lot with a chain-link fence preventing the balls used at recess from going into the alley and hitting the garage next door.
Anna Marie Berry, the school’s finance director, says that most of the students at St. Pat’s receive some form of financial aid. She says the school would not be able to continue without it. Those are students who would have to go back to a failed public school district that, even after going through state receivership, is still in trouble.
It’s a similar situation for Blessed Sacrament School in Erie. “We’re just a population of working-class people, and we’ve got a ton of scholarships,” said Principal Jane Wagner, who said they had to scramble to get iPads for kids to use during the current shutdown. Once again, Erie is dealing with a failing public school system. Private schools in the area have provided a wonderful opportunity for students not only to learn but to thrive.
These are challenges being felt by many private schools, and we are just coming off the biggest economic recovery the United States has ever seen. Who knows what kind of economic climate will be present when the smoke from the shutdown clears? The latest U.S. unemployment report shows 20-million jobs were lost in April. This will almost certainly trickle down to private schools, where families will be forced to withdraw their kids and put them into the public school system. That will, in turn, drive up tuition and force many other families to follow suit. There may be many who will care little about the resulting troubles for private schools, but the question arises: What happens to the public school system when all those children are forced into their classrooms?
So once again, we thank federal officials for respecting the hardships that have been faced and will be faced by administrators, staff, parents and students of private schools. We ask the Wolf administration to do the same.
Governors across the nation were given $3 billion in a discretionary fund to use as they would see fit. Gov. Wolf would get $104.4 million, according to the U.S. Department of Education. The governor indicated in his press conference this week that he is willing to dole out the money to those whom he favors. He can share that money with schools he feels need it the most.
If this truly is an act of “equity,” let’s show that it is by not excluding any students or families based on education politics. Our children are our future, and they deserve better.
Eric Failing is the executive director of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference.
PA CATHOLIC CONFERENCE URGES WOLF ADMINISTRATION TO NOT DIVERT CARES ACT FUNDING FROM PRIVATE SCHOOLS
HARRISBURG, PA — The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference today urged Governor Wolf to halt his administration’s efforts to divert federal CARES Act money away from private schools. Gov. Wolf and the PA Department of Education are looking to take most of the funding that Congress wants distributed equitably in COVID-19 relief to ALL schools in PA and across the country.
Pennsylvania received $471 million in funding from Washington. But PCC Education Director Sean McAleer says “the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) created its own set of rules to distribute that money that blatantly ignores federal guidance. The end result significantly lowers the amounts to be given to Catholic and nonpublic school students.”
McAleer broke down the disparity this way: “the Wolf Administration is calling for roughly $19 million to go to Catholic and nonpublic schools students, while Washington is calling for $66 million. The Wolf administration is misappropriating some $47 million in federal funds and harming families who have chosen to send their children to Catholic and nonpublic schools.”
“Catholic and nonpublic school students matter,” said McAleer. “Mr. Wolf, please follow the federal guidelines! In a time when thousands of Pennsylvania’s children and families are suffering and struggling to make ends meet, the administration has chosen to cause further harm by refusing to allocate money as directed by the federal government.”
Written by Albert Gnoza
This past March was unlike any of us have ever seen, that is for sure. A lot of people’s worlds would be turned upside down. But Catholic schools around the state moved quickly to right their ships.
Right indeed. Those in the right places of leadership saw the right signs and made the right moves.
“It’s just been great teamwork and buy-in by everybody,” said Ben Tolerico, the Principal of Holy Cross High School in Dunmore, PA. “I can still remember, we had an all-day in-service planned for Wednesday, March 11th. I had a great day set up for my faculty, all these different things we were going to do, some speakers coming in. I’m on my way to the girls basketball game, they were playing down in Easton in the second round of the state play-offs. I get there about 5:30 and I look at my phone and see an email. Our Superintendent Kristen Donahue said anything you had planned let’s put on hold and take the whole day tomorrow to work with your faculty on the chance that we might have to go with some form of distance learning.”
Tolerico said that enabled the school to be on top of things right from the get-go. That email came out March 11th, two days before their building was shut down along with all the other school buildings in the state.
“We were able to get our faculty prepared for the plan that we put forward—that our school’s office put forward. So I start with the great leadership in our school’s office with Mr. Jason Morrison, our CEO and the Secretary of Education, Kristen Donahue our Superintendent and Kathy Gilmartin, our Assistant Superintendent. They put out a great plan for us as principals to put in place.”
Tolerico also gave large credit to the way the faculty went with the plan.
“They really took everything in stride. They took the challenge and recognized how important this is for our students and with that we were able to prepare our students and families for that Friday, Friday the 13th ironically, that being the last day that we were in, to kind of say ‘here’s what we’re going to do to move forward.’”
Tolerico talked about the girls basketball game and the fact many activities outside of school have been either put on hold or cancelled.
“Even the little things—from their last day that they are in the building before final exams and they all sign their shirts. They wear their golf shirts, their polo shirts and they sign them. That’s a big tradition at our school. Something like that, which is so small, but so meaningful is taken away on that realm. Athletics, and any kind of activity, but especially athletics is so important in our society and meaningful. Myself, as a former high school and college athlete, I can’t imagine not playing my senior year. I can’t imagine what that looks like and feels like for our students.”
Tolerico also talked with pride about the school’s mock trial team, which won the state last year. They had high hopes again for a repeat last year, but they just found out that has been put on hold, without plans for even a virtual competition.
I have thought on more than a few occasions, that if this pandemic and resulting shutdown would have occurred way back when I was in grade school, who knows how we would have kept up with learning. I shared that thought with Principal Pat Nickler of Geibel Catholic Junior-Senior High School in Connellsville, PA.
“I grew up in Greene County, Pennsylvania, which is very small and very rural. I don’t know if I even would have known if the school was closed,” she said. “We didn’t even have the means for communication of that, to let people know, except over the news. Now we can be in constant communication with students, parents, community, all stakeholders involved in the school.”
The transition to on-line learning at Geibel was made very quickly.
“Things have been going relatively well, considering the situation that we’re all in,” Nickler said. “We found out late on a Friday that schools were going to be closed and we hit the ground running on Monday, so our students have had quite a bit of time to adjust to this new way of delivering instruction and the teachers and students seem to be adjusting pretty well.”
Nickler said that Geibel has had a one-to-one device environment for the past five years, which made it easier to transition. She also said it’s been their second year in using a learning management system.
“And fortunately for us, the State of Pennsylvania had permitted the use of flex days to cover snow days this year, so we had submitted a plan for that. We already had the ground work then for remote learning because we just adjusted that. You can’t use that one every day for 45 days…but we did have that basic foundation already built for that.
The big challenge for administrators now is trying to make this a special time for seniors and those moving on to a new school or the next level.
“Of course, it’s a tremendous milestone in the lives of students,” Nickler said. “Our goal when this all started is ‘how do we continue to reach out students spiritually?’ And how do we continue to deliver a rigorous faith-based education virtually. So those were our top two priorities when we were starting out with this. Then you start to look at those types of things, like senior graduation and the different traditions that lead up to that. So we are planning—right now we have a different senior every day on our social media pages, with information about then, where they’re attending college and those things…We have secret yard bomb signs that we’re putting up in their yards.”
When I talked to Nickler she said they had not yet cancelled the in-person graduation ceremony. All they did was take the ceremony that was scheduled for May 29th and reschedule it for July, with a follow-up date in August if needed.
In talking with Catholic school principals across the state over the last couple of weeks, I have been inspired by their upbeat attitudes in the face of challenging times. The level of empathy and affection for their students has also been great to see.
That is especially evident at Our Lady of Peace School in Erie with Principal Lisa Panighetti, who gets my eternal gratitude for cheerily shrugging off the fact that I misspelled her name at first (I used an ‘a’ instead of the first ‘i’).
“Things have been going great. We’re pleasantly surprised with the way that things have turned out,” she said. “Our teachers have really embraced this new way of learning from the get-go. For a difficult situation I have to say that we’re doing the best that we can.”
In their case the transition from in-school to on-line learning went pretty quickly.
“We found out on a Friday. It was Friday, March 13th that we found out that we were going to be shut down for at least two weeks. That afternoon we had a faculty meeting to talk about what that would look like and we were essentially up and running with some form of on-line learning…We had it up and running on Monday, the 16th. We’ve had to continue to make tweaks and streamline things since then but we were delivering instructions via Zoom videos or You Tube videos and reaching out to the kids right away Monday morning. It was a pretty seamless transition, even though we weren’t really prepared to do that. But the teachers really took the bull by the horns and ran with it.”
The effort continues to plan what they can do the rest of the school year outside the virtual classroom. Sports and other activities have been cancelled but there are other end-of-the-year activities that Our Lady of Peace would like to salvage.
“That’s the tough part, because there is still so much unknown,” said Panaghetti. “Hopefully we’ll be able to have some kind of graduation ceremony for those kids that are moving on to the next level. Right now we’re looking at doing it virtually, not the whole ceremony but potentially a prayer service of sorts and to recognize those kids that are moving on in some fashion. And then with any luck we’ll be able to do something a little more traditional, we’re hoping in July or August. But it’s so hard to put a time frame on it right now. We just know that we’re not going to overlook this important time for them, at all. No matter how far ahead we’re going to have to push it, we’re going to go with it.”
Panaghetti gave a lot of thanks and credit to the teachers and to the parents.
“We’re thankful. We have so many parents that are involved and have provided such valuable feedback. We’re just ironing out the complaints. We miss the kids like crazy and we’re doing what we can to stay in touch but honestly, it is what it is. But we’re making the best of it!”
There have been two main variables to deal with in the successful transition to on-line learning across Pennsylvania—students having some type of computer at home and the teachers being able to make the adjustment in delivering their lessons.
St. John Neumann Regional Academy in Williamsport was in a good position with both of them.
“We were one-to-one, meaning each student did have a device,” said St. John Neumann Principal Alisia McNamee. “At the high school our teachers were trained and many of them had already used Google Classroom which made that a really easy transition for those students.”
McNamee said that one of their goals was to teach the students how to use the school’s informational system where they can get on and check grades and assignments.
“Already doing that throughout the year, it was a much easier transition for our students—already having that familiarity with our school informational system and where to find the information. Then we simply trained our teachers to make sure everything was posted in that system that both teachers and students had access to.”
McNamee gave a big hand to the Superintendent of Catholic Schools for the Diocese of Scranton, Kristen Donahue, for having the schools prepared for a shutdown.
“We already had an in-service day scheduled for Wednesday, March 11th,” McNamee said. “Our Superintendent Kristen reached out to us and told us that we needed to prepare teachers for ‘if this could happen.’ Our in-service actually turned into that preparation time with our teachers, which was truly a blessing in disguise, because then we were able to have some type of basis to come into this huge undertaking. If it had not been for the foresight of our new administration in the diocese, I think we’d be looking at an entirely different situation.”
McNamee also had the highest praise for the teachers.
“Through all of this they had to start finding what worked for them. Start using different programs and different platforms. Doing the trial and error that we always teach our students to do, never giving up. It’s really a credit to our teachers for being willing to do that and keep that going.”
Berks Catholic High School was in a good position to transition to on-line learning when schools were shut down several weeks ago.
Still, some adjustments had to be made.
“About four years ago our school went one-to-one with I-pads,” said Alice Einolf, the Principal at Berks Catholic. “We are using Canvas as our student information system. So while we did have the infra-structure and the background in place we were not teaching on-line and so we did have to move forward in a very different way.”
When technology comes into play it seems like kids are better able to adapt to its use than say, us folks that can remember it not being so prevalent. It’s just the way it is.
“One of the things we did right after we were quarantined was to get our teachers some professional development,” Einolf said. “People are all at different places with their internet and their teaching abilities and their ability to use on-line but we were blessed to be able to provide some individual development for our teachers so that they were prepared and ready to go and had video conferencing so they could use software things like Doceri, an interactive white board that they could put on line.”
Social media has come into play in a big way during the shutdown as well.
“We really wanted to have a high social media presence to let people know what we are doing. Bill Hess is our Assistant Principal and Athletic Director and he loves the sports and he has been doing a wonderful job, especially for our seniors who—my heart aches for them. They need to be recognized a little bit differently this year.”
Einolf says that a few days ago the school’s coaches had senior night. They went to the seniors’ homes and dropped off flowers or gifts. The athletes also got pictures taken—safely–with their parents just as they would have on the court or on the field.
Many of the Catholic schools around the state were in a good position to adapt to on-line learning in March because their students all had some kind of laptop computer. Some others had to scramble to equip kids with these devices.
“We’re just a population of working-class people and we’ve got a ton of scholarships,” said Jane Wagner, the Principal of Blessed Sacrament School in Erie. “We ended up lending out Chrome books and I-pads for our kids to use so we knew everybody had that same capacity at home to do on-line learning.”
Wagner gave a lot of credit to her teachers, who had to do a lot of learning about on-line teaching as well.
“My teachers really stepped it up and that first couple of days it kind of sunk into them that yeah, we’re really going to do this. I had a couple of teacher melt-downs, but I had to be a cheerleader and say ‘we can do this. It’s okay!'”
They started rolling out instruction through their parent information system. Wagner says it was not a problem for the older students in grades 5th through 8th because the kids were used to the portal and had been using it frequently.
“The younger kids, not so much, because they don’t use it as often,” Wagner said. “The parents do. But the kids don’t. We had to do a little instructional thing with them…We had a lot of anxiety with the Zoom meetings and just like the whole nation was, ‘is it legal to use this?'”
A lot of logistics. And stress.
“I thrive on this stuff. I guess that’s why I became a principal,” Wagner said. “I love that kind of flying by the seat of my pants feeling!”
She made a good point about how this has been a different kind of work for everyone, not just educators. Working from home prevents calling out to the next person’s office or yelling down the hall.
“Now I have to make a phone call or a text or an email and wait for a reply. So I guess it’s the logistics which have made it a longer day for me, which is exhausting.”
She’s also been empathizing with parents.
“I have four children. They’re all grown. We’re empty-nesters, my husband and I. I’ve had to really put myself in the place of the parents….Oh yeah, picture yourself with your four girls all trying to do school at home and I was like ‘yeah, that would not be fun! I would not want to be there!'”
We’ve been thoroughly impressed at how the Catholic schools around Pennsylvania have kept up instruction with few or no days off after the shutdown. This came as many public schools took at least two weeks off.
One of the schools that kept on top of learning and didn’t miss a beat was Lancaster Catholic High School. I got some insight from what all led to this from L.C.H.S. Principal Terry Klugh and President Tim Hamer.
“Back in 2014 the state opened up for short time, a window into kind of emergency off-site learning,” said Klugh. “It was geared around the idea of a snow day. We were allowed by our diocese to pilot in 2014 some kind of snow-day learning and we actually did do a couple of days and in order to do that we had to do a lot of planning–homework requirements, attendance requirements, how teachers would adjust.”
Administrators knew it was there and would occasionally talk with the faculty about its function and how to develop it. It was always with bad weather in mind, certainly not a pandemic.
Then last summer the Governor signed into law the bill introduced by Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill (R-York) to allow schools to use–if they chose to–flexible instructional days. To their credit, Catholic schools across the state were on this very quickly.
“We got the whole snow day thing ready again,” said Klugh. “We practiced for it. We in-serviced for it. We were ready to go. We didn’t have a snow day but we were ready to use it again.”
“Obviously the key to the whole thing is that our school is a one-to-one school, all students are issued tablet devices, Google Chrome books is what they are,” said Hamer. “And then when it became apparent that second week in March that something might happen we did a couple of in-service days for both teachers and students leading up to that week before the shutdown was announced.”
Not the best news short-term for kids looking for two or three weeks of sleeping in til 2 p.m., but a good thing in the long run. Yeah, grumble, grumble. Been there.
‘It’s a challenge. There’s nothing easy about it,” said Hamer. “For teachers adapting…in some cases the way they’ve been teaching, the methods they’ve been employing for decades, adapting to this new environment is certainly a challenge.”
To their credit administrators, realized that students might be sharing computer or wifi time with other members of their family, so they prepared the lessons where kids could do it any time of the day. Okay, so maybe they could still sleep in til noon. (But it’s probably best not to!)
Much of the focus now continues to be on what they can’t replace with virtual learning–the end-of-the-year rituals for the students, especially those who are graduating.
“Our hearts are breaking for our seniors,” said Klugh. “As each week ticks off they miss a Catholic High tradition, something else they missed, some breakfast, the last musical, the last play, spring sports. The last things that are ticking off… they’re just missing. Our heart is really breaking for them. We’re trying. We’re really meeting over what we can do about that.”
Klugh says they’ve been having special graduation team meetings to talk about the possibilities and finding solutions.
In talking with Catholic school principals around the state it seemed like the key to making the transition to on-line learning in March was having a one-to-one situation with the students. That is, each student had their own laptop computer.
“We’ve been one-to-one for five years now,” said Ben Althof, the Principal of Greensburg Central Catholic High School. He says they experimented with different versions of on-line programs before they went with the Enterprise version, which they have using for the last year and half.
“This year when it became available we jumped on the opportunity to apply for the flexible instruction days for snow days. We were fortunate, I guess, to have one. We had one snow day on Friday before all this started which gave us a chance to test run the program we had developed and make sure that there were no real kinks.”
Althof says they gave the teachers and parents a day to get ready but they started teaching the very next day and haven’t missed one since.
“We were one of the few schools in the county (to be active immediately) so all of our kids’ friends took two-plus weeks of basically doing nothing.”
Althof says the effort was made to maintain normalcy as much as possible. They tried to keep as much of the regular routine as they could. While things are running smoothly in that regard, there is a lot up in the air as far as what is going on with end-of-the-year activities, including graduation.
“We’ve been brainstorming ways to reschedule or do something in the summer, but we don’t know. Nobody knows anything. The only thing I know would be–non-medical or professional–my guess would be as things start to reopen, they’re not going to start with large-group gatherings. We can give you an alternative date for a prom and a venue. We could do it in our school for sure. We go back and forth. Do we schedule those things to give glimmers of hope that we know we’re going to have to dash or do we just have everybody face the music.”
School administrators may be used to making changes here and there, but this was a pretty dramatic change. It was in mid-March that Governor Wolf was shutting down all schools in Pennsylvania.
No one knew for how long at the time, but schools like Notre Dame High School of Easton were not waiting around to find out.
“We made a very quick pivot from traditional in-school education to using a virtual platform,” said Andrew D’Angelo, the Principal of Notre Dame. “It came together quickly and was executed pretty quickly. We were very pleased with what we put out there for our kids and our families.”
The schools had actually gotten a boost from the state and lawmakers, when Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill’s (R-York) bill passed this past summer that allowed for the use of flexible instructional days.
“We had already created the framework of a plan for doing on-line education in the event that we had a lot of snow days,” D’Angelo said. “Once we moved to the on-line platform we were just able to enhance what we created for those flexible instructional days.”
D’Angelo acknowledges that seniors are still having a tough time dealing with the shutdown since they are not able to experience the traditional rite-of-passage activities. The spring athletes have also been greatly affected, having their entire season wiped out.
Plans for graduation, meanwhile, are still up in the air.
“We’re trying to be very kind of cautious before we make any definitive decisions. There are lots of ideas being thrown around, obviously a virtual graduation, a drive-in graduation. I did send out a note to our seniors saying I was committed to doing everything I could to get them an actual live graduation. It won’t be in June as we had originally scheduled, but maybe over the summer or even the possibility of doing it in December when all the kids are home from college.”
D’Angelo stressed that he has been incredibly impressed with the parents, the faculty, the kids and how they have all come together and been extremely supportive of one another.
You have to give a ton of credit to our Catholic school administrators across the state. They had much of the groundwork in place before the schools were shut down in March and they could see what was happening in the distance.
“We had an inkling that this was going to happen so we began the preparation process,” said Nancy Pierce, the Principal of St. Gregory School outside of Erie. “On Tuesday, March 17th, we organized a pick-up of I-pads and materials for all grade levels and then on Wednesday the 18th we started posting student lessons on class Dojo and then on Monday, March 23rd we started doing Zoom sessions so we would have some live interaction with the students.”
Maybe I’m missing something, but I don’t see a day off or lag in between there. That’s impressive. I’ve seen and heard similar stories in so many of our Catholic schools. And there is attention to more than just the virtual classroom part of it.
At St. Gregory they kept the observance of Earth Day.
“Every day is Earth Day,” Pierce said. “We offered students suggestions on what they could do for the earth, maybe it’s praying for the earth or planting a garden at your own house or starting composting, or creating cleaning products that are environmentally friendly.”
And she’s going to try to keep up the observance of end-of-the-year activities as well. What that means yet, she’s not sure.
“It is a little bit early to call. We are making some plans, even if we can do some kind of celebration for the students, if it’s a prayer service if things come to change with our opportunities to get a little bit closer to each other. We may have a mass for the students. We have a team. We have a graduation committee of teachers. We’re brainstorming ideas that are acceptable in this time of the virus.”
Pierce had a great amount of praise for her staff for jumping in and embracing the remote learning. She said she’s also very proud of the families who continue to support the school and work with them during this trying time.
How are things going at Holy Redeemer High School in Wilkes Barre?
“So far, so good,” says Principal Doreen Dougherty. “Our biggest efforts were trying to mobilize through distance learning in a relatively quick time period.”
That happened in March when the Governor shut down schools across the state. Dougherty says they were fortunate that the Wednesday before the shutdown, they had an in-service day.
“Sort of seeing some of the potential for time-off, we took the opportunity that day to engage in some professional development with the faculty to make sure that they were readily able to upload distance learning and communicate with families. So by Thursday when we reconvened as a school community we really began to address the accessibility issues.”
Dougherty credited the Diocese of Scranton for blazing a trail toward STREAM education (Science, Technology, Religion, Engineering, Arts and Math) and easing the transition to on-line learning.
“We were already moving toward the one-on-one learning environment with devices available for our students. So our freshman and sophomores all had devices. Thursday we began interviewing students to make sure that our juniors and seniors had devices and had wireless accessibility.”
I talked with Dougherty about the morale of the students. Administrators of PA Catholic schools that I have talked with have kept up two-way communication with students and their families.
“Early on when we dismissed on March 13th, it felt a little like summer break,” she said. ‘There was some hooting and hollering down the halls. Students expected at that point to have a week off from school. Certainly, reality set in. I will say that for all the challenges that social media presents in society, it has been a godsend in keeping students connected and keeping families connected. Truly, it opened doors where we could not open doors for one another.”
Dougherty is not looking at a live graduation ceremony at this point but is planning on a virtual event. She says there is the possibility then for a live gathering as a community somewhere down the road.
PA CATHOLIC CONFERENCE APPLAUDS HOUSE PASSAGE OF MARRIAGE ACT
HARRISBURG, PA — The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference applauds today’s passage of House Bill 360, which, in addition to addressing some covid-19 related concerns, establishes 18 as the minimum age for marriage in Pennsylvania. The bill has been supported by the PCC since its inception, particularly as a means to help fight human trafficking.
“This is good legislation for a number of reasons—first and foremost that it will help to end a problem in the law that has allowed girls as young as 12 to be married in PA,” said PCC Executive Director Eric Failing. “This can place them in a dangerous situation where they can be victims of domestic violence and exploited in sex trafficking. Advocates believe there are over 2,000 children who have been married in Pennsylvania.”
The PCC has supported several measures designed to fight human trafficking, including the Safe-Harbor law that passed last session and the Buyer Beware act that passed earlier this session.
Failing thanked the sponsor of the bill, Sen. Jesse Topper (R-Bedford, Franklin, Fulton) for his leadership and persistence on seeing the bill through.
Pennsylvania is one of 27 states that do not have a minimum age to marry. Currently, the state permits a minor under age 16 to marry with parental consent and a court determination that the marriage is in the best interest of the minor. The law also permits a 16 or 17 year old to marry with only parental consent.
The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference is based in Harrisburg and is the public affairs arm of Pennsylvania’s Catholic bishops
PCC LAMENTS GOVERNOR’S VETO OF TELEMEDICINE BILL
HARRISBURG, Pa. — The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference today lamented Governor Wolf’s veto of the Telemedicine Bill that had passed the House and Senate.
“This is very distressing,” said Eric Failing, the Executive Director of the PCC. “Governor Wolf has chosen politics over the health and safety of the citizens of Pennsylvania. Telemedicine figured to be a major boost to healthcare across the state, especially now in the current crisis we are fighting through. The Governor vetoed the bill because it contained protections against dangerous drugs identified by the FDA, including a drug used for abortions.”
Failing had called the Telemedicine bill the premier pro-life vote of the entire session. He pointed out that a third of all abortions being done now are done so chemically. “If our pro-life prohibitions would be stripped out of the Telemedicine bill, the number of abortions in Pennsylvania would increase dramatically. Using Telemedicine for abortions is a stated goal for Planned Parenthood because they can do more chemical abortions with fewer doctors and less overhead costs.”
Who would have thought that preparation for using snow days to educate grade school kids would have such an impact on schools in a year where there really wasn’t that much snow across Pennsylvania? Yet preparation for bad weather actually left many PA Catholic schools in a good position to keep educating once Governor Wolf shut all schools down in March.
“We’ve actually done great,” said Jennifer Mallett, the Head of School of St. Joseph’s Catholic Academy in Boalsburg. “While it’s not optimal to not be in school in our physical building with all our kids, we’re finding all sorts of new and unique ways to stay connected with them. We have Zoom meetings with them frequently. Teachers are having Zoom meetings with them. We use Google Classroom. We’re meeting with the parents. We haven’t missed a beat!”
Mallett says they’ve used this type of on-line learning for snow days, so they’ve just had to make “a few little tweaks.”
“We changed the schedule just a little bit. Monday through Thursday they’re doing their core classes, which is about five classes and then Friday is an all-electives day…the hours are 11-7. The kids are missing school and missing each other but we’re also having fun and being creative.”
There was still a lot of work and planning to be done to keep things running smoothly. That continues.
“We as a faculty have really collaborated. We meet every Tuesday and talk about tips and tricks about what we’ve learned and what’s working well. The faculty is amazing, the way we’ve all jumped to make sure the kids are connected. The kids in this community–I’ve only been here two years–I have to be honest, one of the reasons I chose to come here was because of the student body. They’ve been amazing and parents have been supportive.”
When the big shutdown hit across the state several weeks ago, Bishop Carroll High School in Ebensburg didn’t stop. They merely shifted gears. The groundwork was already in place for on-line learning since the school was in a “one-to-one” situation.
“Each student has their own laptop that they are able to access any teacher at any time, with questions about the content that has been pushed out to students.” said Bishop Carroll Principal Lorie Ratchford. “Because our students were so familiar with submitting assignments electronically and working platforms like Microsoft Teams and Canvas, we had a little bit of a head start on everyone. We already had everything up and running.”
Bishop Carroll was one of many Catholic schools that had been looking ahead to the five days of flexible instruction days as snow make-up days.
“It was and still is a process…This wasn’t meant to be long-term for us, but our teachers, our students, families– everyone has been working hard to make sure that we’re all on the same page to continue their education. We’re not doing enrichment and review. We’re continuing as we would if we were in our brick and mortar school.”
It’s easy to hear the affection and concern that Ratchford has for the students as the staff tries to keep things as normal as possible for the kids. But her heart breaks for what they still are missing.
“When you even say it, it makes me so emotional because I’ve know a lot of these students since they’ve been in grade school. I have a daughter that is right around their age. She was fortunate to graduate last year and had a wonderful experience at Bishop Carroll. I know our students here have had a wonderful experience, I’m just sad that they have missed out on the last three months of their senior year.”
When Governor Wolf shut down schools across the country back in March, Catholic schools like Bishop McCort High School in Johnstown were ready.
“Our parents, teachers and students have had to adapt to this new type of learning, on-line and I’m going to be honest with you, they’ve really taken to it,” said Tom Smith, who is the Principal and CAO of Bishop McCort High School and Divine Mercy Middle School. “We’ve put out some tutorials (for parents) that they’ve had to look at and follow along with and they’ve been able to do that in helping their children at home.”
Smith said they key part is the teachers, who he says have been working much longer hours than usual.
“For the teaching staff here, it’s been a major adjustment but one that they’ve been willing to take on and one that they’ve taken great pride in,” Smith said. “It’s how you adapt to things and they’ve done a tremendous job.”
McCort got the jump on things way back in October when they started looking at virtual classrooms in preparation for snow days.
“We didn’t want to take any snow days this year and the state is allowing us to take five virtual days instead of snow days'” Smith said. “We thought that would have been a really great thing for our school…So this is not something new to them but we figured back in January when we saw in the national news what was happening in China and when it started moving this way we thought hey, this would be a great tool. Let’s get ready in case this happens.”
Smith said the school is keeping its options open for graduation, including looking at a drive-in theater for a possible venue.
“We’re trying to think outside the box, using that venue for graduation.”
PCC APPLAUDS PA SENATE FOR PASSING TELEMEDICINE BILL IN SAFE FORM
HARRISBURG, Pa. — The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference today applauded the PA Senate passage of Senate Bill 857–Telemedicine– in a form that retains current protections against dangerous drugs identified by the FDA, including a drug used for abortions.
“Telemedicine promises to be a life-saving measure across Pennsylvania,” said the Executive Director of the PCC, Eric Failing. “There is no doubt about that. We thank the senators who voted to keep Telemedicine as a completely life-saving bill.”
“This was, without a doubt, the premier pro-life vote of the entire session,” Failing continued. “It is sad that some chose to politicize the issue by arguing that only some lives are worth saving and those of the unborn are not.”
Failing pointed out that a third of all abortions being done now are done so chemically. “If our pro-life prohibitions would be stripped out of the Telemedicine bill, the number of abortions in Pennsylvania would increase dramatically. Using Telemedicine for abortions is a stated goal for Planned Parenthood because they can do more chemical abortions, with fewer doctors and less overhead costs.”
Failing called on Governor Wolf to sign the bill.
“The Governor tells us every day how much he cares about human lives,” Failing said. “Now is the time to set aside politics and sign a bill into law that will save lives.”
If you would like to talk with Mr. Failing by phone or FaceTime, please contact Al Gnoza on his cellphone (717) 585-1548— any day, any time.
PCC EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OFFERS THOUGHTS ON COMMEMORATION OF HOLOCAUST
HARRISBURG, Pa. — The Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, Eric Failing, today issued some heartfelt comments to honor the Commemoration of the Holocaust. He started off by acknowledging the hardships that we face now.
“While these are no doubt challenging times, they pale in comparison to the many tragedies faced by those who’ve gone before us,” Failing said. “That is why now, more than ever, we must continue to gather as brothers and sisters to remember the monstrous hate endured by our loved ones, and to vow to never let future generations suffer the same fate. Hate must stop.”
Back in October Failing stood with a number of lawmakers and community groups to roll out a concerted effort to curb hate crimes. That gathering came just after the one-year anniversary of the tragic Tree of Life shootings that took the lives of 11 people and injured seven others.
Failing, as he did in October, today urged people across the world to treat each other with compassion. That message is especially important now with tensions running high in many communities during the current healthcare crisis.
“At the end of the day, what we really need is to get to know one another,” Failing said. “You can’t hate somebody if you know them. But you’re not going to stop hate. It will never disappear; the world has too much evil in it. So it is incumbent upon all of us, each individual, to, as we hear in Leviticus, love thy neighbor as yourself…and yes, perhaps that means someone you’re not comfortable with…it might mean we develop a deeper understanding of humanity; it might mean we understand ourselves a little differently; but in the end, isn’t that the point? To understand each other? Only when we truly understand one another do we defeat hatred. “
PCC JOINS U.S. CATHOLIC BISHOPS IN CALLING FOR ETHICALLY-BASED VACCINES TO COMBAT COVID-19
HARRISBURG, Pa. — The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference today joined Catholic bishops from around the nation in calling for the development and use of ethically-based vaccines to combat COVID-19. Catholic doctrine has long opposed the use of vaccines that have used tissue harvested from abortions.
“We are in a critical point of trying to save lives, not only here but across the world,” said Eric Failing, the Executive Director of the PCC. “But we cannot resort to capitalizing on the evil that is abortion–the killing of children. Several of the vaccines under development have been obtained from other sources which will allow us to continue to respect the sanctity of life and hopefully preserve -all- life.”
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops on Friday sent a letter (which can be read here) to the Food and Drug Administration asking that vaccines for COVID-19 be developed ethically and free from any connection to abortion.
“There is no need to use ethically problematic cell lines to produce a COVID-19 vaccine, or any vaccine,” the bishops stated in their letter. “Other cell lines or processes that do not involve cells from abortions are available and are regularly being used.”
No American should be forced to choose between being vaccinated and violating his or her conscience.
If you would like to talk with Mr. Failing by phone or FaceTime, please contact Al Gnoza on his cellphone (717) 585-1548— any day, any time.
PCC CRITICIZES PLANNED PARENTHOOD FOR PROVIDING ABORTION SERVICES DURING ELECTIVE PROCEDURE BAN
HARRISBURG, Pa. — The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference today criticized Planned Parenthood for continuing to provide abortion services, despite the fact that Governor Wolf has issued an order that prohibits all healthcare providers from performing elective procedures during the current crisis.
“Abortions are wrong anytime–let’s be clear about that,” said Eric Failing, the Executive Director of the PCC. “But that is especially true now during a time of pandemic crisis when our healthcare workers and emergency responders are suffering from shortages of workers and equipment. Allowing Planned Parenthood to perform elective abortions is abhorrent.”
The PCC has received reports that Planned Parenthood has been bringing in patients for abortion procedures and has been asking for donations of healthcare equipment that could be used by hospitals to treat sick people.
“Everybody has been sacrificing during this crisis–that includes residents and businesses,” said Failing. “Everybody, it appears, except Planned Parenthood!”
If you would like to talk with Mr. Failing by phone or FaceTime, please contact Al Gnoza on his cellphone (717) 585-1548— any day, any time.
I did a virtual visit with the Ecker family this morning–Rep. Torren and his son Oliver! Lol. I asked dad about comments made in House session yesterday by Majority Leader Bryan Cutler on mapping out a recovery from this crisis. Ecker firmly supported those comments.
Posted by Pennsylvania Catholic Conference on Wednesday, April 8, 2020
Thanks to our good friend, Rep. Paul Schemel, for updating us on what's going on with the PA House. They head into session this afternoon, some in person and some remotely. Schemel says lawmakers will be talking about what lies ahead for a safe recovery from this crisis.
Posted by Pennsylvania Catholic Conference on Monday, April 6, 2020
Early this morning, Rep. Ryan Warner posted a request on Facebook to Gov. Wolf on behalf of small businesses owners in PA. Check it out. It has gotten thousands and thousands of shares, likes and comments. I talked with Ryan about it over the phone this afternoon.
Posted by Pennsylvania Catholic Conference on Tuesday, April 7, 2020
I miss seeing my friend Rep. Pam DeLissio at the Capitol but I got the chance to talk with her over the phone to get an update on what she has been doing, including responding to her constituents. She just had a virtual town hall gathering this week and continues to respond to waves of emails! She offered some encouraging news on unemployment compensation.
Posted by Pennsylvania Catholic Conference on Friday, April 3, 2020
This morning I talked with the indefatigable and always gracious Sen. Doug Mastriano over the phone about what he's been doing amid this crisis. Among the topics discussed were how to get small businesses up and running safely and the Governor's allowance of Planned Parenthood to stay operating while he has prohibited elective surgery across the state.
Posted by Pennsylvania Catholic Conference on Thursday, April 2, 2020
Thanks so much to PA Rep. Barbara Gleim who talked with me on Zoom this morning about what she and other lawmakers are doing to work for small businesses across the state. They are really feeling the economic effects of this crisis. Thanks again to Barbara for always being so kind and accessible! (And I apologize for the wheel icon in the upper left corner–my fault!)
Posted by Pennsylvania Catholic Conference on Thursday, April 2, 2020
Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill talked with PCC Executive Director Eric Failing and the PCC's Al Gnoza about the questions she is getting from people and businesses during this crisis. She offers encouragement but also some stark realities about the state budget down the road.
Posted by Pennsylvania Catholic Conference on Wednesday, April 1, 2020
A FaceTime chat today with our friend, PA Sen. Judy Ward! She talked about the current crisis and reminds us that faith is always very important, but especially so in times like these. Thank you Senator! (I apologize to you viewers if my voice is too loud–improvised system here.)
Posted by Pennsylvania Catholic Conference on Tuesday, March 31, 2020
Thanks so much to Sen. Scott Martin for taking the time to talk with me on the phone about what he and his staff have been doing to help people during this crisis. Sen. Martin is a big friend to the PCC!
Posted by Pennsylvania Catholic Conference on Tuesday, March 31, 2020
Noon Mass From St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Private mass for broadcast only!
The budget hearings at the Capitol in Harrisburg have wrapped up and it will soon be time for discussion and debate. At the crux of the debate will be the age-old difference in philosophy between Republicans and Democrats: Republicans say the Governor is overspending. Democrats generally feel the legislature is underfunding.
“We learned that we really have to unpack this budget because there are a lot of moving pieces and gimmicks that were kind of plastered together to put this budget together,” said Rep. Seth Grove (R-York). “Everything from unreal revenue sources to moving overspending to last year and the next fiscal year. Just in DHS (Department of Human Services) alone, they’re showing $453-million of overspending, but there’s an additional $300-million they’re applying to next year’s budget as well.”
“Year after year we see less and less detail in the Governor’s budget policies,” said Rep. Stan Saylor (R-York), Majority Chair of the House Appropriations Committee, in his closing statement after one of the days of hearings. “The lack of details often so stunning that we were left questioning whether these proposals were really real, or really a priority of this administration…One of the biggest concerns continues to be supplementals and the overspending of this administration.”
Several Republican representatives talked about the extensive requests by the Governor for those supplementals, which refers to funding needed beyond what has been budgeted. But Rep. Saylor saved his sharpest criticisms for DHS.
“Yesterday the Department of Human Services sounded the alarm of an agency that has run amok. And I mean run amok,” Saylor said at the close of the final day of hearings. “The department has admitted that the overrun cost for the current fiscal year, I think, is over $800-million—not the $500-million that was reported in the Governor’s budget document. DHS has achieved this failure by pushing this year’s costs into next year’s budget…the kinds of gimmicks that we see all the time in these budgets that really continue to create real financial issues for the state of Pennsylvania.
“We understand at times that things happen in a fiscal year. Record numbers of supplemental spending, though, just needs more and more definition to the logic.”
Minority Chair Matt Bradford (D-Montgomery) conceded that there have been creative budget tactics used by the Governor’s office, but he says they have been given no choice.
“This has been going on forever,” Bradford said in his closing statement. “So it is in disingenuous to try to blame career officials and say ‘oh my gosh, you overspent.’ Come on! We underfund these lines habitually. And it is obvious.”
Bradford went down the same avenue the day before when DHS had finished its presentation.
“They say it’s overspending, with a connotation of mismanagement,” said Bradford, referring to complaints by Republicans on the Appropriations Committee. “What I believe is going on is the intentional underfunding of mandated spending for political purposes.”
High School band on top…7th and 8th grade below
The Archdiocesan All Stars come to the Capitol for a performance. These are the high school students.
Posted by Pennsylvania Catholic Conference on Monday, March 9, 2020
— PAcatholic (@PAcatholic) March 9, 2020
Time for a wrap up of what went on at the PA Capitol this past week. It was mostly budget hearings!
Posted by Pennsylvania Catholic Conference on Friday, March 6, 2020
I recently checked in with Congressman Scott Perry (PA, 10th District) to find out what he was up to these days, now that the impeachment stuff has ended–at least for the time being. Turns out he’s been busy working on the peoples’ business. One of his efforts involves a bill to cut down on student debt.
“Student loan debt now in America…it’s bigger than mortgage debt. It is bigger than credit card debt,” Perry told me on a recent visit to his office just outside of Harrisburg. “This is a huge deal.”
Perry acknowledges that many students feel they can’t afford to go to college, or find out that once they are done school, they can’t afford to pay for it. If they pay the student loans, it hurts their ability to buy a house or a car to get to work.
The Congressman is not in the camp of those who feel the answer is to forgive existing student loan debt or to make college free. He’s looking at making it so the colleges and universities have some skin in the game when it comes to student loans.
“Right now you have the student and the parent, they’re on the hook for the bill,” Perry said. “And because of the way things are structured with student loans, taxpayers are now on the hook for the bill if you default on the loan. That’s not fair. You know who has no skin in the game–universities, who are offering their product…to have a better life, of more opportunity. But then when you get done, you find out there is no opportunity with the curriculum you spent your time and money on.”
Perry’s legislation would offer a reduced interest rate on a student’s college loan if the school is willing to co-sign that loan. He says it’s good for the student and provides an incentive for the school to prepare the student to get a job once they head off into the real world so they can pay off the loan.
“It’s not a perfect fit for everything. It doesn’t fix everything, but I think it starts changing the conversation about who’s involved in paying for it and the value of your education.”
Perry says it’s a way of thinking outside the box to try to solve the problem.
“What business among us is absolved once you pay for it of any liability for the product?” he asked. “If you bought something that didn’t work and you paid a lot of money for it, you take it back to the store. Well when you buy an education and it doesn’t work, who do you take it back to?’
The PA Catholic Conference has been keeping its eye on the budget hearings in Harrisburg, which have been going on for a couple of weeks now. The different departments in the Wolf Administration are going before the House and Senate Appropriations Committees to explain– and many times to defend—what the Governor has called for.
The PCC and many pro-life lawmakers and advocates have been concerned about a line in the budget that calls for $3-million in funding for reproductive health care. The fear was that it would go toward Planned Parenthood and therefore toward abortion.
That turned out to be correct.
The Secretary of the Department of Human Services, Theresa Miller, defended her request and conceded that it was to replace federal funding that Planned Parenthood had lost. Miller insisted that the $3-million would not be used for abortions. It would be used for other services, like STD testing, contraception, cancer screenings and primary healthcare.
Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill (R-York) pressed Miller on the issue on Wednesday in the Senate Appropriations Committee hearing.
“I’m very happy to hear you say on the record that the $3-million will not go toward abortion services,” Sen. Phillips-Hill said. “On the belief that it would provide tax-payer funded abortions.
“How do you differentiate between the types of services that Planned Parenthood provides,” she continued. “How do you tell them what they can and can not use the $3-million for? Are there any restrictions on how that money can be used?”
Miller said Planned Parenthood offices have to certify that they separate abortion services from all other family planning services.
I later talked with Sen. Doug Mastriano (R-Adams, Cumberland, Franklin, York) who was not buying Miller’s explanation.
“Why in the world are we going to subsidize an organization whose number one goal is the murder of unborn babies?” he said. “That’s what they do. All the other stuff—the screenings, the birth control items—that’s such a minor part of what they do. They make money off of abortions. ..Planned Parenthood promises not to use that $3-million for abortions. I got a bridge to sell you in Brooklyn if you believe that.”
Meanwhile on Thursday it was Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera who fielded a number of tough questions and complaints about the budget. There was a lot of criticism from several Senators over cuts to school safety. They PCC is also very much against those cuts.
Sen. David Argall (R-Berks, Schuylkill) did not mince words in expressing his dissatisfaction. He referred to the proposed cuts as “kuhscheisse,” the Pennsylvania Dutch word for bull excrement.
“There have been far too many tragedies in our schools across the United States in the past few years,” Argall said. “We worked in a bipartisan fashion to find the funding to protect our school children just two years ago. To propose these dangerous cuts is legislative malpractice…I would recommend the staffer who proposed these cuts be fired.”
Sen. Vincent Hughes (D-Montgomery, Philadelphia) meanwhile said he strongly backs the Governor’s budgeting $1-billion to address environmental and structural problems in schools. Hughes has been very aggressive in detailing the structural deficiencies in many schools across the state and calling for state money to help fix the issues.
The Mercy Matters Committee of the Diocese of Harrisburg hosted another forum this week on social issues, this time on criminal justice reform.
Fr. Joshua Brommer and Dan Reisteter of St. Patrick’s Cathedral welcomed state lawmakers Sen. Camera Bartolotta (R-Beaver, Greene, Washington) and Rep. Sheryl Delozier (R-Cumberland) to speak about legislation they’ve sponsored on the issue. They were joined by Brandon Flood, Secretary of the PA Board of Pardons, Deacon Jim Doyle, who has spent years working with inmates, and former Speaker of the House, state Rep. Bill DeWeese, who spoke of the time he spent in prison and the challenge to succeed upon getting out.
Sen. Bartolotta co-founded the bipartisan and bicameral Criminal Justice Reform Caucus to make communities safer and to reduce prison costs and ensure better outcomes for those who go through the criminal justice system. She has also sponsored and supported several pieces of legislation on criminal justice reform, including Senate Bill 502, which, in part, will direct money into victims’ services.
“A lot of people don’t realize how difficult it is, when you’re finished serving your time—you’re never really finished,” Bartolotta told the crowd in the gathering room at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. “We give life sentences in Pennsylvania anymore for a two-year incarceration. It’s a lot, and there’s a lot that we can do to rectify that.”
Efforts have been made on that regard by Rep. Delozier, who has authored the Clean Slate Act, which calls for the automatic sealing of criminal records ten years or older. Delozier has also backed legislation to provide a second chance for ex-inmates to get professional licensing in certain occupations. The PA Catholic Conference has supported this legislation.
“It’s not a Republican or a Democrat issue. It’s not a rural or urban issue,” she told the crowd at St. Pat’s. “It’s an issue that has affected so many people.” She talked about the work that has been done to help many groups impacted by the criminal justice system, including victims of crimes and family members of those who have committed crimes.”
Flood talked about the efforts to bring about clemency reform in PA. “Clemency—executive clemency– is the ultimate act of forgiveness from the commonwealth for anyone that has been convicted of a crime,” he said.
Flood has a unique perspective to bring to his job on the pardons board. He told the group at St. Pat’s that he spent eight years in state prison on drug and weapons offenses. He applied for and received a pardon from Lt. Gov. Fetterman.
Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) visited Sacred Heart Regional School in Allentown Friday morning, to tour the facility, see the kids and tout the importance of school choice.
“This was just a reminder for me of why and how much I’ve been for decades now, such a passionate advocate for school choice,” Sen. Toomey said. He was welcomed by the Principal of Sacred Heart, Jim Krupka, Dr. Philip Frohmuth, the Superintendent for Catholic Education in the Diocese of Allentown, and Sean McAleer, the Education Director of the PA Catholic Conference, along with many others connected with Sacred Heart, nearby Allentown Central Catholic High School and the Diocese of Allentown.
“The fact is that every single child deserves a first quality education and getting the right education for a child shouldn’t depend on the child’s zip code or the parent’s income,” Toomey told the group after a tour of some classrooms. “Every child is better off if their child has a choice.”
Sen. Toomey talked about the importance of the Educational Improvement Tax Credit and the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit programs in helping children in Pennsylvania attend the schools of their choice.
“But unfortunately the program has a limit. There is a cap on the amount of funds that can be used for this purpose. As a result of that cap, there are actually tens of thousands of children across the commonwealth that are not able to participate.”
Toomey said he would be strongly supportive of increasing in the cap on the OSTC and the EITC. He said there is much more room in schools like Scared Heart to accommodate more children, if their parents had the means to make it happen. Toomey talked about more potential help from the federal level.
“I’m really pleased that President Trump emphasized the importance of school choice in his State of the Union address,” Toomey said. “Specifically, he promoted legislation that I’ve introduced with Ted Cruz. It is the Education Freedom Scholarship and Opportunity Act. It’s very similar to the way the Pennsylvania programs work, but it is a federal tax credit that would be available to businesses and individuals who could get a dollar for dollar credit against tax obligations for any contribution they would make to a scholarship program that would provide an opportunity for children like we have here at Sacred Heart.”
Press release issued today by Reps. Bryan Cutler and Stan Saylor…..
HARRISBURG – Citing cost overruns, inadequate response times, and the failure of programs and services to meet core mission objectives, Majority Leader Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster) and Appropriations Committee Chairman Stan Saylor (R-York) today called upon all standing committees of the House of Representatives to exercise their oversight authority to evaluate, review and make recommendations to promote better effectiveness and efficiencies in Pennsylvania’s executive agencies.
“The people of Pennsylvania deserve our best efforts to identify ways to improve operations, promote greater value and manage results,” Cutler said. “While our standing committees have traditionally been focused on passing legislation, having them review and oversee the executive departments will help maximize existing investments.”
Saylor noted that over the past several years, Pennsylvania has enjoyed budget surpluses. However, the potential benefits of a surplus have been eliminated due to consistent overspending by Wolf and his administration.
“Taxpayers should be getting a break during these times of economic prosperity, but instead, this governor continues to ask for more from Pennsylvanians’ wallets,” Saylor said. “Our committee leaders will take thorough looks at all state agencies and expenditures, examining which programs are helping move our Commonwealth forward, and which are only holding us back.”
Cutler noted that the emphasis on good management is a shared goal in state government. “Gov. Wolf, through the Office of Performance Through Excellence, has been working diligently to improve executive agency operations. Our goal is to be an active partner in promoting best management practices and to cut red tape, remove inefficacies, improve services and achieve measurable results.”
Cutler and Saylor delivered their message to committee leaders this week, ahead of the scheduled Appropriations Committee budget hearings that start on Tuesday, Feb. 18. The examination process will continue in the months leading up to the budget deadline.
When Governor Wolf delivered his budget address at the Capitol, he only shared the highlights, the proverbial tip of the iceberg. There’s just not enough time to go line by line and explain everything that he or any other governor is asking for.
There was one item in particular that was not mentioned in the address, but has been gaining a great deal of attention ever since the printed version was released. It’s $3-million in funding under the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services for “access to reproductive healthcare.”
That’s the extent of the description.
“It’s very suspicious to me,” said Sen. Judy Ward (R-Blair, Cumberland, Franklin, Fulton, Huntingdon), who is staunchly pro-life and noticed the budget entry immediately. I talked to her immediately after the Governor’s address. “There was no detail given on that but it’s something that many of us are going to be looking at very closely. I’m very fearful. That’s a red flag for me.”
In the meantime pro-life advocates have expressed concerns that it’s money that is ticketed for Planned Parenthood to help offset cuts in federal funding. The Trump Administration in 2019 enacted rule changes on the federal family planning program.
The Governor has been very much in favor of abortion rights and recently issued a not-so-subtle veto of the Down Syndrome Protection Act that was passed by the legislature last year.
From Sen. Scott Martin (R-Lancaster) “I am relieved that the governor is not calling for any broad-based tax increases, given our objections to that. However, future tax hikes are inevitable if we do not control the growth of state spending and borrowing. Medicaid and other social service programs are one of the biggest cost-drivers in the budget and the Governor has overspent in this area by close to a billion dollars in each of the last two years. If we want to preserve these programs for future generations, we need to take a closer look at how we can root out waste, fraud and abuse of these programs through measures like my bill to implement work requirements for able-bodied Medicaid recipients.”
From Sen. Judy Ward (R-Blair, Cumberland, Franklin, Fulton, Huntingdon)–“This budget contains more than a half-a-billion dollars in tax increases on employers and other things. Although these are not broad based taxes, any increase is concerning. If we agree to his billions in new spending and borrowing, a broad-based tax hike in future years is certain. We cannot add $1.5 billion or more to the state’s ledger and also add billions more in new borrowing without consequences. We need to take a closer look at how we can meet the basic responsibilities of government at a lower cost to taxpayers.
“I am deeply troubled that the governor wants to spend so much more, while at the same time cutting programs that our local communities rely on. Cuts to agriculture, regional cancer centers, school safety and other local priorities will have a negative impact on our region for years to come. I am particularly disappointed about the $4.3 million in cuts to the Department of Agriculture in light of the progress we have made over the past year to protect the future of farming in Pennsylvania. We should not jeopardize all of the hard work that went into helping our farmers.
From Sen. Maria Collett (D-Bucks, Montgomery)
“I am glad to see that the Governor’s address prioritizes some of the issues I hear about most from my constituents – including investments in our DEP and environmental cleanup efforts, promoting a fair economy that works for all of us, and desperately needed charter school reforms.”
“I am especially thankful that the Governor’s proposed budget includes increased funding for the DEP, some of which is specifically earmarked for much-needed staffing increases. Our DEP cannot adequately respond to the many environmental issues facing our Commonwealth – including the PFAS contamination crisis in my district – without adequate resources, and I am glad to see that my calls for action have been heard. It also creates a new funding source for the Hazardous Sites Cleanup Act. The HSCA funds the monitoring and cleanup of hazardous environmental sites across the Commonwealth. As I continue to work to get PFAS added to the list of hazardous substances that the HSCA covers, it is encouraging to know that it will be better equipped to manage its important work.”
“I remain committed to the Governor’s proposal to immediately increase the minimum wage. Pennsylvania’s minimum wage is the lowest among mid-Atlantic states and it is quite simply not a livable wage. More than half of my district’s minimum wage workers are women and more than 90% are over 20. Nearly 50% are over 40. It is unacceptable that so many hardworking Pennsylvanians are forced to take on a second, third, even fourth job to keep themselves and their families afloat.”
From Democratic leader Rep. Frank Dermody
“Governor Wolf is showing the way to make Pennsylvania a better place to live, learn and work,” said Democratic Leader Frank Dermody. “House Democrats are matching his vision with our plan for affordable health care, quality schools, good jobs, a safe and healthy environment, and justice for all people.”
Joint statement from Reps. Seth Grove (R-Dover), Kate Klunk (R-Hanover), Dawn Keefer (R-Dillsburg) and Mike Jones (R-York Township), as well as House Appropriations Chairman Rep. Stan Saylor (R-Red Lion)
“The governor’s budget address we heard today was filled with flowery language but lacked an actual plan to resolve systemic financial problems Pennsylvania is facing.
“For the past few months, the General Fund has had a negative balance, forcing the Commonwealth to borrow from itself to cover expenditures. The governor has continued to mismanage his agencies and his budget proposal shows that he is planning to overspend by $900 million. We had hoped the governor would not only acknowledge this problem but would also work with us to fix it.
“Instead, we heard plans to increase spending in nearly every area of government, including a plan to borrow nearly $5 billion in a single year, leaving our children to pay off the debt. Naturally, when expenses go up, taxes would have to increase as well. Overtaxing Pennsylvanians is not the right way forward. Rather, and as we’ve seen over the past year or so, tax revenue actually increases when government lets the economy grow naturally. In fact, General Fund revenue is currently $158.5 million above what is expected because of this policy.
“As we enter the budget season, we look forward to further examining the governor’s proposal and the state of Pennsylvania’s finances so a responsible budget that respects taxpayers can be created.”
The Department of Environmental Protection has sent us its response to a story we ran in which Sen. Doug Mastriano (R-Adams, Cumberland, Franklin, York) criticized the MS4 program.
In that story, the Senator says it’s the latest effort to take money from the taxpayers. The story got considerable reaction and support on social media. Here’s more from the story…..
“They’ve come up with this cunning scheme here to transfer wealth out of my district and other districts back to Harrisburg,” Mastriano said. “It will then get filtered to Philadelphia and elsewhere. Once again the money will be fed to the corners. “
‘MS 4’ stands for Municipal Separate Storm Sewer Systems. Mastriano says it’s basically a separate utility that goes against business owners and property owners. He says it’s eventually going to hit farmers as well–anyone who has water that drains into a creek or sewer or whatever.
“I get it. Everybody wants clean water. Everybody wants clean air. I do more than anyone else,” Mastriano said. “I enjoy the woods. I love hiking the Appalachian Trail. I’m down with the outdoors, but DEP is running amok.”
The senator says there are municipalities and local governments are being charged exorbitant fees.
Here is the statement that was sent to us this week.
These comments lack a basis in reality and many of the assertions made are simply not accurate.
The six “Minimum Control Measures” required by the Pennsylvania MS4 (stormwater) permit represent the basic federal requirements from EPA. They are comparable to other states and are largely unchanged since the original Pennsylvania MS4 permit in 2003. A Chesapeake Bay Pollutant Reduction Plan (PRP) requirement was added in 2013 because the basic program alone was not sufficient to mitigate local water quality impairments, nor was it contributing to the Chesapeake Bay cleanup.
The PRP requirement was strengthened and applied statewide in the 2018 permit. The 2013 PRP requirement was ineffective because it did not require specific load reductions.
EPA expects DEP to implement measures to better address impaired waters. During the 2018 General Permit development, EPA provided correspondence that shows the degree of concern; specifically, a letter from EPA from 2015 expressed concern with the lack of numeric criteria for nitrogen. EPA stated, “If no reduction for nitrogen is provided in the permit, it can be considered in direct non-compliance with regulations. This would constitute ground for EPA’s objection to the permit.” In addition, the 2013 permit was appealed by third party environmental groups due to concern over unaddressed local impairments.
As a result of a series of meetings with EPA, and as part of a 2014 DEP settlement to the litigation challenging PAG-13 General Permit, DEP agreed to include pollutant load reduction requirements in the subsequent 2018 PAG-13 General Permit. EPA reviewed and approved the PAG-13 permit package.
The MS4 (stormwater) program is a federal mandate, and one which unfortunately has not come with a corresponding increase in federal funding to address new requirements. Through existing programs, limited funding in the form of grants and loans is available to MS4s. PENNVEST has a regular supply of loan dollars, but grants (from PENNVEST and elsewhere) are highly competitive. It’s important to note that DEP does not mandate how municipalities meet the federal requirements; it’s up to the municipalities. DEP encourages MS4s to seek outside funding at their discretion, but also strongly encourages MS4s to ensure that their plans are cost-effective. In particular, DEP has worked with municipalities to set up regional collaborations that can help to significantly reduce costs.
Based on a limited amount of preliminary data, the average per municipality cost for implementation of PRP BMPs was calculated to be $683,585 over the course of the five-year permit term. Pennsylvania has 757 municipalities that are required to implement PRPs, and therefore the statewide PRP implementation cost is estimated to be $517.5 million over the 5-year permit term.
Although $683,585 represents an average per municipal cost, costs vary considerably between municipalities based on the size of the municipality and the extent of the impaired waters within the municipal boundaries. Smaller municipalities will likely spend less than half the average cost to implement their PRPs, while larger more densely populated municipalities may spend two to three times the average cost for the implementation of their PRP projects. York County, for example, described their costs as $4,000 – $224,000 per year per municipality.
It was just a few hours before the state House would vote on a package of bills to combat human trafficking. A large group of representatives, most of them Republican, took to the steps of the lobby in the Ryan building at the Capitol to show their support for the legislation.
“I’d never seen so many people that were on those stairs,” said Rep. Bob Brooks (R-Allegheny, Westmoreland), who was one of them. He talked with me in his Capitol office shortly after the vote. “I’ve heard people say it was the largest group of legislators they’ve seen.”
Included in the bills was Senate Bill 60, the “Buyer Beware Act,” sponsored by Sen, Kristin Phillips-Hill (R-York). The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference supports all the measures and has worked with Sen. Phillips-Hill and Rep. Seth Grove (R-York) on the “Buyer Beware Act.”
“They were all focused on either greater sentencing for the perpetrators, like the people that were dealers of the sex trade,” Rep. Brooks said. “It was also people that were victims. It was ways to try to help them back into society sooner. Instead of blaming them, it was working with them.”
Brooks is in his first term as a state representative after being elected in November of 2018. But he has a wealth of experience that could fill up several web pages.
He was Chief Financial Officer at Chrysler Corp. at one point. He owns the Pittsburgh Indoor Sports Arena. He was part of a group of local businessmen that helped save the Pirates and the Penguins. He served the Borough of Murrysville for a total of 26 years as councilman and mayor. I was not surprised to hear that, since Brooks is about as down-to-earth as you can get and a definite ‘people-person.’
“What that does is, you spend your whole time out with the people,” Brooks said. “You’re trying to make things better. When you’re the mayor, you do a whole lot better at getting things done sooner, than when you’re up here. But when you’re up here, you’re dealing with helping a whole lot more people. It just means you can’t do it by yourself.”
Brooks says that means you have to form groups and caucuses to get things done. He recently worked as part of the group to pass bills to help first responders.
“My area has 16 fire departments. Those departments are all volunteers. One of the problems is that volunteers have gone from 300,000 down to 38,000 in the last ten years. That’s for all of our fire departments in the whole state. We need to find ways to get young people to want to get involved.”
Brooks worked with other lawmakers to try to make that happen.
“One of the programs that we passed is that if you’re a firefighter while you go to college and for four years after, we’ll pay your education. We’ll also take the people that are there and we’ll give them a rebate on the local and the county taxes….It’s not huge pay, but it’s thank you’s and appreciation.”
Brooks is very well acquainted with the people of his district, which is northeast of Pittsburgh. He says it’s a group that attends church regularly and is strongly pro-life. He found that out last year as a candidate.
“I had several people at the polls last year. I remember one young woman came up and said ‘you are pro-life, right?’ I said absolutely. She said ‘well that’s good, because my parents were on the borderline and if they hadn’t become pro-life right at the end, I wouldn’t be here. ‘ You hear that sentiment throughout the area.”
The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference today thanked members of the state House for their near-unanimous approval of a package of bills to address the problem of human trafficking.
The pictures here are of a news conference that preceded the votes at the Capitol. There was a huge turnout of House members, mostly of Republicans, but also some Democrats that felt strongly about trying to put an end to human trafficking.
The PA Catholic Conference has strongly supported these measures from the beginning.
“Human trafficking is a scourge that not only still exists, but thrives all around us,” said Eric Failing, the Executive Director of the PCC. “The Catholic Church has always been at the forefront of this fight, caring for the victims of human trafficking. It is good to see so many of our lawmakers are committed to this effort as well.”
The anchor of the package of bills was Senate Bill 60, known as the Buyer Beware Act, authored by Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill (R-York). Today’s passage means that bill will head directly to the Governor’s desk for his signature.
The package of legislation also included bills from Rep. Barry Jozwiak (R-Berks), Rep. Natalie Mihalek (R-Allegheny, Washington), Rep. Meghan Schroeder (R-Bucks), Rep. Marci Mustello (R-Butler), Rep. Valerie Gaydos (R-Allegheny) and Rep. David Rowe (R-Snyder, Union).
“These bills put forth a strong package of penalties that we believe will help to deter human traffickers and their recruiters,” Failing said.
Those bills will now move to the Senate for full consideration.
The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference continues to communicate with members of the state Senate to make sure that the pending Telemedicine bill (SB 857) is passed in its pro-life form. This version prohibits the use of Telemedicine for abortion.
The Director of the PCC, Eric Failing, stresses that this is the premier pro-life vote of the session.
We have asked this before in the last couple of months and are asking again….PLEASE CONTACT YOUR SENATOR AND ASK THEM TO MAKE SURE THEY SUPPORT THE “PRO-LIFE” TELEMEDICINE BILL (SB 857) AS PASSED BY THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES.
SB 857 is a Telemedicine bill that allows for remote treatment of patients by doctors. While we support this, abortion proponents want to misuse telemedicine to perform chemical abortions. We were successful in the House in adding language to prevent abortion doctors from misusing telemedicine. Right now, a third of all abortions in the state are done chemically. If our pro-life prohibitions are stripped out of the Telemedicine bill, the number of abortions in Pennsylvania will increase dramatically. Using Telemedicine for abortions is a stated goal for Planned Parenthood because they can do more chemical abortions with fewer doctors and less overhead costs.
The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference worked on the passage of legislation for these safety grants and participated in the bill signing with the Governor back in November. The picture has the Executive Director of the PCC standing between Governor Wolf and Rep. Stephen Barrar (R-Chester, Delaware). This is the press release for the program that was just issued by the Governor on January 15th. There is only one-month to sign up for the grants!!
Governor Tom Wolf announced today the availability of $5 million in funding for security enhancement projects for nonprofit organizations serving diverse communities throughout the commonwealth. Applicants are eligible for security enhancements designed to protect the safety and security of the users of a facility located in the commonwealth that is owned or operated by the nonprofit organization.
“These grants expand the school safety and security grants introduced last year,” Gov. Wolf said. “And will help our myriad nonprofits address security needs heightened by the heinous attack at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018 and the safety concerns that still exist for religious, social and other nonprofit organizations across the commonwealth.”
Administered by the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency (PCCD), the Nonprofit Security Grant Fund Program was part of Act 83 of 2019, which directs PCCD to administer grants to nonprofit organizations that principally serve individuals, groups or institutions that are included within a bias motivation category for single bias hate crime incidents as identified by the FBI’s 2017 Hate Crime Statistics publication.
Applicants can find the application and information about the Program on PCCD’s website at www.pccd.pa.gov. Grant awards can range from $5,000 to $150,000 for a wide variety of eligible items, including:
The application period is open for a 30-day window from Wednesday, January 15 to Friday, February 14. Applications will be reviewed on a rolling basis by a PCCD-established workgroup comprised of representatives of PCCD, the Pennsylvania State Police, and the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security, with awards being considered at the March 11 PCCD meeting.
Questions regarding the program and the application process should be forwarded to [email protected]
The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference applauded the state House Judiciary Committee for its unanimous passage of a package of bills to address the problem of human trafficking. Each bill was approved by every representative on the committee.
“We can’t thank these lawmakers enough for their hard and persistent work on addressing what is a scourge to our society,” said Eric Failing, the Executive Director of the PCC. “They also did an incredible job of bringing awareness to these horrific practices that happen all around us.”
Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill (R-York) appeared before the committee to explain the need for her legislation, SB 60, known as the Buyer Beware Act.
“This bi-partisan and bi-cameral bill will make Pennsylvania a leader in the fight to end human trafficking,” she told the committee. “Despite our best efforts—and we have made significant efforts, at least in my time here in the Capitol—it’s a problem that continues to affect every corner of our Commonwealth.”
The package of legislation also included bills from Rep. Barry Jozwiak (R-Berks), Rep. Natalie Mihalek (R-Allegheny, Washington), Rep. Meghan Schroeder (R-Bucks), Rep. Marci Mustello (R-Butler), Rep. Valerie Gaydos (R-Allegheny) and Rep. David Rowe (R-Snyder, Union); as well as a resolution from Rep. Wendi Thomas (R-Bucks), who has been heavily involved in the issue, despite being a relative newcomer to the House.
“Many folks in the faith-based community came to me and said this is a critical issue that needs to be addressed,” said Rep. Rob Kauffman, the Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. “When I became chair of this committee, this was an issue that I wanted to tackle and we’ve been working for essentially the last six months trying to fine tune some of this legislation and bring it together.”
The bills will now move to the House floor for full consideration.
Rep. Frank Ryan (R-Lebanon) is hopeful that his Fetal Remains Bill that recently passed the state House will gain acceptance in the Senate as well. House Bill 1890 was voted out of the House in November by a vote of 123-76 but continued to cause quite a stir as Ryan spent much of the time since answering a wave of misconception.
“An unbelievable amount of misconception,” Ryan told me on a recent visit to our office. “It’s the first time, I will tell you Al, that I have seen particularly irresponsible coverage by some of the sites. I don’t believe it was a controversial bill at all.”
Ryan sponsored the bill after undergoing a personal tragedy years ago with a child of his that didn’t survive past birth. He recounted his experience during an emotional committee hearing in November.
“It gives a parent who has lost a child through miscarriage or stillbirth the opportunity to bury the remains of the child and receive those remains at their own expense…As someone who has lost three children, wondering where the baby was buried was important to us and our family.”
The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference has supported the measure from the beginning.
Ryan said the feedback that he has gotten from others who have lost children has been very positive.
“I’ve had a lot of calls from people who have wondered what happened with their baby.”
Ryan said the misconceptions followed a piece that a pro-abortion group had put out, that was then picked up by a website that failed to get Ryan’s side of the story. Ryan credits the Harrisburg-area TV stations with actually getting his side of the story and clearing up the original misrepresentations.
“The group’s report was taken as gospel without reading the three-page bill. Literally this bill doesn’t take more than five minutes to read, even if you’re doing so slowly.”
Abortion groups have attacked the measure but proponents of the bill say it has nothing to do with abortion. Every Republican in the House voted for it, as did many Democrats.
“I was very disappointed that it created such controversy. There was a lot of misinformation,” said the Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, Eric Failing. “This bill simply says that if the mother (who has lost a child before birth) wants the remains…they can request to have those remains. They will have to pay extra but they can have those remains.”
Failing said if the mother chooses to do otherwise, she will have no more responsibility. It would then be up to the health care facility to handle the remains through burial or cremation.
“It’s a very simple bill,” Failing continued. “It has nothing to do with restricting abortion or anything like that. But we believe that life is from conception to natural death and those are the remains of life.”
The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference is the public affairs arm of the Catholic bishops across the state. In other words, we are lobbyists for all issues that we see as important to the Catholic Church.
Lobbyists aren’t always looked upon fondly. But those ‘in the know’ realize their importance. One of those people ‘in the know’ is long-time political activist, radio host, school board member, political candidate, and friend, Eric Epstein. I went to him for his take on lobbyists because he is very familiar with the inner workings of government and he pulls no punches.
“Lobbyists are indispensable,” Epstein said. “I think they have a bad reputation because people are not really aware of what they do. Lobbyists are designed to educate and advance your position in Harrisburg. Without lobbyists you have no representation.”
Epstein says people may hear about the lobbyists that represent the big groups, like oil and gas, pharmaceuticals, charter schools and the NRA. But he says just about every entity in the Commonwealth has someone advocating on their behalf.
“If you don’t, then you are exiting the battlefield, leaving yourself exposed and actually going to invite harm,” he said. “In other words you have to have people advocating for you, day in and day out.”
Epstein said it’s especially important nowadays when Pennsylvania is so reliant on so-called “sin taxes,” taxes from activities like gambling and the sale of alcohol.
“People have this stereotype of lobbyists drinking and playing golf, and some of them do. But without this necessary asset you’re leaving your self-interests in harm’s way. As someone who has actually been an advocate for low-income folks, consumer groups and environmental folks, I can tell you with first-hand knowledge, you have to be at the Capitol, day in and day out, developing relationships and educating legislators, especially new legislators.”
Back in July we talked with Alessandro DiSanto, one of the creators of the new prayer app “Hallow.” The Notre Dame University and Bishop McDevitt High School graduate had just participated in the launch of “Hallow” some eight months earlier.
This week I checked in with DiSanto again and found that the app is doing very well.
“We’ve been blessed,” he said. “Just finished our first year since launch. Since then we’ve had over 80,000 downloads in ten countries. We’re now the number one Catholic app in the app store with 4.9 stars out of 5. I’ve been really blessed.”
Hallow will guide you to a list of prayer topics, like joy, humility, love, or letting go. Or you can choose the daily prayers, like the novenas or gospels.
“It’s audio-guided contemplative prayer,” DiSanto explained. “So anybody from beginning, just learning to pray for the first time, or those that have been doing it every day but looking for a deeper sense of spirituality–we’ve got something for everybody.”
DiSanto’s group started out with a handful of his buddies from Notre Dame and has since expanded to ten. And counting.
“Upward and onward is the plan. We’ll be in Spanish, hopefully by the summer, which opens up the U.S. Hispanic population to be able to service them, and then into Central and South America. The plan is to go all over the world.”
To get the app, just search “Catholic” or “Hallow” in your app store or in google and it will be the first thing that pops up.
Most of what people hear about what goes on at the state Capitol involves issues that affect residents state-wide, like the budget, minimum wage, pro-life bills and the like. But legislators have to also keep an eye on something else: their district and the people they represent.
“I never want to forget who provided me with the honor and the opportunity to come out here,” said Rep. Bud Cook (R-Fayette, Washington). “I grew up in the Mon Valley, graduated from California High School.”
And for those who aren’t from these parts, “Mon” is short for Monongahela, as in Monongahela River. As in Mon Valley.
“I think it’s a very, very, very special place to be,” Cook said. “My mission in life, in addition to representing the people out here in the district is to promote the Mon Valley.”
I had told the representative that I thought I had passed his district when I went over a big bridge on Route 70. I had. I just didn’t realize it. Cook indicated that I’m not the only who has done that. He sees that as an ongoing issue.
“Where Interstate 70 intersects the Mon River, that is THE heart of the 49th District,” he continued. “You could drive by it and not even know it’s there…It’s there. We have to re-discover it, I believe, for ourselves and then market it and invite people in.”
Cook knows many of the ins and outs of his district. For example, he says there are nine different school districts and each one has a trout stream. He says the Fish & Boat Commission has a program where you can raise fish in the classroom. It has been incorporated into a couple of classrooms in his district.
“We’re now working through the intermediate unit, one which represents Greene, Washington and Fayette Counties. What we’d like to do is get that program into all 25 schools and Intermediate Unit 1.”
He says there are 19 different sportsman clubs in his district. The top seven have a membership of 500 or more. One sportsman’s club is so exclusive, in fact, that Cook has been unable to get a membership! But he does belong to about six or seven of them.
Cook talked about how the area was hurt by the steel mills closing in the 1970’s and 80’s. But he says the area has rebounded in a big way.
“I see a very bright future with the cracker plant and what’s going on with the Marcellus Shale and all that. That expansion will continue up the Ohio. We need to get ready for it.”
One of the biggest challenges he says is jobs. There are plenty of them, it’s just a case of finding enough people to work.
“I’m hearing—whether it be from our unions, or people who have factories, small businesses—they can’t find people who want to work. We have the jobs. We need people that are willing to get off the couch, get out the door, apply and actually show up for work. That’s the number one concern I hear. Number two is passing the drug test.”
Governor Wolf just signed the bill to allow hunting on three Sundays during the year in Pennsylvania. The bill was sponsored by Sen. Dan Laughlin (R-Erie) and was years in the making for him.
“It all started for me about 50 years ago when I asked my dad why we couldn’t go hunting on Sunday and he said ‘that’s just the way it is in Pennsylvania, son.’” Laughlin told me on a recent visit to his Capitol office. “Who knew that years later I’d have a say in changing that?”
Senate Bill 147 provides for one Sunday hunting day each for rifle deer, archery deer and for a day determined by the Game Commission. The bill also amends the PA Game code to make trespassing while hunting a primary offense with increased penalties. It was a busy year for the measure, which has passed the Senate twice now after being amended in the House.
“I have worked on that for three years now,” Laughlin continued. “When I first got here people said ‘good luck with that, it will never change.’ So I feel pretty proud that we were at least able to take a bite out of that.”
There had always been at least some type of opposition to the idea of Sunday hunting. Sen. Laughlin said there were different groups that were against it, the largest of which being the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau.
“We added some trespassing language to the bill. That was an issue for them. So we kind of helped them out as well.”
The bill had started out calling for 14 hunting days, which Laughlin says would have been basically all the Sundays during hunting season. It got negotiated down to the agreed-upon three. It seemed to be a good compromise for all involved.
“I think it’s a step in the right direction,” Laughlin says. “ I think it will help license sales and more importantly, I think there are a lot of young people that have very busy schedules and this should help them get out in the woods.”
Laughlin is now focusing on another issue that affects thousands of people across Pennsylvania, that being what many call a home inspection monopoly. There is a state-wide code enforcement that has seen developers being forced to use certain inspectors.
“There are pockets throughout the state that the inspection companies that we are forced to use…and I don’t know of a polite way to say this…they’re pretty aggressive in their inspections and they can kind of fine-print you to death if they want to. It’s an on-going issue.”
Laughlin has been working with Rep. Doyle Heffley on bills to try to correct the problem. Laughlin says it appears Heffley’s has the best chance to gain passage. House Bill 349 would amend the PA Construction Code to require municipalities, which hire a private third-party agency to enforce the codes to use at least two more such entities for inspection services.
Rep. Tim O’Neal (R-Washington) continues an impressive trend in western Pennsylvania politics–of veterans coming back to their native area for a career in public service. O’Neal served in Afghanistan.
“My father had served for four years when he was younger but I initially didn’t go toward the military,” he told me on a recent visit to his suburban Pennsylvania district. “My parents are divorced and after my freshman year of college my mother actually asked me to explore the National Guard to help pay for school. And I fell in love with it.”
O’Neal went on to active duty in the Army infantry as a Second Lieutenant in 2003. He concedes there were some tough times during his tour of duty, but….
“I wouldn’t change almost anything about it,” he said. “It’s strange to say, but the experience of war overall was an extremely positive experience. I did have a squad leader killed, so that’s the one thing I would change. But other than that it was an overall positive experience.”
O’Neal got out of the Army in 2007, worked in the energy industry and then went on to become a human resources director for a construction company. However, he says he missed the service component in the private sector. He decided to seek public service.
The 48th District has been electing Democrats forever–until O’Neal that is. It doesn’t seem like it’s due to a big change in the voters. Maybe it’s a case of the voters seeing a change in their party–whether it be locally, state-wide or nationally.
“It’s one of the things about our area of Washington County and the 48th District in particular. It really is a wonderful place and it doesn’t matter what letter is behind your name. We basically have the same viewpoints. We’re generally conservative. We’re generally God-loving and God-fearing and the values from southwestern Pennsylvania are pretty similar across parties. I am a fiscal conservative and I consider myself conservative overall and that resonates with the area regardless of what letter is behind your name.”
O’Neal is working on a bill that would call for a Constitutional amendment to require any overages in revenue to be deposited immediately into the Rainy Day Fund to ensure that government spending is kept in check.
The state Senate late Wednesday afternoon passed the Down Syndrome Protection Act, which would prohibit an abortion, based solely on a prenatal diagnosis of Down Syndrome. The vote went 27-22 after it had passed through the Senate Health Committee on Monday.
The measure has now passed both state chambers. It passed the House in May.
The PCC worked with Rep. Kate Klunk (R-York) and other legislators on crafting the bill before it was even introduced. Back in March, several members of the PCC stood on the podium with legislators to announce companion bills from Rep. Klunk and Sen. Scott Martin (R-Lancaster).
“We believe this legislation gives all children, regardless of their condition, the right to live a happy life,” said Eric Failing, PCC executive director. “PCC thanks all legislators who supported this vital piece of legislation that will save lives.”
For all the times you hear about and see a state legislator discussing a bill on the House or Senate floor, or talking about a certain issue for the media, a lot of their efforts involve one-on-one work with constituents. That includes them and their staff members in trying to help people on a variety of issues.
“We helped a guy get a copy of his birth certificate and it was incredibly difficult,” said Rep. Mary Jo Daley (D-Montgomery) during a visit I made to her Capitol office. “He was born out of wedlock. He was never baptized. It turned out that his birth certificate was under his father’s name, which he never used.”
Daley and her staffers ended up enlisting the help of a social worker at one of the senior centers to eventually figure it out. It wasn’t exactly pushing a bill through on the House floor, but it was making a big difference in someone’s life. In this case, it helped the man get his benefits. Many lawmakers will tell you, it’s that kind of work that makes the work they do worthwhile.
“It was really great, because he started to get benefits,” Daley said. “And that really helped somebody.”
There are other requests for help that come along that are not quite as involved, but are still important to the person who is in need. That person may have nowhere else to go for help. It might be helping someone fill out a tax form or a form to get their driver’s license.
“Sometimes we just have to tell them it’s a local issue and this is who you have to call,” Daley said. “We always tell people, if you’re not really sure, call us and we’ll help you to figure it out.”
Daley grew up in Narberth, Montgomery County, a little borough just outside of Philadelphia. The borough is in her district. Her mom and dad were both Democrats, in a town that was heavily Republican. She first ran for office in 1991 for Narberth Borough Council.
“I was tired of Republicans always just talking about how this town was what it was just because of generations of Republican leadership,” Daley said. “I thought, okay, that’s true, but my parents were part of making this a good place to live and they’re Democrats. Democrats were somewhat ignored, so I feel like I have tried to stand up for people who need somebody to stand up for them.”
Daley served for 20 years on Narberth Borough Council before running for and winning election to her current seat in November of 2012. She took office the following January.
I talked with Daley on the day she stood with other Democrats in support of hate crime legislation proposed by Rep. Dan Frankel (D-Allegheny) and Sen. Jay Costa (D-Allegheny). The PA Catholic Conference also stood with legislators and advocates in support of the bills as they were introduced.
“I think it’s important that we pass bills like this that address issues of hate because it seems more rampant these days than it has in the past,” Daley said. “I like to go back to my father’s parents, who both came to this country for opportunity and to raise their families and lived here. That’s really important and I’d like to think of the United States as a place where people feel comfortable to come.”
Rep. Tedd Nesbit (R-Butler, Mercer) has followed a familiar path to the state Capitol. He began his career as an attorney.
“Small-town lawyer, but a former assistant district attorney,” Nesbit told me during a recent visit to his Capitol office. He was kind enough to squeeze in some time to talk with us during a busy session day in Harrisburg. “I did court-appointment cases and a little bit of everything, really.”
Nesbit is now running for judge for Mercer County Court. A number of the bills that he has worked on and passed have dealt with the criminal justice system. They include…
– Senate Bill 915, which contains Nesbit’s House Bill 2307 and helps innocent people present new evidence challenging their wrongful convictions.
– Senate Bill 916, which contains Nesbit’s House Bill 2308 and will modify the process for a defendant to file a petition for DNA testing eliminating the requirement that the person who requests testing be serving a term of imprisonment or awaiting execution after being sentenced to death.
– House Bill 159, which gives judges within the juvenile court system the flexibility to look at the facts of the case and assign the most appropriate sentence to the minor.
In the meantime Nesbit continues to serve the people of the 8th district.
“I’ve always believed in giving back to the community,” he said. “I was very active before this, with United Way, in the church . And when my predecessor retired, I had several people reach out to me and say ‘you should do that.’ So I decided to jump in and here we are about five years later.”
One of the bills that Nesbit is working on now would deal with the crime of sexual extortion. It has passed the House and is currently in the Senate. He says it helps the law catch up with technology.
“What’s happening is that people are putting some personal information on their phones or on the internet and then other people would use that information to extort more information or embarrassing things about them. Right now the way the law works, it’s only considered a crime of extortion if you ask for money. Our bill then makes it that if you ask for things of value that would also be a crime.”
Nesbit says they are working with the district attorney’s office on the bill to help prevent people, especially young people, from being exploited.
“The FBI says this is the number one crime against children,” Nesbit said. “Because a lot of times they will put things out on their phone, they think they’re just sharing it with a friend and then the next thing you know they’re being asked for more information.”
PA Rep. Greg Rothman (R-Cumberland) is working to gather support for the bill introduced by House Speaker Mike Turzai (R-Allegheny) to offer school choice to students and families in the Harrisburg School District.
“We’ve dealt with multi-generational failures in those schools,” Rothman told me on a visit to his Capitol office. “I was here in 2000 when Governor Ridge signed the original takeover of the district.”
The Harrisburg School District came out of receivership for a few years, but was placed back into it this year.
Turzai’s bill (House Bill 1800) would require any Pennsylvania district in receivership to provide scholarship grants worth at least half of their per-student subsidy. That would be added to a $4,000 subsidy from the state. Rothman says that would translate into about $8,000 per student in the Harrisburg District, which would be the first to be affected by the proposed legislation. Rothman was the first to sign on as a primary co-sponsor.
“The school continues to struggle. The students continue to be under-served,” Rothman said. “This bill would allow those kids to get out of the Harrisburg School District and go to a public school outside the district or a private school and receive scholarship money for that.”
Rothman says that $8,000 happens to be around the highest tuition of any of the private schools that teach children up to eighth grade. It’s a little higher for high schools. Rothman says most of those schools offer their own scholarships as well.
“If this would save one kid, and gives one kid the chance to escape the failing schools in the City of Harrisburg, it would be a good thing. But it could impact thousands.”
The bill is currently in the House Education Committee. Rothman says Chairman Curt Sonney supports the measure so it could be passed out of committee by the end of the year.
“Right now a kid can leave a city school and go to a charter school, in which case the city schools are going to give that charter school or that cyber school $9,000 to $12,000. This is only $4,000. It will lower their average cost per student.”
Rothman spent several years working in real estate and thinks this bill would encourage people to stay in Harrisburg, where before couples would move out when their children grew to be of school age.
“Now they could stay in the city, send their kids to a private school, some of our great parochial schools, religious schools and they can take the money and the scholarship which could more than make up for the highest real estate taxes in the region.”
The state legislature has had fewer session days this fall than in the past. The cynics would say that lawmakers are getting it easy. Those on the inside would know better.
“That’s one of the biggest misconceptions. People tend to think that when we’re not in Harrisburg, we’re on vacation and we’re off,” Rep. Ryan Warner (R-Fayette, Westmoreland) told me on a visit to his Capitol office. “I often tell people that we’re a lot busier back in the district. We do spend a lot of time in Harrisburg, so when we are back home we have to catch up on a lot of things. There’s constituent work, whether it’s meetings with organizations, catching up on issues with our municipalities, Penndot issues…”
Ryan started working in his family’s logging business when he was a kid, then worked as a project controller at Siemens Industry when he got out of college. He wanted to be active for his community and figured a position in public office, representing the people from his home area would be the best way to go about it. He has an intense pride for his district, which encompasses parts of Fayette and Westmoreland Cos. He talked about an incident that happened three years ago that brought out the very best in the people that he represents.
“In 2016, the city of Connellsville, which I represent, was hit with a devastating flood. I mean an awful flood, where it literally wiped out a part of the city, and into Bullskin Township. It was like a disaster area. It looked worse than a tornado. It devastated the city. And I saw firsthand the people of that community come together to help out their neighbors. The sacrifices they made, whether it was time, money, whatever they could do, people pitched in to help out.”
Warner said he worked with several different government agencies during that flood and that they all remarked how impressed they were with the community’s effort.
“They said there has never been the community support and the cooperation in a natural disaster than what they’d seen in the city of Connellsville. And you want to talk about taking pride in something. That’s what I take pride in. That’s why I want to afford my children the chance to have a future here, so they can be a part of that, a part of this community.”
At the top of Warner’s priority list is working to cut out wasteful government spending. He’s been working on the Taxpayer Protection Act, which limits the amount that the government can spend each year. The spending limit is based on population growth and inflation. He says the bill would allow spending to go over that cap, with three-quarters of the General Assembly approving.
I also asked Warner what his future plans are and if he likes being a state representative. He said that he does and he gave a great answer on what it’s like to him.
“People say ‘what do you think about being a representative?’ The most honest answer I can give is that it’s like being a parent. It is the most frustrating, hair-pulling, maddening experience that you could ever go through! But at the same time it is the most rewarding and uplifting experience that you could ever go through—just like being a parent. It is so frustrating. There are times when you want to pound your head against the desk but there are sometimes where it is just the greatest, most beneficial experience that you could have.”
Rep. Kerry Benninghoff (R-Centre, Mifflin) is the Majority Whip in the PA House of Representatives. That is a figurative rather than literal title.
“Essentially your job is to make sure you have enough votes to get a bill passed or to stop a bill,” Benninghoff told me during a visit to his Capitol office. “We are whipping the votes. It’s actually an old term, an old English term. When they would do fox hunts and they were ending the hunt, and rounding up the dogs on the way in, they would yell, okay boys, whip ‘em in—whip the dog in to try to get the fox at the end of the race. Parliament picked this terminology up. It’s kind of rustling the members together, to kind of whip them in line to get the votes.”
Clearly, he has been asked this question before. We talked for several minutes and discussed a number of aspects of the political process. He says his job is really about relationships and being able to communicate to members the necessity of trying to get support for bills.
“For the most part we know where we’re at,” he said. “But sometimes you get to the floor and people have a change of heart or they’ve acquired other information. The goal is to try to get good legislation passed and we like to know that we have the votes to get it done.”
Benninghoff says he has assistants assigned to each region and they will lobby 10 members or so on the votes. He says the staff devised an electronic way to monitor those votes instead of writing them down on paper.
“The legislative process is fun. It’s a little hard for some people to understand. People will say sometimes ‘why don’t you guys just hold hands and get along?’ Our process was designed to be deliberative. Our discussions and our debates, people should not assume, is all egregious and mean and ugly.”
He uses the analogy of a soldier’s dress sword. It does not start out that way. It begins as a piece of raw iron.
“We heat it. We pound it. We shape it. We sharpen it. And at the end of the day, you have this beautiful piece of weaponry. But it didn’t start out that way. The legislative process is very similar.”
Benninghoff worked as the Centre County Coroner until getting elected to his current seat in January of 1997. That’s 22-1/2 years in elected office. He has learned a few things along the way and likes to share some knowledge with the newcomers.
“The first thing I tell members is that ‘you have a responsibility to listen to other members, even those of the opposite party. You may not agree with them. And even after they say something or debate or discuss something in committee, you may still not agree with them, and it may not change your vote, but you have an inherent responsibility to listen because you will learn something.’”
Benninghoff says that is the beauty of being where he is. People come from different walks of life and have different beliefs. He believes that differing opinions make the product better.
“I had a bill that I had to introduce four different sessions until I could get a final product that we could get commonality on and be comfortable with and passed into law. It was a bill that affected 4,200 Pennsylvanians.”
It was a bill that allowed people who had been adopted to get their original birth certificate. It meant a lot to Benninghoff because he had been adopted as a child.
Rep. Tom Mehaffie (R-Dauphin) fought the good fight on behalf of Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant earlier this year. He proposed House Bill 11, which would have allowed nuclear plants to receive funding for producing clean energy. TMI needed the bailout to survive. But despite several hearings and a rally or two, there was just simply not enough support from legislators. HB 11 never made it out of committee.
TMI closed in September. It was a serious blow to the area, as people lost their jobs and a several municipalities lost a good chunk of their tax base. Many of those employees lived in Mehaffie’s district. He says he learned some important things along the way.
“We need a basic and diversified portfolio of energy,” he told me on a visit to his Capitol office. “If we have one that does more than 50% and basically dominates the market, that’s not good for anybody… It’s about making sure that we have ample electricity in the state.”
Mehaffie says the battle is not over. He pointed out what just happened in Ohio, where legislators there saved coal plants and nuclear power plants in that state.
“That was one of the smartest things that Ohio could have done,” Mehaffie said. “They’re making sure they stay open….Talks have to continue here. We have a large vein of gas hear in Pennsylvania and we can’t deny that. We have to use that for our benefit. The gas industry should be part of it. But at the same time the gas industry shouldn’t be fighting the coal industry or the nuclear gas industry. We should be all working together.”
Mehaffie is also working on a dieticians’ bill—House Bill 1802. He says it’s important because we, as a society, need to eat better. He says the bill will make sure that patients are going to the right person and make sure they’re getting the right information.
He also has introduced and gotten a lot of bi-partisan support for House Bill 1900. That would license behavior analysts. Mehaffie held a rally for the bill in the Capitol Rotunda a few weeks ago and had a lot of legislators and advocates show up in support.
“That right there is a very crucial bill, I think, for the state,” he said. “It’s the first time in history that Medicaid and Medicare have laid out some codes that will refund those services and that happened in January of 2019. About 30 other states have licensed behavior analysts. These are the folks that are really going to make a difference in the future of Pennsylvania and the United States.”
Mehaffie says those analysts deal with things like heroin addiction, suicide prevention, mental illness and even anger issues.
“There are so many things that they can do,” Mehaffie said. “It’s taking bad behavior and turning it into good behavior.”
The day that I talked to Mehaffie, a House committee took a vote on a Sunday hunting bill that came from the Senate. It passed the committee and then went to the full House, where it picked up a few amendments, but still passed by a large margin. Mehaffie supported the bill.
“Why I like the bill is that it really narrows it down it’s a little bit stronger with trespassing. That’s been a problem with large landowners in my area.”
Sen. Pam Iovino (D-Allegheny, Washington) spent 23-years in the Navy.
“I loved every minute of it,” she said. But the future state senator didn’t start out with the intention to make it a career. She quickly changed her mind.
“I graduated from Gettysburg College and knew I would go on to graduate school, but I needed a break. I needed my gap time to do that,” she told me during a recent visit to her district office. “What I came up with was that I would get a commission in the Navy, get a few good bullets on my resume, get some good experience in management and leadership and earn some education benefits to go one to graduate school, law school, MBA, something like that.”
But once she got in the Navy she was anchored in the for the long haul. She realized that she had found her career. And coming back to the place she grew up put her in some familiar company as far as many of the residents who live in her district.
“Southwest Pennsylvania has the highest density of veterans in the state,” she said. “Fourth-highest density in the country. So yes, we have a propensity to serve. We also have a propensity to come back home again too.”
Iovino also fits in well with the large number of Catholics in the area. She is Catholic and spent a number of years in Catholic school. So what led her to a career in the legislature? She says it’s not something that was on her radar as recently as five years ago. But she likened her career in the service to her new career in public service.
“What I have done for the past thirty years or so is have a career that is in the public sector,” Iovino said. “The public sector has been my lane professionally. I just was looking for what I wanted to do in this stage of my life that matched up my background and experience with a good opportunity to continue to serve and make a contribution. Somewhat to my surprise it ended up with me seeking elected office.”
Sen. Iovino has been a big part of the effort to pass Senate Resolution 6, an initiative to look into what has become a crisis of the shortage of paid and volunteer firefighters in Pennsylvania. She said that in the last decade, the state has gone from having more than 300,000 paid and unpaid firefighters to down around 38,000.
There are currently no restrictions on using public assistant, or the Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards to purchase tobacco in Pennsylvania. But a bill sponsored by Rep. Justin Walsh (R-Westmoreland) could change that. House Bill 847 would forbid the use of EBT cards to purchase tobacco or tobacco-related products. The bill is supported by the PA Catholic Conference and passed the state House in September. It is now before the Senate.
“It is my belief that that type of assistance is for necessities,” Walsh told me during a recent visit to his district office in suburban Pittsburgh. “Tobacco, in my mind, does not fall within the definition of a necessity. I believe it’s a good bill, good government. That’s taxpayer money and we need to make sure it’s being put to the correct purposes.”
The EBT cards are issued by the Department of Human Services to administer public assistance benefits.
Walsh takes the responsibility of spending the taxpayers’ money very seriously. He acknowledges the hard-working people of his district.
“People like to call it ‘public money,’” he said. “But it’s not public money. It’s your money. It’s my money. We’re required to pay our taxes and when we do we want to make sure it goes to the core functions of government.”
Walsh is also sponsoring a bill that would hold local government officials accountable in terms of their attendance at meetings. It would call for a constitutional amendment that would go to the voters in the form of a referendum if it passes the House and Senate in two consecutive sessions. It has already passed the House.
“It would require the legislature to pass a bill that would include some sort of attendance policy for local officials. We’ve had problems within my own district where elected officials just stopped attending meetings and that causes a lot of problems for the remaining elected officials who show up and choose to do the work. It’s a burden on them. If you make the commitment to run for office, then there should be some kind of recourse if you don’t show up.”
And Walsh remains staunchly pro-life, already voting for the Down Syndrome Protection Act and other bills that preserve the dignity of life. That reflects the make-up of his district which has an interesting demographic. It’s majority Democrat. Walsh is a Republican.
“There are more Democratic registrations but when I talk to my constituents I do get a lot of pro-life, pro-second amendment (right to bear arms) people.”
Any time a pro-life legislator makes any kind of substantive move against abortion, you can be sure there will be a ton of resistance. Much of it will be from the left, but there will also be a fair amount of push back from those within their own ranks. Fellow lawmakers and advocates doubt the timing, the potency of the measure, and the electoral fall-out down the road.
It can be very defeating, especially for newer legislators. But Rep. Stephanie Borowicz (R-Centre, Clinton) and Sen. Doug Mastriano (R-Adams, Cumberland, Franklin, York), shut out the negativity and unveiled the Heartbeat Bill on Monday morning in the Capitol Media Center. House Bill 1977 and Senate Bill 912 would prevent an abortion if a heartbeat is detected in the fetus.
“Abortion is one of the most difficult topics to discuss in our nation, as it is tied to deeply personal and emotional issues,” Senator Mastriano said. “Yet, it is time that we have an open and honest discussion on this very difficult matter. Scientific and medical advances of the past 50 years have laid to waste the idea that the baby in the womb is simply a blob of tissue. It’s time for the discussion that includes a scientific and logical dialogue on this most important issue of our generation.”
“If a person is pronounced dead when their heart stops, why are they not considered alive when their heartbeat begins?” said Representative Borowicz. “Psalms 139: 13-14 makes it simple: ‘For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.’ At the most fundamental level, this heartbeat bill would effectively guarantee that future Pennsylvania children have the right to be born.”
Both legislators were kind enough to ask the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference for our help and support along the way. We were honored to stand alongside them and the several lawmakers and advocates that joined us onstage.
Eric Failing, the Executive Director of the PCC, was the first of the advocates from supporting groups to speak. He thanked all of those responsible for the bill for their work on behalf of all the Catholic bishops in Pennsylvania.
“I don’t know why this has become politicized,” said Failing. “I don’t know when that happened. It’s evil at work. We do know that. We only get one heart. If there are two, that’s two lives. It’s that simple.”
The Heartbeat bill is the latest piece of pro-life legislation to have some life at the Capitol. There are four other such bills in either the House or Senate.
The opponents would quickly point to the fact that Governor Wolf has pledged to veto any pro-life bill that comes to his desk. In fact, he said just as much in response to the Heartbeat bill.
“I refuse to surrender,” Mastriano said. “I’m going to fight this ‘til my dying breath.”
“We know we have a socialist Governor,” Borowicz said. “But I’m here to do what’s right.”
PA Rep. Wendi Thomas (R-Bucks) has been very concerned about the available care for school students across the state when it comes to the area of mental health. She has introduced a bill along with Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta (D-Philadelphia) that she hopes will fulfill whatever needs there are.
“We both have, sadly, had middle schoolers commit suicide this year—very, very sad,” Thomas told me during a visit to her district office. “We came together to do a bill that does a study of what kind of mental health do we need in our school systems. What kind of support should we have there?”
The bill calls for a 12-month study that would provide information to the legislature and the school districts.
“We feel like there’s been some focus at the high school level,” Thomas said. “It’s not that we can’t improve there, but this study would be K through 12.”
Thomas says that there is a higher level of anxiety present and that children need support.
“In fact, with our Safe to Say Program, the results that have come out—the number one call we get is kids reporting other kids with a high level of anxiety. Sadly that can lead to suicide. I’m on the Suicide Prevention Taskforce as well to take a look at this.”
The bill is in the Education Committee and Thomas will hope to get it introduced on the House floor in the coming weeks. The House comes back for session on October 21st.
Thomas has also authored a bill that will look to help municipalities in the Philadelphia suburbs recover some of the Earned Income Tax payments that lose to those who pay the city wage tax. As it stands now, the suburban resident pays his wage tax to Philadelphia but gets a credit for that on his local EIT.
“Our towns are struggling, particularly with affording volunteer fire services,” Thomas said. “We feel it’s time that some of that money should come back to the town where those residents live to help support those township services. Rep. Frank Farry (R-Bucks) and I have a bill to do that but we’re really working with the Pennsylvania State Township Supervisors Association. This is one of their main objectives.”
What could that mean in terms of revenue for Bucks County? Thomas says it adds up to $8.6-million if the EIT money came back to all of the municipalities.
I first met Rep. Thomas back in February when I went to a town hall that she hosted with Rep. Seth Grove (R-York) on human trafficking. Our Executive Director Eric Failing spoke at that gathering since we are supporting the Buyer Beware Act. That measure is sponsored by Rep. Grove and Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill (R-York) and would call for stiffer penalties for those who patronize victims of human trafficking. Many of those victims get into prostitution. The Buyer Beware Bill would also call for harsher penalties on those who force the victims into the criminal act.
Thomas is hopeful the bill will be put up for a vote on the House floor.
“It’s a great act and we are still working on it,” she said. “Rep. Grove and I keep talking about it. We’re really trying to push it but it has not passed the House yet. We’re still making noise about it, especially in a year when we’ve seen some public figures accused of human trafficking. It’s been in the news. It’s a huge problem and it’s a problem here—people think it happens somewhere else. “
Some lawmakers are not big fans of town hall meetings. What if nobody shows up? For others it’s a question of ‘what if someone does show up?’ It’s a setting that can be tough to control, especially if you have some angry constituents.
Rep. Pam DeLissio (D-Philadelphia) is definitely not afraid to hold a town hall meeting. She’s held 88 as of the time this story went online! That’s in less than nine years in office. It’s probably a record of some sort. I’m still checking.
“My commitment when I first ran, Al, was ongoing dialogue with constituents,” she told me during a visit to her Philadelphia district office. “We started in 2011—the first year I was elected and did a town hall. You wonder if anyone is going to show up.”
They did indeed show up and continue to do so. DeLissio said they’ve had as few as seven residents attend, but as many as 130. And that was on a Saturday morning in January.
“The average is somewhere between 20 and 30,” she said. “We also have done policy roundtables here in the office, limited to 25 people on the most controversial issues—whether they have to do with sanctuary cities, gun safety legislation, sexual predators—particularly of children. I’m very proud to tell you that those discussions have always been excessively civil and the people that have participated have represented the ideological spectrum, from A to Z, from right to left. And we have learned and shared from each other.”
This year DeLissio has expanded on the town hall idea by creating a book club. It’s an attempt to reach people that might not have been interested in participating in a town hall or the policy roundtable. The book clubs have been very successful.
“They’ve been pretty much fully subscribed and all the books are tied to state policy,” she said. “We’ve just read, in September, Cash for Kids, the debacle that happened in Luzerne Co. We’ve read Hillbilly Elegy and we’ve read the book Educated—all that we could tie back to state policy.”
DeLissio has also been active in many legislative issues, trying to bring about election and voting reform,along with campaign finance reform. She says there are no campaign contribution limits for state offices in Pennsylvania.
“That is very, very concerning,” she said. “Some things we can control at the state level, like capping contributions to those offices…We need to understand that there is a lot of money that often tries to influence and sometimes successfully influences policy and how that policy is developed when it gets to a governor’s desk…
“We need to do every day what is for the greater good of the citizens of Pennsylvania, not for any particular special interest group that’s tried to influence the process unduly with a lot of money.”
DeLissio has also been very active in the discussion to re-draw the state districts in Pennsylvania. She says both parties have taken advantage of drawing district boundaries when they are in control of the process. She would like to see an independent re-districting commission do the work so that there would be no political information used to draw the lines.
Rep. Perry Warren (D-Bucks) is a recently-established “empty nester.” Warren and his wife Liz have five children and the youngest has just left the house.
“It made me sad, but they come home a lot,” Warren told me on a recent visit to his Capitol office. In the meantime he has plenty to keep him busy—both in his district in Bucks Co. and when he is at the Capitol. One of the issues we talked about was Warren’s introduction of a bill in the last session to establish a minimum age for marriage in Pennsylvania of 18. He is co-sponsoring the measure with Rep. Jesse Topper (R-Bedford, Franklin, Fulton). The issue was brought to his attention in 2017 by two of his constituents.
“That bill really became an issue about awareness and the recognition that there is currently no minimum age to get married in Pennsylvania,” Warren said. “Pennsylvania is one of twenty-some states that have no minimum age.”
He started reading about the situation and learned about what are often coercive types of marriages. He then introduced a bill two years ago to make 18 the required age for marriage in Pennsylvania.
“It gathered support,” he said, noting that they PA Catholic Conference backed the measure. “It had bipartisan support and ultimately the bill passed this spring unanimously in the House of Representatives. We’re hoping the Senate will take action on it. It’s a bill about protecting children, letting children be children.”
Under current PA law, a marriage license may be issued to an applicant younger than 16 with court approval. A marriage license may also be issued where an applicant is older than 16 but younger than 18 with the consent of a parent or guardian. If the bill is passed, Pennsylvania would be the third state to ban child marriage. Delaware and New Jersey passed similar laws in 2018.
Warren is also working on passing gun legislation and talked about why he is so committed to that cause.
“As a father of five children, who’s lost a child, from a town called Newtown– the shootings in Newtown Connecticut– and I live five doors from an elementary school…those shootings really, really hit home with me and my family. Since then I’ve really been an advocate for gun safety legislation.”
He has recently introduced House Bill 373 which would require universal background checks. Another one of his bills would require that guns be stored safely in homes. And yet another of his measures would prevent guns from being sold to suspected terrorists.
“These are bills that we think of as gun safety bills,” he said. “Bills that would keep our homes, our communities, our places of worship safe.”
Warren started his career in public service back in 2009 when he took office on the Newtown Borough Council. He has worked as an attorney in his own firm, but he also operates his own ice cream truck as a family business. That is something he started when he was 19.
Rep. Ben Sanchez (D-Montgomery) comes from several different walks of life—he worked as a CPA, an attorney and as a college professor. But he’s very happy and satisfied with his current path—as a state lawmaker. He was elected to office last November to replace Madeleine Dean who went on to the U.S. House. He took office in January and has been loving the job ever since.
“It wasn’t always a dream to become a state representative, but I say it should have been,” Sanchez told me during a visit to his Capitol office. He said he was working as a real estate lawyer when he was elected to the position of Abington Township Commissioner. That got him very interested in local government.
“I’m really enjoying the work, helping the constituents,” he added. “It’s really an honor to represent my home town of Abington.”
He has great reason to be proud of the area. Sanchez said Abington was ranked in Money Magazine’s Top 100 Places to Live in America. It was one of two towns in Pennsylvania that made the list. Sanchez also represents Upper Dublin Township, which he pointed out is celebrating its Tri-Centennial this year.
The representative has been working on many issues, but is perhaps working the hardest on gun violence prevention. He has sponsored two bills of his own and says he has co-sponsored every other piece of legislation that deals with the issue.
“The one that I’m particularly interested in of my own is a bill on lost and stolen reporting,” Sanchez said. “That requires a gun owner or someone in possession of a gun that has it stolen to report that within 72 hours of the discovery. This is, of course, an effort to stem the course of straw purchasing.”
Sanchez has another piece of legislation that would take a Protection of Abuse order that normally expires after three years in Pennsylvania and make it effective for an indefinite period of time.
“Instead of the automatic expiration, you would wait until the parties petition and then that PFA could be removed. We would like to have some hearings on that, get different perspectives on the issue and see where it goes.”
Like every lawmaker in Harrisburg, Sanchez is very aware of the property tax issue and the challenges that are faced in trying to solve it. And like many legislators, he sees the feelings vary among constituents, based on place of residence, age, etc.
“We’ve been able to keep property taxes pretty stable in Abington Township. I know there are complaints in Upper Dublin Township,” Sanchez said. “If we could do a better job of funding the schools through the state, that would take the burden off of the property taxes. Yes, it is something that is really hitting our seniors. I would like to see a creative solution that doesn’t hurt the schools. I would definitely be interested in unique and creative perspectives on that.”
Often-times we hear of partisan battles in the state House and Senate, Republicans vs. Democrats voting along party lines. But there are many instances where there is agreement from both sides of the aisle.
One of those instances was in getting a new healthcare exchange that will use federal funds to operate a state-run marketplace. It will take the place of the federally-operated healthcare.gov exchange. The bill was signed into law this summer by the Governor.
“It’s a good example of bi-partisanship actually working in the Commonwealth, which is the rare occasion,” Minority Leader Rep. Frank Dermody (D-Allegheny, Westmoreland) told me during a visit to his Capitol office. “I worked together with Brian Cutler. The Democrats and the Republicans got together—working with the Administration and Governor Wolf.”
Dermody says the exchange is expected to save the state as much as $80-million in operating costs and will present lower insurance premiums for Pennsylvanians who enroll in the program.
Lawmakers in Harrisburg have also worked together in the last several months on criminal justice reform. One of the more noteworthy bi-partisan efforts in that regard was the Pennsylvania Clean Slate Law, which calls for the sealing of low-level, non-violent misdemeanors, summary offenses and non-conviction records, with no action required by the individual.
“I think that’s crucially important. I think that’s a great issue for us,” Dermody said. “You can be tough on crime and make sure bad guys are off the streets, but we have too many people who are in jail for non-violent offenses who can be rehabilitated–if it’s drug-related, alcohol-related–those types of offenses. Society is better off and we protect the public safety in making sure those folks get the treatment they need. Incarceration doesn’t necessarily always take care of all those issues. We have to balance it. There are some great proposals out there and we have to make more progress.”
Dermody says if lawmakers are going to accomplish anything, it’s going to be with Democrats and Republicans working together.
“We’re not always going to get exactly what we want,” he said. “But I think that’s the process. I have to work hard to make sure that we can work together with Republicans to move the state forward, along with Governor Wolf.”
The state House came back for two weeks of sessions in Harrisburg and will not return for a couple more weeks. But Rep. Dermody says they will be focusing on a number of issues in the remaining weeks of the session, including getting the increase in the minimum wage that they have been fighting for.
“We are going to continue to concentrate on minimum wage, introducing bills,” Dermody said. “Obviously there are bills that have been introduced already that we would like to see reported out of committee. The minimum wage hasn’t been increased in well over a decade. It’s $7.25 an hour. All of our neighboring states have done it and have actually increased employment. It’s helped immeasurably so.”
Dermody says the Governor and his caucus each have plans to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
“I think if it ever got up for a vote it would pass,” he said. “We just have to get the powers-that-be downstairs to run the bill, so we have to get it out of committee. There’s a discharge process that usually doesn’t work but we will see what we can do.”
Rep. Seth Grove (R-York) says his caucus has some unfinished business they want to take care of from the spring session. One of the biggest issues on that list will be how to fund voting machines at the county level.
Lawmakers have already passed a measure that will provide $90-million in funding to the counties for the machines as part of a federal mandate. The Republicans are also backing a proposal to eliminate the button that registers straight-party voting across the ballot. Grove says Pennsylvania is one of only a handful of states that still allow that.
“That was the actual reason that the Governor vetoed it (the election package),” Grove said. “The Democratic party from the high end called him and said ‘we need you to maintain that straight-party ticketing.”
Grove said round two on the voting issue is coming up. There will also be a look at election policy moving forward to strengthen the election process. He says both parties want to work on the process, but they differ on what to do.
“Republicans tend to focus on the integrity of the voting system, to make sure that your vote actually counts and that we don’t have individuals that shouldn’t be voting, actually voting in our elections. Democrats just want to open it up and let anybody vote at any time and remove those integrity protections from the election system.”
Grove says his taxpayer caucus has not been overly busy lately since the Governor backed off of looking for tax increases. He has also been very appreciate of what the new Majority Leader, Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster) has done.
“He’s done a phenomenal job. A hard worker. Better packaging of bills. We have a lot more—at least with the House Republican caucus–we have a lot more caucus unity moving into taking on issues. He’s been a breath of fresh air.”
Grove also said the House will take a look at issues like Telemedicine and will take another look at pension reform.
“We worked with the Governor to pass some benefit structure. Now we’re looking at the governance. We’re looking at those two big plans—PSERS and SERS—and how to make sure they’re better managed and effectively use the money they’re collecting and improve their yields when they invest the money. Hopefully we can really get some structural reforms there.”
I also asked Grove about the future of his “Buyer Beware” bill that that he has worked on with Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill (R-York). It would stiffen penalties against those who patronize victims of human trafficking—usually through prostitution. It would also stiffen penalties against those who force the victims into those roles.
“We’re hopeful that we’re going to do a week on victims and hopefully specifically on human trafficking,” Grove said. “I’m hoping that will happen this fall in the House. We all know how much of a heinous crime that is. It is modern-day slavery.”
Grove visited the southern U.S. border this summer and learned about the prevalence of human trafficking and how profitable that is for the Mexican drug cartels.
“The cartels control that entire southern border. They make money off of human trafficking–$53-milliion a week. Think about that…$53-million a week. And that’s just a side gig. They use that to overwhelm our border security so they can bring in drugs that are killing American citizens. Those drugs the cartels bring in are infiltrating our communities here in the commonwealth.”
Grove is also looking to work on pro-life legislation this term—with the Down Syndrome Protection Act and the Heartbeat bill.
“There are a lot of good pro-life bills that we can move and hopefully put on the Governor’s desk. Let him make a decision. I look forward to that conversation on why you would say we don’t have a life at birth when we have a heartbeat in the womb. How is that not a life? I look forward to those conversations.”
Rep. Matt Bradford (D-Montgomery) says that one afternoon he was just minding his own business practicing law when he got word that the state representative in his district was not running for re-election.
“It was 2008, the Obama year, and a lot of people were getting involved in politics for the first time,” Bradford told me on a visit to his district office just outside of Norristown. “I got asked to run. It was a Friday afternoon at the end of a month of practicing law and it just seemed like the right thing to do.”
You have to give Bradford a lot of credit. He’s basically had two jobs. Representing the people of the 70th district and being the father of four. Four young ones–14, 12, 7 and 4. That might be two jobs right there alone!
“My wife and I—we have one that just finished little league, one that’s just starting little league. Our oldest daughter just started high school…Tonight the championship baseball team has a dinner. My daughter has a football game to cheer for. I can’t remember what the little guys have but it’s always something!”
Bradford is also looking at a busy schedule in Harrisburg as the session gets in full swing. He is promising to resume work on increasing the minimum wage.
“I was blessed by my caucus to be elected Appropriations Chair for the Democrats,” he said. “So I spent an inordinate amount of my time on budget and finance issues. Obviously we would love to see a minimum wage increase. There are a lot of people who struggle to make ends meet on $7.25 an hour. And a lot of us think it’s frankly past time to get something done. It’s going to take up a lot of our time this fall. God willing that we get that done for the working people here in Pennsylvania.”
Bradford said the Governor did not tie the minimum wage increase to the budget, hoping to gain some good will. Bradford says he was probably wise to do that, but when something is not tied to a deadline the legislature many times does not act on it.
I also had to ask him about property tax reform. It’s another one of those issues that comes up very often but is an extremely difficult fix. Bradford says he hears about it all the time.
“It gets worse frankly in southeastern districts,” Bradford said. His district is in the southeast. “Berks County you hear a ton of it. You hear it here in Montgomery County, East Norriton, Norristown. People pay very high property taxes here in my legislative district.
“And the thing that legislators miss the mark on, and one thing I try to be very upfront with, to eliminate property taxes, the $13-billion that it brings in, means finding $13-billion to fund the schools. You have to find the off-setting taxes.”
I mentioned the plan that Rep. Frank Ryan had introduced a couple of weeks before that, which would include taxing some of the retirement income of seniors. Many folks lashed out at Ryan for the idea.
“We don’t see eye to eye on necessarily every issue, but Frank is just a really good man, a decent man, one of my favorite members of the legislature. I always thought it took a Marine to throw that idea out there to take the incoming that was coming his way!
“I give him credit for touching the third rail. I don’t agree with touching that third rail, but I think it shows it shows the complexity and the difficulty of doing something like that.”
Bradford thanked us for coming to his office. I thanked him profusely for having us as well, since many times Democrats are hesitant to meet with us, presumably because of differences on major issues like abortion. (Actually, there are a number of Republicans who also have not taken advantage of the lovely opportunity to meet with me and record an interview.)
“A lot of us are really glad to see that you guys are engaging with legislators, not just on the hot-button and sometimes difficult issues, but talk about people on a personal level and getting to realize that sometimes we may disagree on individual issues but what unites us is much larger and much more important frankly.”
PA Rep. Dan Moul (R-Adams) feels that it’s time to go out with the old and in with the new as far as the way many things are done with state government.
“We need to fix things with the old to make them fit in with today,” he told me on a visit to his district office in Gettysburg. “Some of the laws that we have to live by have morphed into things that were never intended to be.”
That’s kind of vague, but Moul was loaded with specifics. For one thing, he says the Governor’s office has gotten too much power. That’s not just directed at Governor Wolf. Moul says it’s been that way through many administrations.
“Last year our Governor spent $700-million in supplementals,” the representative said. “That’s over and above what we signed off on as a legislature in our budget. He spent $700-million more than what we budgeted last year. Governors do that every year. He shouldn’t have that power. Every dime that is over that budget should be approved by the House and Senate.”
Moul says that kind of spending comes from a king, not a governor. But he offered more specifics in things that have gotten away from what they were supposed to be. He talked about agencies and the secretaries that lead them who draw up regulations.
“They can write anything that they want,” said Moul, talking about the secretaries and deputy secretaries that run the agencies. “The Governor sends it through its proper paces and it never comes past the House or the Senate for approval and now you basically have a new law that falls under the guise of regulation and everybody has to live by it just like it was a law.”
Moul said a prime example of that is the passage a couple years ago of medical marijuana. He was one of a number of lawmakers that voted in favor of the measure. But Moul says there was something else that was rolled into that measure.
“I understand that when the regulations were written, they added it in that you could buy it and smoke it,” Moul said. “Well, we never talked about that. That was never supposed to happen. But under the Department of Health, those bureaucrats decided on that, without ever running it by us. That’s just one example of thousands and thousands of examples. You could pick any agency you want and come up with thousands of examples of bureaucrats that were never elected, nobody knows their name…and they’ve been given all of this power and they abuse the hell out of it….You name it, it’s abused by people that nobody voted for.
“Last time I looked, it was my name hanging on the front door out there that says I’m the elected official, not some bureaucrat in a big concrete building, behind the scenes. He’s not supposed to be making law.”
Moul has also taken issue with the spread of power for the Susquehanna River Basin Commission. It was started by a group of states to make sure that water from the river is used responsibly by the people upstream so there is enough left for those downstream. But Moul says the commission has since decided that it can regulate wells and has been charging water companies and water authorities for water that is used.
“They’re basically selling you water that you already own,” Moul said. “It is absolutely absurd.’ He says that, for example, Messiah College and golf courses are paying fees on evaporation rates. He says the SRBC was only meant to control surface water, not well water.
I reached out to the Susquehanna River Basic Commission for a reaction to Rep. Moul’s comments and got this statement from Gene Veno, their Director of Public Advocacy.
The Susquehanna River Basin Commission looks forward to working with The Honorable Dan Moul 91st Legislative District when the Fall Legislative session commences in addressing constituent concerns that pertain to the River Basin. The Commission was established to lead the conservation, development, and administration of the Basin’s resources that would preserve and enhance its value as scenic and recreational asset for the people who live in the Basin.
Our mission, as defined in the Compact, is to enhance public welfare through comprehensive planning, water supply allocation, and management of the water resources of the Susquehanna River Basin The Commission works to reduce damages caused by floods; provide for the reasonable and sustained development and use of surface and groundwater for municipal, agricultural, recreational, commercial and industrial purposes; protect and restore fisheries, wetlands, and aquatic habitat; protect water quality and instream uses; and ensure future availability of flows to the Chesapeake Bay.
We welcome Representative Dan Moul’s continued interest in the SRBC and look forward to working with him and his colleagues to help all municipalities in the Commonwealth of Pa
Rep. Moul says he is confident that the SRBC will indeed come to the table to talk about the situation. But he remains determined to get them out of the well water business.
Rep. Pam Snyder (R-Fayette, Greene, Washington) has a district that is tucked away somewhere between Pittsburgh and West Virginia. It’s the largest district in the state in terms of square miles, which means it’s very rural. You’re not going to drop in on Rep. Snyder’s district office in Carmichaels on the way to anywhere else. Unless you’re lost.
But if you like beautiful countryside and a relaxing ride that provides therapy to the debilitating strain of the rat race, this is the place to go.
“My district is beautiful. You are right,” Rep. Snyder told me on a visit to her district office. “Greene Co., my portion of Fayette Co., my little piece of Washington Co., just a wonderful district. I am honored to represent the people here. I have said it for many, many years that this area is probably the best kept secret in the state of Pennsylvania because there’s no better place to raise your family. I have been born and raised here and I can’t imagine living anywhere else.”
But with a rural setting comes challenges in terms of connecting with the internet. One of the challenges—maybe the biggest–that Snyder has taken on is getting her district some better access to high-speed broadband.
“It is a huge issue out here,” she said. “It’s an issue that impacts everybody, whether they realize it or not. It’s not about being able to download the latest Netflix movie. It is truly about students being able to do their homework when they get home from school if they don’t have access. It is about someone who is sick and getting access to telemedicine and maybe a specialist in another part of the country.”
And she says it is about jobs. It is hard to get a company to come to an area if they can’t connect. It’s also hard for some of the businesses that are here to do what they have to do on a daily basis.
“My tag line is: we cannot compete if we cannot connect.”
Snyder talked about a recent visit to an event in Fayette Co. where she got to see a robotic dairy farm. She says that technology frees up the farmer from having to be on site come milking time. But if there is no broadband connection and they have an issue with the technology, the cows may not get milked.
“I was at another event at a farm, with a huge farmer’s market on their property. That’s how they make their living. They tell me that they are the last person on that particular carrier’s line and that their credit card machine goes down on a regular basis because of their internet connection.”
Snyder has a bill to address the issue that has passed the House and is now in the Senate. She says there are so many different avenues that lawmakers are pursuing to solve the problem.
“It is an extremely critical issue and it’s not an easy issue to solve but I am committed to keeping the fight going until I am able to solve it.”
That is an effort that concerns many people in one certain issue. You solve that problem you immediately help millions across the state. But for Snyder and other legislators, helping the constituents in many cases comes one person at a time.
“The thing that really bothers me is when someone says ‘you’re off for a couple of months.’ No. No. It is a district work period is what I like to call it,” she said. “I am extremely busy when I am in my district. It is non-stop all the time, literally seven days a week. I don’t know if I’ve ever had a weekend—other than the one that I did sneak away for my family vacation. I don’t know of another weekend where I haven’t had something on my schedule Saturdays and Sundays.”
Snyder says the work that she does in Harrisburg is very important. However…
“What I do here in the district is really what impacts people’s lives and it means a lot to me. And I have a phenomenal staff. They are top-notch. Anyone that walks through this door is going to get help whether it’s a state issue or not.”
Rep. Jennifer O’Mara (R-Delaware) is a product of St. Barnabas Catholic School in Philadelphia. She attended there up until 8th grade and also was an altar server. Apparently she was a pretty good one too!
“I was an altar server at St. Barney’s,” she told me on a recent trip to her Springfield district office. “And one of my proudest moments there was when I received the “Altar Server of the Year” award when I served at the Cathedral in center city under Cardinal Bevilacqua. It was quite an experience for my family and for my school to be honored in that way.”
O’Mara grew up in Philadelphia were her father worked as a firefighter. But the course of her life would change when she was still very young.
“When I was 13 we lost my dad to gun suicide,” she said. “That changed everything for our family. It’s what brought us to Delaware County. We had to make big life adjustments. We went to public schools. My mom went from being a stay-at-home mom to having to work for the first time in 15 years.”
She said going through that experience and realizing that it is not unique, inspired her to get into public service to try to help others.
“I can help people who are facing similar struggles that my family faced and other families in Pennsylvania are facing.”
Lawmakers were on their summer recess when I stopped in to see Rep. O’Mara, but the term “recess” is a misnomer. They might be on a recess from the Capitol but they are still very busy, meeting constituents and making appearances. But as busy as O’Mara has been, she still looks back at the time she was campaigning as being even more hectic. Then she had to work full-time and campaign—not an easy thing to do! But she says it was good practice for when she took office in January.
“We were in Harrisburg a lot for the first six months of the year,” she said. “So going back and forth was a big adjustment. But being back in the district has been wonderful. We’ve had tons of events. I’ve had four town halls, plus there are the senior fairs and events about the Spotted Lantern Fly.”
All in all, she seems to be very pleased at how things have gone.
“It’s rewarding. It’s a lot more rewarding than I imagined it would be. Everyone always says ‘you’re not going to get anything done, you’re going into politics.’ I don’t look at it like that. I went into public service. Here in the district is where we really see our work pay off. And we can really help people. Sometimes it’s in the smallest of ways. Someone lost their handicap plaque and they need a new one. Or they lost their car registration and they’re on their way to the shore and you’re helping them out before they go on their vacation. It’s been surprising, but very rewarding for me and my staff.”
O’Mara says everyone on her staff lives in the district so it gives them a chance to give back to their community.
She is serving on the Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee. That was her first choice since her husband is a veteran. He served two tours of duty in Afghanistan and has two Purple Hearts.
“He was another reason I decided to run for office,” she said. “I was his advocate at the VA through his disability pension process and it took about two years. It really opened my eyes to the struggles our veterans are facing. Living with a veteran who has PTSD has enlightened me as to what families are dealing with in any mental health issue.”
One of the bills that O’Mara is working on will add Workers Comp benefits for first responders who have PTSD or PTSI. One statistic that she saw really hit home.
“We lose more first responders to suicides than we do in the line of duty,” she said. “That is true in Pennsylvania and across the United States. This is not a unique problem that we’re facing in Pennsylvania, but we’re in a unique position to help our first responders.”
Every time I visit a legislator in their district office I see a lot of activity. The staff members are very busy, either taking calls from constituents or meeting with them in person. The lawmakers are squeezing in meetings and appearances. In fact, they are probably busier over their summer “recess” than they are during the session time at the Capitol.
“Our office is truly a one-stop shop for many of my neighbors and constituents here in the 195th,” Rep. Donna Bullock (D-Philadelphia) told me during a visit to her office. “They come to Girard Avenue to go shopping, to visit neighbors, to eat, but also to come and get help with any of their questions.”
Bullock is very big on service to the people she represents. It’s a commitment that started early in her life. She attended a soup kitchen called “Elijah’s Promise” with her family when they were in need.
“’Elijah’s Promise’ took care of me and my family when we struggled,” she said. “But it also installed in me a sense of service, because after I ate, my grandmother made me serve. As I grew up, that mission to serve, even though I had very little, has always been there.”
Bullock was also apparently driven to succeed. She earned a scholarship to college, then went to law school where she continued to excel. She also held on to her dream of trying to save the world.
“My career path took me to places like Community Legal Services and I was able to help folks. I eventually crossed paths with a council person here in Philadelphia who brought me on as a staff person. I was happy to do that, happy to be in service—whether I was a staff person or whether I was in legal services.”
The mass shootings that occurred in Texas and Ohio over the summer made for big headlines and calls for action from lawmakers on the state and federal level. But Bullock saw gun violence in her own back yard and that made her determined to take action.
“Unfortunately this summer we’ve seen two incidents of mass shootings at public recreation centers and playgrounds here in Philadelphia,” she said. “Places where young children are playing games, they’re playing basketball, families are picnicking. Unfortunately two people lost their lives and ten others were injured by gun violence.”
Bullock is introducing companion legislation that mirrors a bill that was introduced in the city of Philadelphia to prohibit firearms at public recreation centers and playgrounds in the city.
She is also keeping an eye toward the environment with some of her other pieces of legislation.
“I’ve been a champion and an advocate of environmental justice issues and climate change—not an issue that I thought about when I started as a legislator four years ago. But it’s something that’s come to my attention through constituents and, interestingly enough, through my own children. They go to a Catholic school here in Philadelphia called Gesu and they had a project the one year about the environment and how it was a gift from God and it was their responsibility to take care of that gift.”
Bullock said her kids have always loved animals and that made a big impression on how they view our planet.
“They understood very well that what we do impacts our planet, impacts this world that God has gifted them, the animals that they love and our own future here.”
She has been working with legislators and advocates across Pennsylvania and across the country on different environmental issues and legislation that she hopes can be passed to encourage everyone to take better care of the environment.
PA Speaker of the House Mike Turzai (R-Allegheny) is praising a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals which will uphold the traditional practice of having a session-opening prayer.
“We are pleased that the Third Circuit has found that our prayer complies with the United States Constitution,” Turzai said, “and has issued a precedent setting decision entirely in the House’s favor. As a result, we expect the House to be able to resume its tradition of welcoming guest chaplains as it has in the past.”
In 2016 a group of atheists and other non-believers sued the House, claiming their exclusion as guest chaplains violated the Constitution. The plaintiffs also challenged the presiding officer’s traditional request to rise for the prayer and the pledge to the flag. Last year, a federal judge in Harrisburg ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and limited the practice to member-led prayers.
But the House appealed. Late last month a three-judge panel of the Third Circuit ruled in the House’s favor on all counts.
“By a 2-1 vote the panel held the House’s prayer practices were constitutional because they fit within the long history of legislative prayer in this country,” Turzai said. “The majority explained that ‘only theistic prayer can satisfy the historical purpose of appealing for divine guidance in lawmaking.’”
Turzai said the panel ruled 3-0 that it is constitutional and not coercive to request that guests stand for the prayer and the pledge.
Last year the state House passed the Pennsylvania Clean Slate Law, which called for the sealing of criminal records that contained low-level, non-violent misdemeanors and summary offenses. The measure was a bi-partisan effort, authored by Rep. Jordan Harris (D-Philadelphia) and Rep. Sheryl Delozier (R-Cumberland).
It was the first of its kind law in the nation and took effect this past June. I visited Rep. Harris in his Philadelphia district office to talk about that measure and other things that he is working on.
“Clean Slate basically says that those with misdemeanor II and III, that are of non-violent nature, after 10 years—that person’s record can be automatically sealed,” Harris said. “So that when they go to apply for a job, people won’t see it. Those with misdemeanor I have an opportunity to go to court to see if that can be sealed.”
Harris admitted that many people wouldn’t think that the two authors of the bill would have a lot in common–one a Philadelphia Democrat, the other a mid-state Republican. Yes, he said, on a lot of issues they are on opposite sides.
“But on this issue, we agree that when a person has paid their debt to society, it should be our job as government to get them back into society and we should be removing obstacles that are in their way. This is the reason why we did Clean Slate. It’s the reason why we’re also looking at fixing the issues we have with our probation system here in Pennsylvania and how we shut the door to what I call a ‘perpetual state of probation.’”
To that end, Harris joined Rep. Ed Gainey (D-Allegheny), Rep. Mike Jones (R-York) and Rep. Delozier to introduce a bill that aimed at reforming the state’s probation and parole system. House Bill 1555 is known as the Smart Probation and Parole Act and includes preventing courts from sentencing a person to consecutive sentences of probation and preventing the court from extending probation or parole due solely to nonpayment of fines and costs.
There have been criticisms here and there about such criminal justice reform signifies a softening on crime. That comes even as several Republicans and a number of law enforcement officials and prosecutors have supported such reforms.
“The reality is that you can reform a criminal justice system and be fair and just and still keep communities safe,” Harris said. “I question anybody who claims Christianity as their religious belief on why they wouldn’t have a redemptive view on life. How can anyone call themselves a Christian and not believe in the redemptive power of Christ?”
Harris did offer a reminder that this program does not apply to violent offenders who are a danger to society.
Harris has shown an eagerness to work with lawmakers, no matter what their party might be. I also thanked him for agreeing to meet with me when many Democrats have not taken advantage of such a great opportunity! (At least I think it is)
“I think Frederick Douglas said it, and I’m paraphrasing…’I will work with anyone and everyone to do good. And I will work with no one to do what is wrong.’ I kind of live my life by that model. If there are folks that are willing to work with me on an issue that will positively affect my community, then I’m going to work with them…I think that’s what our body politick is supposed to be about. It’s supposed to be about us finding consensus and getting the things done that we can do for people.”
One of the big issues that will be facing legislators this fall will be whether or not to do something with gun laws. That may be tough to find a consensus. Several Democrats have called for action after more deadly mass shootings this summer. Harris had this to say;
“If my friends—on both sides of the aisle—want to be concerned about a life starting with the first heartbeat, I want you to also protect that life when it lives in urban communities and lives under the threat of gun violence.
When you visit the Real Alternatives headquarters outside of Harrisburg, you’re not going to find case-workers and pregnant women looking for help. But the work that is done here makes it possible for those two groups of people to meet each other and have that potentially life-saving assistance provided.
“When we talk about providing support, we’re talking about the Catholic Charities throughout the state providing support,” said Kevin Bagatta, the President of Real Alternatives. “We’re talking about pregnancy centers providing support and we’re talking about maternity homes providing support.”
There about 90 Real Alternatives-affiliated pregnancy centers providing support throughout Pennsylvania, using about 370 counselors. They’re about giving pregnant women a choice too. They are dedicated to provide support to encourage childbirth so the client need not feel she needs to choose abortion.
What Real Alternatives does is provide government resources to all of those centers. That has made a huge difference in pregnancy services in the some 24 years that Real Alternatives has been in existence. In that amount of time, almost 310,000 women have been helped. That doesn’t include the babies, just the moms!
“When I first met the people at Morningstar Pregnancy Services in Harrisburg,” Bagatta said, “they had volunteers but they were only open Tuesday and Thursday night, 6 to 8. By providing resources for the work that they do, they were able to– after a couple of years–buy a bigger building and now they operate six days a week. They have more counselors to see more clients to help more people.”
Many times the young, pregnant woman is alone and is being pressured to have an abortion. Bagatta says the counselors will help her realize she does not have to abort her baby because of her situation. And that she is not by herself.
“Very simply that’s what our program does,” Bagatta said. “It does it in Pennsylvania. It does it in Indiana. It does it in Michigan. It does it in the program we started in Texas. It does it day in and day out in the other states. They may just not be funded for it.”
In addition to the center in Texas, Real Alternatives has also helped 11 other states establish similar programs: Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio and Oklahoma.
The care during pregnancy continues afterwards as the new mother is supported through her parenting or adoption decision.
“After the pregnancy, especially with young people, that unplanned pregnancy, or unexpected pregnancy can become a crisis parenting situation,” Bagatta said. “We’ll be there with them for that time to make sure they are ready and are providing good parenting and good nurturing and are being taken care of during that first year of life.”
Bagatta says the outcomes for the program are very high, with 98% of clients showing up for prenatal care visits and 99% for immunization rates.
“That doesn’t surprise us, because of the wonderful counselors we have,” Bagatta said. “And the love that they show our clients.”
He says the Centers for Disease Control keeps track of how much that type of preventive care can save money in the long run. In Pennsylvania last year, Bagatta says CDC calculations show that 8,000 child immunizations of Real Alternatives clients saved taxpayers $162-million. The pre-natal care of nearly 15,000 clients’ children saved the taxpayers of PA $334-million.
I had interviewed Kevin back in January to find out what Real Alternatives has to offer. That was before the New York State vote, which allows for later-term abortions, even up to the moment of a child’s birth. Bagatta says he’s heard from people who are even pro-choice that were shocked by what has happened in New York.
“They told me they cannot believe what is going on in New York. Though they thought abortion was okay for the first couple of months, they absolutely, vehemently disagree with what is basically infanticide. They said that is never what they considered about abortion….It’s turning people. They understand that’s a very, very extreme position.”
The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has offered the nation, in these turbulent times we live, a clearly different policy choice on helping women in unexpected pregnancies. It funds a program that provides love and life-affirming support to the women and then to her baby. This program lowers abortion by supporting the pregnant woman through her crisis. Shouldn’t every state have such a program?
I met Rep. Joe Webster (D-Montgomery) in his Collegeville district office, but Webster has roots that reach all the way back to Philadelphia.
“Big Irish-Catholic family, started out in Fairmount, in Philadelphia,” he told me. “My mother had us moved out to Roxborough for my teenage years, where I attended Immaculate Heart and then LaSalle High School.”
He must have done well at LaSalle. He got accepted into the Air Force Academy and went out to Colorado Springs. He served 23 years in the Air Force, went into the information technology industry and did some teaching at night and then came back to southeastern Pennsylvania.
So what made the freshman rep decide to get involved in public service?
“I didn’t decide that,” he laughed. “I joke about that, but I was kind of recruited.”
Of all places, that recruitment occurred in his kitchen around January of last year.
“There were a group of people sitting the table looking for a candidate for the 150th. The question was ‘Joe, do you have anyone in mind? The room went quiet.”
But they had their man. It was then time to start campaigning.
“It’s a lot of work and every day it’s daunting,” Webster said. “I would sit back and say ‘I don’t want to knock on doors. And really by the third or fourth door, you’re in the mode. Someone comes out and is excited to see you –or not…but all of a sudden you’re right in the mix of things and it works out fine.”
Webster says it was a great opportunity to be re-introduced to Pennsylvania after spending all those years away from home. His office has kept track of his meetings in the first 200 days in office. They provided 1,500 constituent services during that time, with everything from SEPTA Key cards to tax rebates and birth certificates. He attended 183 local events and meetings during that time as well.
That’s a lot of handshakes. A lot of…names to remember. Or try to remember.
“I don’t always remember names, but I keep telling people, ‘if I’ve met you three times and I don’t know your name, you can kick me in the shins,’ because it is about each of these people. I need to learn who they are and what their interests are.”
Webster has been working to give senior citizens a break from property taxes. He cited the example of the retired couple who’s trying to live on $30,000 a year and they then get an $11,000 property tax bill.
“I don’t think we solve that problem by eliminating property taxes and creating a quagmire around public schools,” he explained. “But I do think we have to address the direct issue for our senior citizens.”
That is one of the issues that will be of interest this fall. Another will be gun legislation. Several lawmakers spoke out this summer of the need to do something after more deadly mass shootings.
“I’m a strong proponent of doing something about gun violence,” Webster said. “And I start that with my perspective as a veteran. I have a marksman rating with high-powered weapons. And I don’t believe they belong in our streets. I don’t believe they belong anywhere near our communities, and our schools and our churches…We have to regain our value system around the value of human life versus the right to own a weapon.”
Pennsylvania’s state revenues benefited from a robust economy by recording a huge surplus this year. Rep. Steven Mentzer (R-Lancaster) was very appreciative of that and of the fact that it helped fund human services. Mentzer says human services represents the biggest growth area in the budget.
“We’ve been able to do a lot with that increased funding to increase mental health services,” Mentzer told me when I visited his district office in Lititz, “along with services for the disabled to get them out of the institutions and into the community. We’re very excited about that.”
Mentzer said it shows what the free enterprise system and a strong economy can do for human services.
Lawmakers did manage to save a bunch of that money as well. They put $317-million into the Rainy Day Fund thanks to the surplus in this year’s budget. They can draw on that when things aren’t going as well with the economy.
That was all settled in June when the budget was signed and the lawmakers then left for their respective districts. It is them time to meet with the people—some by appointment and some just showing up to ask for help. Mentzer says there are fair amount of constituents that come to his office looking for help in understanding the bureaucracy involved in government. That does not bother him one bit. He says that’s why they are there.
In fact, he is working on a bill that would help people with the pre-authorization process to get medication or a medical procedure. That process can be confusing and sometimes lengthy. Mentzer has taken notice.
“My bill does not eliminate pre-authorization but what it does do is give a set of guidelines so the insurer, patient and provider understand clearly the process that is required for pre-authorization.”
I thanked Mentzer for his support of the Educational Improvement Tax Credit. He sees an example of where that EITC money can help—there’s a Catholic school in his district. “There are gracious enough to always invite me to their awards ceremony,” he said. “I enjoy that. I am a big advocate of the EITC.”
We talked about one of the biggest challenges facing the legislature. It’s one that they’ve been working on for years but has proven to be no easy fix—property tax reform.
“That’s a tough one,” Mentzer acknowledged. “That’s a real tough one because there are so many winners and losers. But I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to come up with some kind of a reasonable compromise and reasonable solution over the next year or so.”
I mentioned a recent property tax reform plan that was proposed recently that would tax the income of retired citizens. They aren’t happy about it. Mentzer has hear about it too.
“My district, the 97th district, which is a suburb of Lancaster City…I think I have nine or ten retirement communities,” Mentzer said. “I think you can conclude from the fact that I have these retirement communities like Brethren Village and Luther Acres are not happy with the idea of taxing their pension checks. But we’ll see where that goes.”
Rep. Torren Ecker (R-Adams, Cumberland) says he always had an interest in running for elected office. While in college at George Mason University, he worked on Capitol Hill for Congressman Jo Ann Davis. He figured he’d spend some time in D.C. working in politics.
But then the plans changed.
“I met my wife and we decided that living in D.C. wasn’t where we wanted to raise a family,” Ecker told me during a visit to his Abbottstown district office. “I decided to go to law school right out of college. We spent three years in Michigan and came back to Pennsylvania, which was always the plan.”
He worked for ten years as an attorney in Hanover but then got word that Rep. Will Tallman was going to be stepping down. His friend, Rep. Kate Klunk (R-York) reached out to him and suggested a run. “She’s a really good friend, been a good advisor. I sit beside her on the House floor and she’s my office-mate in Harrisburg.”
It has been a busy freshman term for Ecker already. He naturally signed on as a co-sponsor for Klunk’s Down Syndrome Protection Act. He is pro-life as well. He’s also had legislation of his own that he has worked on.
“There’s 40 new freshmen, so unlike the past when they tell you to be quiet and listen, this term we got some opportunities to run some good bills,” he said. “I got to run three bills myself. One of them dealt with strangulation and making that a violent crime. I did a firefighter bill which relaxes the standards for junior firefighters so that we can recruit young people into the volunteer fire service.”
Ecker also worked on some House procedural bills, which were given to him because of his legal background. This fall he will be working on legislation dealing with workforce development: ways to encourage people to get into trades and healthcare.
“One of the areas that we do locally that’s been really advantageous is that our local school districts have been investing in their metal shops, mechatronics and welding programs to try to recruit kids in high school to get into those trades.”
Ecker is planning on introducing a bill this fall that would enable those schools to be able to lease equipment rather than have to go buy it outright at a hefty price.
I asked Ecker a question that I’ve been posing to freshman reps and senators over the last couple of months—is it a tough transition and are people generally nice? Very deep, intellectual question, I know. But I really am curious.
“I know what I’m doing. I think I joked in March that I know where the bathrooms are now,” Ecker said. “I catch on pretty quickly. I’m a pretty fast learner. I’ve been through a budget now, albeit a pretty easy budget. I feel like I’ve learned the process now.”
Okay, but what about the chumminess factor?
“I think that if you could ask me one thing that was surprising it would be how well people get along in Harrisburg. There are certain issues where the Democrats are going to be in their corner and the Republicans are going to be in there corner, but we pass a lot of bi-partisan bills. I have a lot of friends on the other side of the aisle…so my experience for having been there nine months is very positive. I think people appreciate that. Don’t get me wrong, I’m going to stick pretty strong to my core issues and things that are important to me, but there is a lot of common ground in a lot of areas.”
Pennsylvania’s lawmakers come from a variety of backgrounds, but Rep. Mark Gillen (R-Berks, Lancaster) may have the most unique combination there is. He is a former educator with a Master’s Degree in Education from Kutztown University and he is a former corrections officer in Bucks County.
“I have great respect for educators out there who are committing themselves to educating students in public, private, parochial, home school whatever it happens to be,” Gillen told me during a visit to his Reading district office.
He supported the $25-million increase in the Educational Improvement Tax Credit which was included in the budget agreement in June.
“The Educational Improvement Tax Credit is really the perfect marriage, I think, between private and publics since the tax credits help businesses and they’re able to designate resources so that students can make their own choices about where they would like to go to school. Certainly we have a constitutional responsibility for public education, but the Commonwealth also has a great history of parochial, private, Montessori, home-school education as well.”
Gillen is also staunchly pro-life. He has five daughters and believes that life begins at conception. In fact, he recalled how he began communicating with them at a very early age. Like before they were born. He says he keeps pictures tucked away in his office of his daughters from ultra-sound images taken in the womb.
“They don’t recall but I was talking to them, signing to them, even quoting scripture before they were born,” he said. “I think they kicked the hardest when they heard me singing! I think they found that highly objectionable.”
A bill co-sponsored by Gillen was signed into law this past session that will enable Pennsylvania National Guard members and their families to acquire a free college education. It kicks in if they re-up for an additional six-year commitment.
“It is a significant commitment. We have our best and brightest and most young men and women wanting to serve their country,” he said. The deployments have become very regular and so they’re finding themselves overseas…for a year at a time and then they come back and then they might be re-deployed.”
Gillen says that becoming a National Guard member is not just a personal commitment, it is a family commitment.
“There’s a lot of sacrifice on the part of spouses, children, siblings, mothers and fathers as well.”
You talk with many of the lawmakers in PA and you discover that theirs is not an 8-5 job that you can leave at the office or the Capitol. Gillen says he was in his car a few days ago and heard someone complain about a big pothole in his district. He drove over to where the pothole was, found out it was a big one and called to get it fixed.
Gillen says he’s fair game wherever he is to hearing concerns from his constituents. Same with his family!
“People want to talk about their back yards. Where do they live? What’s happening in their community? Are we going to address this property tax problem?”
Along those lines, Gillen has a bill that would eliminate Farmstead Homestead and give some relief to senior citizens.
It was last month that members of the PA Senate hosted leaders of Gov. Tom Wolf’s census team. We went to the hearing since the Executive Director of the PA Catholic Conference, Eric Failing, is on the Census 2020 Complete Count Commission.
Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill (R-York) raised concerns about the lack of planning to connect with rural communities.
Sen. Phillips-Hill pointed out that the most rural communities are the ones that are traditionally undercounted in the census. She called for the commission to add organizations like the Center for Rural Pennsylvania and the Governor’s Office for Rural Affairs to the commission.
I traveled to Sen. Phillips-Hill’s Jacobus district office to talk with her about a number of issues including her concerns about the census commission. Is she seeing compliance to her requests?
“In subsequent conversations, we understand that there will be adequate representation from the Center for Rural Pennsylvania and we already have the Farm Bureau there.”
She said it was important to make the Governor’s people aware of her concerns.
“The more accurate the count, the more federal dollars come back to us,” she said.
Sen. Phillips-Hill also learned that the federal government is relying on residents to respond to the census on-line. But she says there are connectivity issues for many rural residents.
“We’re working on a separate path to try to fix that,” she said. “But in the mean time, I think it’s really important that the residents in the rural part of our state realize that it’s census time. It’s important that they be counted.”
The more legislators I meet, the more I find are products of the Catholic school system. Such is the case with Sen. Tim Kearney (D-Chester, Delaware)—16-years in Catholic school. And he served as an altar boy while growing up in New Jersey.
Another part of Kearney’s background is being Mayor for the Borough of Swarthmore. There, he says, he learned that all politics really are local and that all issues that government can help with are very rarely anything that involves party.
Kearney and his family moved from Philadelphia to Swarthmore 24 years ago in search of a community feel. As time went on he got more involved in politics and end up running for mayor.
He was then actually recruited to run for the Senate by Rep. Leanne Krueger.
“Basically she said she was looking for a partner in the Senate that she could work with on the things that are important to her,” Kearney said. “It was also sort of propelled by the 2016 election. It wasn’t that Donald Trump was a Republican, it was that he was kind of just Donald Trump. And I couldn’t square his platform and the way he talked about things and the way he did things with the way I raised my kids and what was important to them.”
Kearney said it was a phenomenal learning experience to get to know people across his district, which is in the Philadelphia suburbs and may be as diverse as any in the state.
“We have transient populations, immigrant populations, populations that have been here for their first generation or five generations,” he told me during a visit to his Springfield district office. “We go from very wealthy districts in Chester County, like Willistown and Easttown all the way to Glenolden, the Interboro region, Delaware County, Upper Darby.
“School-district-wise we have fabulous schools like Wallingford-Swarthmore, where my kids went, to Great Valley and Tredyffrin-Easttown in Chester County. But on the other end we have districts that are really struggling, like Upper Darby and William Penn.”
Kearney is in his freshman term and says the learning curve is still going on.
“It’s trying to understand the underlying patterns and the underlying systems that really make Harrisburg work. I may spend the rest of my life trying to figure that out.”
Kearney was frustrated that the legislature didn’t approve a continuance of the $200-a-month General Assistance program.
“We have to care for the most vulnerable parts of our community,” he said. “It shouldn’t be all about me or what I need. It’s ‘how do we help each other? How do we work toward the things that would create a better society and better community for all of us…
“When we do things like that cut that out from under them, those things that really humanize people, that’s what really stuck in my craw about that particular thing.”
Kearney says that if you look at what his office is working toward, the majority of it is fairness to people.
“The more time I spend with people at the lower end of the socio-economic system, I understand that we make it so difficult for those people,” he said. “We keep talking about people should pull themselves up by their bootstraps or people should work harder. Most of that stuff is just a bunch of crap. We systemically make it difficult for those people to succeed.”
Sen. Kearney is also looking ahead to the discussing gun legislation in the fall. He doesn’t feel people should be able to carry what amounts to weapons of war. But he knows it’s a controversial issue.
“It’s a tough one,” he said. “We all want the same things. We want to be safe. We want are kids to be safe. We want our families to be safe. We want our neighbors to be safe.”
U.S. Congressman Scott Perry does not sound like a free-spender, and certainly not when it comes to taxpayer money. Yet he sees that happening with his colleagues in Washington, D.C. The law says it’s not supposed to be that way.
“We have things that are called ‘budget caps,’ which are statutory. That means they’re in law,” Perry told me during a recent trip to his district office outside of Harrisburg. “We all agreed to that. Congress agreed. The President agreed, signed the bill. We have a spending cap.”
Apparently revenues increased with the huge increase in jobs. But it seems that nowhere does money burn a hole in the pocket quicker than it does in Washington. There were those who decided to scrap the cap.
“Now the federal government wants to spend more money because it never wants to take care of the bills it’s already made, at least that’s my opinion,” Perry said. “So the leaders in the Senate and the House put together a spending package that blew apart the caps, essentially breaking the law.”
The proposal was put on the floor and its backers used the ‘s’ word. Yes, shutdown.
“When you have Speaker Pelosi and members of the Senate who agree on that, the President has no allies because he’s all by himself. Of course, we already went through one of these shut-down things. It didn’t work out so well.”
Perry voted ‘no’ on the measure, but it passed. He says now they’re on their way to 23-trillion-dollars in debt.
“How do you keep on spending money you don’t have and raiding all these funds, including the Social Security trust fund,” Perry asked. “How do you expect China, an adversary of the United States, to keep financing this unbridled spending?”
Perry is also concerned about the high cost of healthcare for Americans. But he says work is being done.
“One thing in particular that we’re working on is prescription drug prices,” he said. Particularly insulin, the price has really sky-rocketed. We know about these rebates that come from the drug manufacturer but they never seem to get to the customer, to the consumer. We want to figure all that out, figure out where that money’s going, why the cost is so high. Why aren’t there generics. Why is it no longer affordable?”
Immigration also continues to be a topic of concern for Rep. Perry. He says the last statistic he looked at showed that it costs Pennsylvania $1.3-billion a year to pay for illegal foreign nationals and the services they use.
“When you think that your property taxes are too high, just think what you could do with $1.3-billion that you wouldn’t have to pay to the state,” he said. “Let’s be clear…we say ‘illegal immigration.’ Immigration is legal. But these are people coming across the border illegally, between the points of entry, at the rate of 5,000 per day.”
Perry says Congress is refusing to take up the issue and that there is a huge difference in what each party wants. Perry says Democrats wants open borders while Republicans want to reform the system to make it easier to come in legally but much more difficult to come in illegally.
“Nothing is happening,” Perry says, “so the President is taking action on his own, including inspiring the Mexican government to do more with their own border. He’s had some success with that but this is an issue that affects every single American citizen. We want to be benevolent…but we have a system of laws and you can’t just say I don’t like the law so I’m not going to follow it.”
Perry says that he doesn’t see a solution any time soon.
I also asked the congressman about how the legislators are getting along. It seems like many times they’re not, but what’s it really like?
“There are multiple religious meetings throughout the week,” Perry said, explaining that he regularly attends the Thursday morning prayer breakfast. “It’s bi-partisan and you couldn’t imagine how well we get along, Democrats and Republicans, we have great conversations. And then we leave and we go into the boxing ring it almost seems like on the floor. You’re like ‘where’s the person I was sitting next to and we were getting along just fine?”
Deacon Jorge Vera has been Chaplain at SCI Camp Hill since February 2nd, of 2014. He remembers the exact date. It would be pretty easy therefore to get an exact count of how many days he’s put in on the job. But it would be a tough task to count the number of people he’s helped and souls that he’s touched.
“It’s a lot of work, but it’s fun,” Vera told me during a visit to the prison. “When you like to do what you do, it becomes part of you. It’s not like a job. Heck, I just recently found out I was getting paid for it!”
Vera is bilingual in English and Spanish and that comes in very handy with the church services and bible studies. He says the chapel services are packed. Vera estimates that there about 4,000 inmates at the prison and that at least 2,000 participate in the chapel services. It’s a pretty diverse ministry to say the least. They have Catholic mass on Saturday mornings from 8 to 9 or 9:30. On Sundays they have three Protestant services. On Fridays are the services for the Muslim community and for the Jewish community. Wednesdays are the services for the Native American community. There are also Jehovah Witness’s services on Mondays.
“Everyone is entitled to a service, by law,” Vera says. But that is not all the inmates get. “I have Spanish bible studies. I have rosary classes for Catholics in Spanish and English, Vespers.”
They offer communion service on Wednesday mornings for inmates that can’t come to the weekend services because they work in the kitchen. Vera also goes to the cell blocks and hands out communion.
“The main thing is bringing people to God, making people feel good with what they do,” Vera said. “It’s really interesting how people can change their lives when you give them the opportunity to do so.
“When you come to an environment like this…and we’re eating at the same table, you see different religions, but we’re all related to one, true God.”
Vera says there is an important tool that he uses when dealing with inmates—kindness.
“People will not change if you’re not kind to them. You can give them whatever you want to give them, but if you’re not kind to them, they will not change.”
Vera says the prison has one of the best choirs around. He says the inmates put everything into their singing. It’s one of the many good things that Vera sees in his people.
“Because they’re broken down, a criminal, they’ve been labeled…that doesn’t mean that it’s over. It just means that they get another opportunity,” Vera said. And for many of the inmates, he is their first true taste of faith and spirituality.
“I always tell them that every sinner has a past and every saint has a future…when someone just comes out of the blue and tells you that God loves you. Just think about that, that says a lot.”
Of all the profound thoughts that Deacon Vera shared with me during our visit, the one that made the biggest impression on me was his belief that God is hanging out at the prison. Vera asks where else would He be? That’s where He is needed most.
“You hear that Gospel, it blows my mind, He would leave 99 for 1 (the story about the shepherd searching for the lost sheep). Wow. So that means if there are 99 of us in church and there is one out there lost, he would leave us in church…He would go for the one. This place is where that one is.”
Vera then told me one thing that seemed quite evident from listening to him.
“I just want you to know one thing…that this job is for me and that God called me to do this, because they come first and I come second. I really, truly have a passion for this job. I like it. I really enjoy it.”
Rep. Gary Day (R-Berks, Lehigh) said he recently took stock of his volunteer activities and realized he wanted to spend more of that time and energy helping his parish. Day is a life-long Catholic.
“Like many Catholics probably, I feel a little guilty that I could be more involved than I am,” Day told me in a recent visit to his Lehigh Co. district office. “With my job it’s hard time-wise to be involved so I try to serve in the things that I’m really good at. I would advise any Catholics, any Christians to get involved with your parish, with your church and try to give that little bit and that’s what I try to do.”
Day makes it a point to talk to people about getting involved, about how the church gives people opportunities to be “Christ-like.’
“We have about 30 committees at our church. That’s a lot for a Catholic church or any church and I’m proud of the work of each one. I can’t sit on each one of those committees, so I sit on one or two committees that I think I can make a difference.”
Day came from a “mixed-family”—mixed in that his mom was Catholic. His dad was not, but Day says he was always very supportive of his children learning the teachings of the Catholic faith.
“I’ve tried to use everything that I learned to be the best version of myself,” he said. “I try to help other people in my job as state representative.”
Day took office in the House in 2009. He says that people may look down on the political nature of Harrisburg but he sees it as a very positive thing.
“There are 203 of us that represent 12-million people,” he said. “People ask ‘how do you get along with 203 people’? Well, actually we don’t get along, all of us. But we try to. We try to get to know each other and work with each other.”
In an age of strong feelings and many times bitter divisiveness in politics, Day feels it is important to work with those who are on the on the other side of the aisle or the issue. He recalled Governor Wolf’s message on gun control last Friday. It came in front of supporters from his party.
“It’s not real profound to stand in a room full of people who agree with you and say ‘let’s charge up this hill.’ That’s not being a statesman,” Day said. ‘Being a statesman is working with people from both sides. We’re all human beings. We’re all God’s children.”
Day says that he sees the battle continue every day between what is right and what is not right. He says you can see it every day on TV, the internet. That’s why he made one more plea for folks to get involved.
“I want to spur them to get involved. I trust them to decide what is right and wrong…Any person who gets involved or engaged and has goodness in their heart probably has the right answer or part of the the right answer.”
Day is staunchly pro-life and feels that during his time in office there has been a substantial progress, through efforts to change the permitted time for an abortion from 24 weeks to 20 weeks.
“We have to wrestle with the Supreme Court ruling that we’re all living under since 1973,” Day said. “And within the confines of the federal framework and the structure of the law and we do that. We do that well.”
He said things came to light a few years ago with the abortion clinic run by Dr. Kermit Gosnell in horrifying fashion in Philadelphia. He said all lawmakers were on board to try to prevent that from ever happening again.
Day wants people to understand some of the thought process that goes into the abortion debate.
“Anybody who opposes a pro-life stance usually talks about a woman’s individual rights and I think this is one of the clashes in our government structure of individual rights,” Day said. “When two beings are inextricably and physically tied together and the actual life of one is dependent on the other, that’s when two individual rights can conflict. That’s when it’s up to government to make that decision—where is that line to protect that one life?”
Rep. Danielle Friel Otten (D-Chester) was one of a number of women that were elected into the Pennsylvania legislature in the 2018 November election.
“We currently make up 25% of the legislature,” Otten told me during a visit to her Exton district office. “Still we have a long way to go until we have a government that reflects our population—51% of Pennsylvania is women. So we have a long way to go to elect more women.”
Otten feels that bringing more women into positions of leadership brings more collaboration, new ways of connecting with each other, and different ways of thinking about issues.
“We know that in the corporate world, that when there are 30% of the people at the table are women, groups become more collaborative,” she continued. “Government is so tense these days, and I really believe that women are going to be a big part of how we bring people back together.”
Otten is a product of a Catholic school education, including spending three years at Cardinal Dougherty High School, which closed in 2010.
“It’s a little bit sad,” she said. “Fond memories there. I am a Cardinal Dougherty kid. My dad was also a Cardinal Dougherty kid. Lot’s of family history there…but the beauty is that they still live on, whether it’s an active school or not.”
Otten says she hadn’t really considered running for office outside of possibly school board when her kids were older. But when she first became a mom a couple of years ago she found out about the Mariner East Pipeline Project which was going to go through her neighbor’s yard. That was only 50 feet from her back yard.
“It carries highly volatile natural gas liquids,” she said, “Ethane, propane and butane, which are highly explosive and incredibly dangerous. That easement is being expanded to ship industrial quantities of these liquids through residential neighborhoods, past schools, in front of nursing home–putting lots of vulnerable populations at risk.”
Otten feels the future of energy is renewable energy and getting off of plastics. She says the technology is there to do it.
So, she decided to run for office. Winning wasn’t her main concern, getting the right word out was. She focused on her opponent’s big donors, which she says were people who were putting the pipeline in her back yard.
“I felt it was really important for somebody to step up and talk about that,” she said. “And talk about why some of the things are happening in the Commonwealth, whether it’s energy, whether it’s health care, whether it’s guns…A lot of it goes back to money and politics.”
Otten felt that winning was a long shot, but she wanted to talk to voters about how the citizens could take their power back.
“It resonated,” she said. “Clearly. We knocked on over a hundred thousand doors. We talked to more voters than any other state House race in the entire Commonwealth and that work paid off.”
Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill (R-York) has worked hard on a number of issues during her term in the state legislature, but the “Buyer Beware Act” has to be near or at the top of the list. The bill would strengthen penalties for those who patronize victims of human trafficking.
Rep. Seth Grove (R-York) is backing the companion bill in the House. He has also put in a ton of work on the issue. The PA Catholic Conference has strongly supported both measures.
Sen. Phillips-Hill thanked us for our support and says she is optimistic about the future of the bill, which she says will address a growing problem.
“We’ve gotten Senate Bill 60 through committee,” she told me during a visit to her district office in Jacobus, York Co. “It looks like we should be able to get full Senate consideration shortly and then it will be entrusted to their care to get it to the Governor’s desk.
The Senate is scheduled to reconvene on Monday, September 23rd.
“Human trafficking is a tremendous concern. It’s an issue here in York Co. and all across the Commonwealth. It happens more than you know. So many of us believe that it happens in far off lands or that it happened hundreds of years ago but the reality is that human beings are being trafficked. They’re living horrible lives and we have a great opportunity with Senate Bill 60 to change that going forward.”
The legislation would double the maximum jail sentence for an individual convicted of trafficking or patronizing a victim of trafficking. Currently, these crimes carry a maximum penalty of up to 10 years in prison. The bill would upgrade these to first-degree felonies, which carry a maximum sentence of up to 20 years in prison.
In addition, those convicted of patronizing a victim of sexual trafficking would receive an increased fine of between $1,000 and $30,000, up from $500, at the discretion of the court. If the victim is a minor at the time of the offense, the fine would be increased to a minimum of $5,000 and a maximum of $100,000.
I asked Dauphin Co. District Attorney Fran Chardo how prevalent is the use of victims of human trafficking in the prostitution industry.
“It’s the vast majority of the time,” he said. “So it to be presumed (in each case) that it is so. People don’t’ engage in this behavior willingly. There are a number of ways that the trafficker will keep the person under their thumb and require them to continue this very dangerous course of conduct.”
Chardo says the difficulty comes in proving the actual knowledge that someone was being forced into the role. As a result, he believes that patronizing prostitute as a stand-alone crime should be a greater offense than just a misdemeanor of the third degree.
There has been much stricter oversight in recent years on the administering of opioids. But that monitoring has not been extended to the use of Narcan, which is used to revive people who are suspected to be overdosing on drugs. PA Rep. Jim Cox (R-Berks, Lancaster) is looking to change that.
“If you are administered Narcan, under existing law that is not put into our prescription drug data base,” Cox told me on a recent visit to his Berks Co. district office outside of Reading. “If you are given opiates or other types of things by your doctor, that all goes into the data base so they know if there’s an overdose situation or if there’s a possible addiction type thing.”
Cox says that as a result another doctor treating that individual down the road will likely have no idea of an individual’s past troubles with narcotics.
“What my bill would do is to make that part of the record, so that no matter which hospital system you ended up in, they’re looking at information that flags to the health care provider ‘this guy might have an addiction that we have to be careful on what we give them, how we treat them with pain-killers or anything else.’”
The bill passed the House and now heads to the Senate for its consideration. It seems like a good, common sense way to fight the use of opioids. But the vote in the House went 110-89. Only two Democrats voted for it. Cox remained confident.
“When you’re dealing with a community such as those who have addictions and they’re trying to recover from them, there’s a lot of sensitive information flowing through there. So the rehabilitation and the recovery community, they had some concerns about it. We’re trying to work through those in hopes that we can keep the bill moving in the Senate.”
Cox says he’s also trying to work through some of the details with the emergency room physicians along with a few other technical issues.
“Ideally we have the philosophical opposition taken care of,” Cox said. “But unfortunately there’s always a hold-up one way or another and sometimes it’s a partisan thing. Other times it’s not…I think we’re going to be good moving forward in the fall. It’s going to take a few changes here and there but I think we can surmount the hurdles.”
Sen. Doug Mastriano (R-Adams, Cumberland, Franklin, York) was elected in May of this year to the Senate seat for the 33rd district. It was a special election to replace Sen. Rich Alloway, who had just resigned. Mastriano was sworn in on June 10th, and immediately started focusing on one of his top priorities—pro-life issues. Specifically it was the “heartbeat” anti-abortion bill.
“I’ve been clear from the very beginning that the most important issue that we face in the Commonwealth and the nation is life—the right to life,” Mastriano told me during a sit-down interview in his Capitol office. “And if indeed that little person there growing up inside the womb is human, they should be protected. It’s troublesome to me that across the state and the nation that there are some species of animals that have more rights and protections than unborn babies.”
Mastriano suggested looking past all the emotion that has been building up in recent months and just focus on science. He says the science that supported pro-abortion thinking all the way back to the Roe vs. Wade court decision is outdated.
“We now know what’s going on in the womb. We can see it with 4-D imaging, with ultra-sounds. Are we doing the right thing?” he asked. “Clearly we are not. Science says that at conception, that is a distinct individual with its own DNA. Its own bio-system is developing…and who are we to decide whether or not to kill that little human?”
Sen. Mastriano says life is determined from a scientific and medical perspective by heartbeats. Someone is pronounced dead, he says, more times than not if their heart stops beating.
“Therefore, using science, and logic..and modern medicine..when you have a heartbeat, that’s a little life,” he reasoned.
And using that reasoning, Mastriano is partnering with Rep. Stephanie Borowicz (R-Centre, Clinton) on the “heartbeat” bill. They are still getting sponsors for their respective measures from representatives and senators in preparation for a formal introduction in September or October.
“I’m heartened and honored to be partnering with Stephanie Borowicz in the House to push for a common sense, logical, feasible and supportable measure to defend life when there’s a heartbeat.”
Some people have very lengthy resumes. And then there is the resume of Doug Mastriano. He is a combat veteran who served in Operation Desert Storm to liberate Kuwait. His regiment led the attack against Saddam’s Republican Guard. He served four years with NATO and deployed three times to Afghanistan. He taught at the Army War College in Carlisle. He’s an author. He has a doctorate and four master’s degrees. That’s really only part of it. And now a career in public service.
“After 30 years of military service, I took stock of my career and all the sacrifices and moves that come with military service,” he said. “And it really breaks my heart that I’m handing off the Commonwealth and the nation in worse shape than I got it from my father. I could not stand aside….Everybody who believes in life and doing the right thing needs to stand and fight to their dying day. And I’m here to stay. I’m here to fight the good fight for freedom as I did overseas and now it’s time to do it right here in Pennsylvania.”
It was the changing of the guard in the 105th district in the PA House. Rep. Ron Marsico was stepping down after 30 years of service. Taking that seat would be Republican Andrew Lewis, a decorated combat veteran who was a leader in his family construction business.
“Big shoes to fill,” Lewis told me when I visited him in his Dauphin Co. district office. He talked about bills that he is backing in Harrisburg that deal with government reform.
“Reforming our government is my top priority,” he said. “We’re supposed to be a government that works for the people, not the other way around. A lot of trust has been lost in government. That’s what I’m hearing. Sometimes those in government have lost touch with those that they serve, so my goal has been to bring structural change to Harrisburg.”
Lewis’s first piece of legislation was a term-limit bill. He says he has gotten 19 co-sponsors on that and that it would revive the concept of an actual ‘citizen legislature.’ Another bill that he sponsored was an ethics reform measure that has already made it through committee. It essentially governs how a municipality can borrow funds.
“The money has to be used for the purpose that you borrowed it for,” Lewis explained. “You can’t divert the money to a secret slush fund somewhere. You’d be shocked at how much money in government tends to disappear, so we’re trying to put an end to that and bring more transparency to government at all levels.”
Lewis spent 9-1/2 years in active military duty, part of the time as a counter-intelligence agent. He then transitioned into the National Guard. He drills at Ft. Indiantown Gap where he is also an instructor for the scout leadership course.
It comes as no surprise then that Lewis is a big supporter of military families and is working on legislation to benefit them. He sympathizes with the family members of service men and women who are deployed and gone for long periods of time.
“I’ve introduced a school choice for military families bill that essentially provides an Education Scholarship Account (ESA) for families of active duty service members. A lot of folks, every two or three years, they’re being stationed somewhere else.
“So if you’re in Pennsylvania, you’re paying your property taxes, you’re going to get an ESA that essentially allows you to—if you’re paying for a tutoring service or you’re home-schooling, it will help offset some of those costs.”
Lewis is also going to be introducing in the fall a long-term care, tax credit bill that will offset costs for such care.
Rep. Jim Roebuck (D-Philadelphia) sees his share of visitors over the summer in his West Philadelphia district office. The day I came to see him he was just finishing up a talk with visiting medical students from the nearby Penn campus.
“We have a fairly steady number of people come to the office for services,” he said. “We have groups that come in from time. I particularly enjoy meeting with students. I used to be a teacher. I taught at Drexel University. I’m still, at heart, a teacher. I like meeting young people and talking about issues and about career selection. Things like that.”
Roebuck thinks young people need to learn more about their chosen career before they go too far in learning about it that it’s impossible to go another route.
“You can think you know about something, but you don’t necessarily know unless you are doing it each and every day and you’re exposed to it in a way that you are in college. I think that sometimes that students change their minds and they do that more than once. I would hope that we could a better job with this. I think high school’s a key point but most students should have begun to make decisions about what they want to do in middle or junior high school.”
He says that too often these young people change their minds when it’s difficult to change course.
Roebuck is also looking to help make education more affordable…from kindergarten all the way up through college. He says the state has fallen short in providing each school district with enough money to do what it should be doing in grades K through 12. He’s also hoping things can be done to help college students.
“We’re looking at ways to reduce the cost of college, with the goal to have free college education,” he said. “But also putting a control on the debt with students end up with. Too often students end up with a huge amount of debt that doesn’t go away and hampers them in terms of building a successful life after they finish college.”
Back in the spring, Roebuck joined Rep. Tim Briggs (D-Montgomery) in introducing legislation that would create a higher education funding commission that would look at ways to improve access to higher education and to job training in the state.
“Pennsylvania ranks 48th, or third worst, in America at funding colleges, technical schools and universities,” Roebuck said at the time. “By under-funding our institutions we are creating a crisis for our graduates.”
Rep. Barbara Gleim (R-Cumberland) is in her first term in the state House and serving on a number of committees, including the Education Committee as secretary. She has some excellent training for that position. I’d better start a new paragraph for her resume in that regard…..
Okay, she spent eight years on the Cumberland Valley School Board—two of them as president and two as vice-president. She was on the Cumberland-Perry Vo-Tech School Board. She was also on the Cumberland Co. Agricultural Education Extension Board, the Capital Area School for the Arts Charter School Task Force and the Cumberland Valley Economic Development Task Force.
“I am passionate about education and making sure that the kids get what they need,” Gleim told me in her downtown Carlisle district office. She moved the office to the center of town and also opened another office in Newville. Both moves were to be closer to constituents who maybe couldn’t drive.
Gleim stepped down from the school board three years ago. It wasn’t too long before public service came calling again.
“I wasn’t doing too much as far as public service, which is a passion of mine as well,” she said. “When the seat was open for Rep. (Stephen) Bloom, I also had some people came up to me and say ‘hey, have you considered running for the state House?’ So then I started considering it and I’m glad I did.”
In addition to having a background in education, Gleim also is a businesswoman with an MBA and she has been heavily involved in agriculture. Her husband is a full-time farmer and yes, they have a farm. It’s logical then that one of the bills she is sponsoring deals with agro-tourism.
“I have House Bill 1348,” she said. “It’s a little bit of a different business than most businesses. This agro-tourism bill would reduce the liability for farmers who want to bring the public onto their farm. And the reason we need to do this is so farmers aren’t afraid to open up their farms for the public that they would lose their whole livelihood if they were sued.”
For those city folk, lots of us in the country go to farms for corn mazes, hay rides, apple cider, pumpkin and strawberry picking and the like. Gleim sees agro-tourism providing a big help to farmers.
“Especially for the dairy industry, which is suffering so much. A lot of those dairy farmers are trying to diversify because they’re being told to diversify, but then they have the other side, which says ‘you need all this money to pay for insurance!”
Gleim also is sponsoring a number of other bills. One deals with apprenticeships in the construction industry. She has a bit of a background in that as well. Her family owns Gleim Excavating in Carlisle, which has been in business for 50 years. The apprenticeship bill—HB 1746—would bring state law up to federal law with the ratio of union to non-union apprenticeships in the construction industry. Yes, it’s complicated. But Gleim has a handle on it.
And she is also working on a bill that would change the state budget cycle to two years instead of one. Hmmm. Wouldn’t that be only half the fun/aggravation?
“House Bill 764 is not new. It was introduced before but I was very passionate about this bill and actually requested this as a freshman to take and lead. I was on the school board back in 2016 when we couldn’t get a budget passed and all the schools were dead in the water, wondering if they were going to get funding. And also hearing from 501-C’s in my district, wondering if they’re going to get their funding. The homeless shelter, the domestic violence shelters…I was thinking to myself, coming from the business world, this is just crazy, if we had a two year budget cycle, they could plan.”
It was the first Friday of August and Wellsboro High School in Tioga Co. was packed with seniors. Not high school seniors. Senior citizens. It was Rep. Clint Owlett’s (R-Bradford, Potter, Tioga) annual Senior Expo.
“This is one of the biggest events that we do,” Owlett told me as he took a short break from talking with the visitors. “We usually expect about a thousand care-takers and seniors to come out to this event.”
They can find dozens of vendors with information and services for the seniors.
“They need a lot of information and it’s hard for them to get it,” Owlett said. “So whenever we can pull it all together in one location it’s great for them.”
Owlett probably didn’t come to the expo expecting to run into some people that he went to school with, but that’s what happened. Well, sort of. One of the seniors came up the lawmaker and told him that she used to teach him in Sunday school. Whatever that lady and the other teachers–along with his family– taught him, it definitely stuck.
“My faith is a big part of who I am. It is for my family as well. I just continue to stand up for those things. It’s important to us.”
Owlett has signed on as one of the co-sponsors for the “heartbeat” anti-abortion bill as Pennsylvania tries to follow in the footsteps of Georgia. It was back in May of this year that Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signed one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the nation. It effectively bans abortion after six weeks of pregnancy. That’s when doctors can usually detect a heartbeat in the fetus.
Owlett said that a group from the PA state House was able to meet with officials from Georgia recently to talk about doing here what they did there.
“It was great to hear how they did it. It was such a long process, but it was so worth it. It will be challenged in the courts but any time that you can move the ball forward in some sort of an incremental step, with taking the biggest incremental step that you can towards life, it’s important. It’s exciting to be a part of the process and think through what we can do here in Pennsylvania to really move the ball forward on that issue.”
It will be interesting to see what happens on that regard in the fall. Rep. Stephanie Borowicz (R-Centre, Clinton) is the prime sponsor on the “heartbeat” bill and is expected to introduce it in September or October. For pro-lifers, it comes as welcomed news that someone like Clint Owlett will be right there with her.
Rep. Keith Gillespie (R-York) is looking to make many of the waterways across Pennsylvania safer, by making sure there is ample warning of low-head dams. Many of you may not have heard of them. But for those that have heard of them, it’s usually come about because of some tragedy.
“They’re often referred to as ‘drowning machines,’” Gillespie told me in his Capitol office. “Because of the hydraulics and the mechanics of the way these things are constructed, the water flowing over actually gets like a washing machine—a roller coaster, if you will. The water goes round and round.”
As Gillespie points out, it’s almost impossible to escape. The Dock Street dam on the Susquehanna River in Harrisburg has claimed close to 20 victims in recent years. Two of the latest and most talked about victims were 25-year old Mary Bredbenner and her three-year-old daughter Maddy Binkley. They drowned in May of 2018 after their boat capsized near the damn.
“We have over 300 of these across the state,” said Gillespie. “Most of them are not marked. Right now it’s a civil penalty if something were to happen, if you go over and there’s no warning or indication.”
Gillespie has proposed a bill that would make it a criminal offense if an accident happened on a low-head damn that was not adequately marked. So who would be responsible to provide the signage?
“In many cases it is a municipality-owned dam,” said Gillespie, who then talked about the Dock Street dam. He says Harrisburg is responsible for that. “They have done a good job with putting markers across, above and below the dam. Previously they had not been there.”
Gillespie said the dams had a purpose many years ago when the rivers and creeks were dammed up so mills could grind up things like flour and gunpowder. But he says state officials are trying to remove as many of the dams as possible.
“We have to be careful as we do that, because they’ve been a trap for silt and other nasty things that you’ve got to be able to get out because it just doesn’t wash down,” Gillespie said. “They’re also restrictive of the passage of fish.”
I asked Gillespie if there is any possibility of getting rid of the Dock Street dam.
“That’s going to be a very expensive proposition,” Gillespie said, who talked of an alternative solution that’s being tossed around. “In Michigan, they brought a barge in with huge boulders. They put them below the dam and it actually mitigated the hydraulics. They would get rid of that churning effect. Is it cheaper than taking out the dam? I haven’t done a cost analysis, but as others have said ‘what’s the cost of a life?’ There isn’t one.”
When the co-sponsor list started circulating around the PA House of Representatives for the “heartbeat” anti-abortion bill, Rep. Matt Dowling (R-Fayette, Somerset) quickly signed on.
“I have been adamantly pro-life since the time that I was a candidate, through the two sessions that I’ve served in the state House,” Dowling told me as we met one day following a committee meeting in Philadelphia. “So really it was a no-brainer to sign onto that bill and some of the other pro-life bills that we’ve worked on over the past three years.”
The bill would prohibit a doctor from performing an abortion if a heartbeat is detected in the fetus. Dowling says he looks for the bill to move in the fall.
Dowling also lent his support to another bill that benefits many in the Catholic faith: the one that increased the Educational Improvement Tax Credit by $25-million.
“EITC means so much to the private schools throughout Pennsylvania, including the parochial schools, the Catholic schools,” Dowling said. “I myself am a product of Catholic education. My two sons are enrolled in a Catholic school in the Uniontown area. I know how much that EITC tax credit helps families.”
Dowling was disappointed that Republicans were not able to get more of an increase in the EITC. They originally had passed a bill calling for a $100-million increase but that was vetoed by Governor Wolf. The $25-million was salvaged during subsequent budget negotiations. But an automatic escalator was not included in the final agreement.
“That (the escalator) would take it from being an annual political football and give it more stability and the ability to grow,” Dowling said. “Annually, the number is north somewhere of 50,000 students that are turned away from the program because we just don’t have the funding in Pennsylvania.”
As Dowling has talked to business leaders around the state he has discovered that many more of them would like to participate in the program but are turned away because it has a cap.
“If it’s a program that is working, I don’t see why we can’t remove the cap.”
Dowling, however, does look to keep a lid on spending taxpayer money.
“Holding the line on taxes and spending is something that I was dedicated to when I ran for office and something that I continue to be dedicated to,” Dowling said. “I serve a community that, in many ways, is geriatric in nature, people that are living on a fixed income. Even young families are trying to make the most of what they have and tax increases are simply something that cuts into that bottom line and cuts into that monthly or weekly budget.
“And if the taxpayers have set themselves with a budget, why can’t the state do the same thing and live within its means?”
Dowling has also had to focus on helping residents of his district after a number of natural disasters. Flash flooding has been very bad for them this summer.
“I’ve been working with our local municipalities to try to give them as much help and assistance as possible to aid in roads getting opened back up,” he said. “Penndot has been good at getting our local roads opened back up at our request on roads that aren’t even theirs! We thank them for that.”
Dowling has also been active traveling around the state for committee meetings. The day that we talked he was in Philadelphia for a meeting of the House Liquor Oversight Committee.
“That committee will be coming into my district in August to look at one of our big economic booms that we’re seeing, which is agro-tourism–our wineries, our distilleries that are popping up in the district. We’re also going to be looking at how some of our big box stores are going to be approaching the sale of wine and beer products.”
With hundreds of members in the PA House of Representatives, there is a big emphasis on leadership in Harrisburg. One of the leaders on the Republican side is Rep. Marcy Toepel (R-Montgomery), who has been re-elected as the Majority Caucus Chairman.
“Every bill is caucused before we go to the floor to vote on it,” Toepel told me in her Harleysville district office. “I bring in the research staff. We go through each bill. I’m basically like the teacher in front of the class…We can see if there are issues with the bill, go over amendments so that when we go up to the floor we kind of know what we’re doing.”
That’s when the Whip may decide to get involved and “whip” up the votes that might be needed for passage. To my knowledge there is not actually any whip involved or any kind of physical punishment for those who don’t vote along with the party.
“It’s so that we’re functioning as a team pretty much and we know where people are, if there are any problems with the bill,” Toepel said. “I also have a staff that helps track bills, through committee and the amendment process. We send out many, many emails to the members, keeping them informed of the movement of bills from introduction, to committee hearing, to being scheduled to vote. We work closely with the leader’s office, who schedules all the bills for voting.”
I think that sounds complicated. Toepel says it is, but says she is lucky to have inherited a very good staff. The members worked for previous caucus chairs and seem to have a pretty good lay of the land, which is important since there about 30,000 or so bills being introduced each session.
“It is very complicated, making sure everything is communicated and organized,” she said. “Some of the leaders and the speakers, they’re more at the higher level of scheduling and working out some of the hiccups with the Senate. But we’re down in the dirt, getting a little bit dirty as far as making sure all the members know what’s going on.”
I remembered seeing Rep. Toepel at a roundtable discussion that the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference attended back in February in Bucks Co. Toepel is supporting companion bills by Rep. Seth Grove and Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill that would strengthen penalties for those patronizing the victims of human trafficking that are forced into committing crimes. The measures are collectively known as the “Buyer Beware” Bill.
“We’re going after that person who’s purchasing that service because they’re creating victims and they’re perpetrating a crime,” Toepel said. “They know what they’re doing. It will increase penalties against them. I strongly support the “Buyer Beware” Bill.”
“I’ve always been a huge victim advocate—from increasing penalties for child pornographers to straw purchases of guns,” said Toepel, who at one point worked in the Mongtomgery Co. courthouse. She was in the Clerk of Courts office and would see many of the victims at the end of their cases.
“I would get to see some of the folks face to face. Heartbreaking stories. Certainly the most heartbreaking are the ones that involved children. Human trafficking is sort of an underground economy that is occurring everywhere. It’s in Montgomery Co. as well. Montgomery Co. has formed a task force. I’m actually a member.”
Toepel achieved much acclaim for her bill on straw purchasing of guns, which was enacted back in 2012. It restored a crucial law enforcement tool to remove illegal guns and prosecute straw purchasers. It was named after Officer Brad Fox, who was fatally shot by a gun obtained through a straw purchase.
There are many and varied pathways that people have taken to get to their seats in the Pennsylvania legislature, but perhaps none more unique that the one taken by Rep. Lynda Schlegel Culver (R-Northumberland, Snyder) to get to her spot representing the 108th district.
Actually she’s been in the district office for quite some time and involved in politics for quite some time, thanks to her father, who was a city councilman back in the day.
“Our gift when we turned 18 was our voter registration card,” Culver told me in her Capitol office. “That is a big deal for all of us. None of us miss an election.”
The fateful day that would chart her professional course in life came one day when her father, who was also an athletic director at a local school, took Lynda to an event recognizing the wrestling team for winning the state title. State Rep. Merle Phillips of the 108th was there handing out citations. He was also looking for a summer intern and Lynda had just graduated from high school. She was looking for a job to help pay for college.
“I interviewed for the job. He offered it to me and I’ve worked there ever since,” Culver said. “My junior and senior year I actually commuted from college back down to work for him a couple of days a week.”
Culver figured she would just stick it out for what she thought would be a short time until Phillips retired, which he did. 21 years later!! She would run to replace him. At first it started out as more of a jog than a run.
“I didn’t go kicking and screaming but I had to get a hard shove through the door to run,” Culver said. “It wasn’t popular yet for women to run. I worried about making the transition from providing constituent service and maybe not being as involved. But with a district of about 63,000 you can be more intimate than a district with 250,000 or 750,000. I like that piece of it. I like to know what’s going on. When I vote on a bill I like to be able to think of a group, a constituent, information, either by web or email that people have contacted me asking questions, wanting to know about the bill…supporting it, or not supporting it. I don’t feel like I’ve done my job unless I know where my district stands on a particular bill.”
As far as introducing bills goes, Culver is of the school of thought less is better than more. She’s not one to think there isn’t enough legislation.
“We normally introduce about 3,000 bills a year,” she said. “How many of those become law? Not a large percentage–between three and six-hundred. I’m more centered around my district, solving problems as them come up, anticipating problems and reaching out to my constituents. Most of my legislation comes organically as I like to say, or home-grown. When there’s a problem or issue back home, that’s how most of my legislation comes about.”
Culver is currently working on a package of bills that would protect senior citizens. Her part of the project is financial exploitation. She’s working with district attorneys and the State Police to have it defined in the law.
“What is financial exploitation,” she explained. “We just had one case in the district where a care-giver laced an elderly couple’s cigarettes with poison. Both ended up at the hospital. One passed away and one lived. The care-giver has since been arrested but had already been taking money out of their bank accounts. You hear and see it often.”
You may have heard about us talking about the fetal “heartbeat” bill a lot in recent weeks. It would prevent an abortion once a heartbeat is detected. We plan to continue to talk about it in the weeks ahead in preparation for its formal introduction in the Pennsylvania legislature, most likely in September.
Rep. Stephanie Borowicz (R-Centre, Clinton) is the prime sponsor of the bill and has circulated her co-sponsorship memo, which has been very-well received. She wanted to wait until after the Down Syndrome Protection Act was introduced in the last session. Borowicz was a big part of that. You can see her as part of the group that was on hand to announce the bill in March. The picture still appears at the top of our Facebook page.
“What’s great is that I’ve talked with Sen. Doug Mastriano (R-Adams, Cumberland, Franklin, York) and he wants to join efforts with me and do a “heartbeat” bill in the Senate,” Borowicz told me during a visit I made to her Lock Haven office. “I had close to 40 co-sponsors last time I checked. I need some more. I need some more support in the House. The Senate, I think, is a little bit easier.”
Borowicz says this bill is one of the reasons that she is in office.
“It’s part of who I am,” she said. “There are 30,000 abortions in Pennsylvania a year. That’s why I’m here—to save those babies’ lives. The Bible tells us that ‘He knew us before we were in our mother’s womb’ and He has plans for us and to stand up for those who can’t stand up for themselves.”
I asked Borowicz about the opposition that lies ahead. She saw much of that in the effort to get the Down syndrome bill passed.
“We saw it the minute we started talking about that,” she said. “They told us ‘well you don’t take care of those babies once they’re here.’ So I said “so, you’re not going to give them the opportunity to be born? The opposition that came through that, I already have seen it. I can’t even imagine what it’s going to be like for the heartbeat bill, which is six to eight weeks. It says that once a heartbeat is detected, an abortion can not be performed.”
Borowicz remembered back to her pregnancy when the doctor detected the baby’s heartbeat. That made quite an impression on her. Two heartbeats. Two lives.
Borowicz is no stranger to facing opposition. Many Democrats and media outlets blew a gasket in March when she led the opening prayer before a House session. Critics pointed out that it was also a session that included the swearing in of the first female Muslim to the House.
She took a lot of heat for that, but has also gotten a ton of support and love for it as well.
“I’m still getting letters,” she said. “My secretary in Harrisburg I think is getting tired of opening letters. Ralph Reed (a conservative political activist and first head of the Christian Coalition), bless his heart, wrote an article about me and he asked people to send me letters, so I have received over 1,500 letters just in the last month. I was in tears reading what some of the people had written, encouraging me, telling me ‘thank you for standing up and praying and that we need Jesus back in this country again. It’s pretty amazing.”
She’s also heard from those who didn’t like what she did and felt compelled to let her know about it. Governor Wolf said he was “horrified” by the prayer. Others have been less respectful and took advantage of social media to share those feelings with Borowicz. I asked her how she deals with the hate.
“I was born for this,” she said. “I like facing the opposition when it’s for standing for Jesus and God’s word. Jesus said that they would hate us because of Him. It’s not me. It’s Jesus in me. There’s nothing good about me. It’s Jesus.
“I count it an honor. People say ‘oh you’re facing persecution.’ I say ‘that’s not persecution. People all over the world are facing persecution for Jesus right now. And they’re dying for it. I got to stand up in a pretty white dress in air-conditioning and pray. I’m not facing persecution because they’re saying mere words. We still have freedom and liberty in this nation. That’s why I’m fighting, for religious liberty.”
Rep. Rosemary Brown will be looking this fall to bring about passage of House Bill 37. That’s her measure to prohibit use of hand-held cellphones while driving on Pennsylvania roadways. The bill passed out of the House Transportation Committee this past session and is now before the full House.
“The timing is right to put a little bit more structure toward this law,” Brown told me in her East Stroudsburg district office. “I look at this as one of the largest distractions that we have on the roadways. When you drive, you’re supposed to be as focused as you can be on the roads, but we know there are a lot of distractions and there are many things that a driver can do.”
Brown says phone use on the roadways is very noticeable. She says everyone has likely seen someone swerve into their lane while using their hand-held device.
“I know I’ve had it several times and thank goodness it was without a crash,” she said. “We don’t even like to call them accidents, because crashes can be avoided. It’s not an accident. We are just too focused on the phone.”
The law would allow that if a driver is seen with a phone in their hand they can be pulled over by police. She says that drivers can still use the hands-free devices which use voice technology.
“Drivers may say ‘I don’t want someone telling me what to do inside my own car,” Brown continued. “If it’s going to affect someone else’s safety, it’s a problem.”
Brown is also backing legislation to help people with their personal finances. She says young people are not getting educated in that regard. She wants to make such a course part of the high school curriculum.
“It would have the everyday life skills that you need, from balancing a checkbook to knowing what you should be able to spend, what you shouldn’t be spending, what you should be saving, maybe what you should be donating , if you’re able to donate and what you should invest.”
Brown says she never had those courses as a student and didn’t really talk about finances with her family. She says it’s about preparing people the best they can to make the best decisions possible.
That bill went through the House and is now before the Senate.
Brown’s efforts are nothing if they are not diverse! She is also working to stop the spread of Lyme disease. Brown has created a grant that provides for free tick testing in the state. If you find the tick you can send it to a tick lab and it will be tested for Lyme and any other tick-borne illness.
“We hope that it cuts down on the over-use of antibiotics,” Brown said. And here’s some sobering news she offered. “Fifty-one percent of the ticks that are being sent in from all 67 counties are testing positive.”
And last but not least Brown continues to remain firmly pro-life.
“My stance has always been pro-life and it has never been judgemental. I would love to see people go in this direction. Let’s help them make the decision to choose life. I’m big on the fact that it’s part of being respectful for life—at the beginning of life, at the middle of life and at the end of life and respecting each other.”
It was a scorcher on the day that I visited Sen. Mike Regan (R-Cumberland) in his Camp Hill district office but he was happy that it was summer and was getting a break from the Capitol.
“It’s good to be out amongst the people in the district for a change,” he said. “When you’re in the Capitol sometimes it feels like you’re in a casino. You don’t know what time it is. You don’t know what the weather is. You don’t know what’s going on. Everything is closed up so it’s good to be out.”
We talked about the effort to get the Educational Improvement Tax Credit passed. Republicans were able to negotiate a $25-million increase in the program after Governor Wolf had vetoed a proposed $100-million increase. Regan talked about what transformed him into a big believer in the EITC.
“I can remember when I was in the US Marshal’s Service Governor Tom Ridge being a big school choice person and I kind of thought back then that—even though I wasn’t a parent yet–it should be a parent’s decision as to where the kids go to school.”
Regan said he didn’t have a personal connection to the program though until one day when he arrested a kid on a drug charge. When the suspect was in the back of marshal’s car Regan started talking to him about his life.
“A couple of things he said were striking and left a real impression on me. He said that in the Harrisburg School District that if you try in school, you will get beaten up for trying to get ahead. He also said the kids in Harrisburg aspire to go to prison, because you don’t have any ‘street cred’ until you go to prison. That was the late nineties, early two-thousands. I thought to myself ‘what is the answer to that? That’s so troubling’”
Years later Regan was asked to speak at a dinner for the Bob Craig Foundation. The Foundation was presenting a check to the Joshua Group, which Regan had not heard of. The head of the group, Kirk Hallett, spoke along with two kids who were had taken part in the group’s learning programs.
“The one kid’s story really touched my heart,” Regan said. “He said ‘my mom’s a drug addict. I don’t know who my dad is. If not for my grandmother loving me I probably never would have wound up at the Joshua School. He said Kirk took me in and tutored me.’”
As it turns out, that young man had gone on to become an honor student at Messiah College. It dawned on Regan that he had found the answer to the question that had been raised several years before–to get these kids out of a failing school system and into a good school.
“It can mean the difference between life and death. Just taking a kid who if you look at the odds would be on welfare, possibly in the juvenile system or dead, to being a college graduate, job-holder, taxpayer, positive citizen. The true meaning of the EITC and the OSTC (Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit Program) really hit home for me.”
“I really think that empowering these kids to reach their potential is an amazing thing. So I’m a fan.”
Regan says he and other lawmakers are also going to work on the problem of veterans’ suicides. He says 20 veterans commit suicide every day across the country and that the per capita average is higher in Pennsylvania. He says the legislators are meeting with stakeholders across the state to address the issue.
“I can’t imagine, Al, going over there and fighting for the people of this country and then coming back and not being able to deal with what you had to do and what you saw and taking your own life as a result.
“A lot of it I think is simplicity and streamlining things,” Regan continued. “First of all they’re typically a little closed off. They don’t want to talk about it. If they finally make that leap to wanting to talk about it and they have to call 20 people or be transferred or push a number of buttons to talk to someone, they’re more likely to just hang up. So we need to streamline that process and I think that’s one of the things that may come out in legislation.”
Many lawmakers in Harrisburg come from a law background. While a good percentage of them practiced law, Rep. Barry Jozwiak (R-Berks) spent several years enforcing it. He served 25 years with the Pennsylvania State Police and another 12 years as the Sheriff of Berks County.
“I went from law enforcement to lawmaker,” he said.
If anyone would be tough on crime it would be Jozwiak. But he’s also pushing a bill in Harrisburg that he feels would be *smart* on crime. It aims to take marijuana possession cases—general misdemeanors– out of county courts and put them exclusively into the district courts.
“The courts of common pleas in Pennsylvania are being overloaded with these cases,” Jozwiak told me in his district office in Reading. “A normal case costs $200 to $2,500 to prosecute, even with a guilty plea. Last year it cost Pennsylvania taxpayers almost $40-million to prosecute people for a small possession of marijuana for $2-million in fines.”
Jozwiak said the District Attorney for Berks County came to him with the idea to propose a bill to change marijuana possession from a misdemeanor to a summary offense so they could be handled by a district justice. Jozwiak pointed out that nobody currently goes to jail for possessing a small amount of marijuana. They pay a fine.
“Law enforcement is in favor of that,” Jozwiak said. “It will save many, many police departments overtime because most of them go to court on their days off. It’s easier for somebody just to pay a fine rather than going to court and cost the taxpayers millions of dollars.”
Jozwiak is also pushing a bill to change the way car registration stickers are displayed. It was just a couple of years ago that PA decided that drivers did not have to put registration stickers on their license plates. That created a fiasco with scores of motorists getting pulled over by police in other states who saw their expired stickers.
“In 2018 we checked Penndot’s figures to see how many registrations were not being renewed. We found $22-million worth of registrations that Penndot lost in 2017 because people did not renew their registrations. They lost another $11-million last year. Whether they forgot to renew, or didn’t want to renew we don’t know but that was the number.”
So Jozwiak has proposed the “two in one sticker.” It combines the registration sticker and the inspection sticker into one and put that one sticker on the license plate.
“The process is this,” he explained. “You go get your car inspected while it’s still legal. It’s still registered. You get your receipt and take the receipt and send it into Penndot with your application for a license plate or go to an on-line messenger. You then would pay your registration fee and would then be issued a sticker for your license plate.”
The new process would make it safer for police officers who pulled over a vehicle. They could check both registration and inspection without having to look at the front of the car. Jozwiak says he’s heard complaints from constituents about how they are getting tickets in other states.
“Penndot says that all the police agencies in the country know that we don’t do this anymore. That’s not true,” Jozwiak said.
Jozwiak says Pennsylvania State Police, the Fraternal Order of Police and the Chiefs of Police Associations are all in favor of bringing the sticker back to license plates. He says it’s easier for officers to check a plate to see if there is probably cause to pull a car over for a traffic stop.
There will be a hearing on the issue next month in Harrisburg.
Rep. Jeff Wheeland (R-Lycoming) has an encouraging outlook for those of us who are on the pro-life side of the abortion debate.
“I think it’s growing,” he said. “Regardless of what the major news outlets will tell you. I think the conservative pro-life movement is alive and well and growing. “
‘Growing’ in the way that the co-sponsorship list is growing for the “heartbeat” abortion bill that Rep. Stephanie Borowicz (R-Centre, Clinton) is planning to introduce in the fall. Wheeland signed on as a co-sponsor for the measure which has around four dozen co-sponsors.
I asked Wheeland if he heard from his constituents after the New York State abortion bill passed earlier this year to a raucous applause.
“Oh absolutely. What a horrible display that they put on when that passed. That was unconscionable. But they did what they did. We’re taking a different tact and our goal is to protect the sanctity of life.”
Wheeland also supported the increase in the Educational Improvement Tax Credit. However, like many of his fellow supporters, he wished it could have been more. The original proposal was for a $100-million increase in the program that benefits private schools. The Governor vetoed that measure but subsequent negotiations were able to get $25-million in the final budget.
“It will certainly help and it was a significant increase, but we’re still lagging behind many states that started the program about the same time that we did and they continue to fund it at much larger rates than what we’ve been able to get over to the Governor’s desk. But we’re not going to give up, we’re going to keep pushing for it. It gives parents the option, the choice—outside of a public school and there’s nothing wrong with that. Choice is good.”
Wheeland comes to the state legislature by way of being a businessman. That started when he was 12 years old running his own paper route. He then worked in his family’s beverage business and bought it from his parents.
“From there I became frustrated with government, specifically at the county level. I went on to run for county commissioner, served seven years as county commissioner and got even more frustrated with state government.”
He threw his proverbial hat into the ring for the 83rd district and is now in his third term. I asked him if he still gets frustrated with state government.
“I do,” he said. “Sometimes it’s like watching paint dry. It takes so long as Rep. Borowicz is going to find out with her bill. But it’s the system and you have to work within the system.”
Lawmakers will come back to Harrisburg in two months and when they do, Wheeland will be looking to get passage of his bill to require identification for voting. He says a bill to bring that about passed during the Corbett Administration, but was struck down by the courts on a technicality.
“My particular piece of legislation has that technicality fixed,” Wheeland said. “Hopefully in the fall we can get that over the goal line. I just think it’s important for the voters to have confidence that the vote that they cast is not nullified by someone that may be scamming the system.
“It doesn’t matter whether it’s one person that commits voter fraud or tens of thousands. I don’t believe anybody really knows. But that’s not the point of my legislation. The point of my legislation is to give people surety that the vote that they cast is not going to be nullified by someone else in the state.”
He also supports other election and voting reform measures, like extending the deadline to apply for absentee ballots.
For state lawmakers, time away from the Capitol does not mean time away from the job. Summer time is a chance to meet with the residents.
“We meet with constituents all summer,” said Rep. Patty Kim (D-Dauphin), who hosted me in her Kline Village district office in Harrisburg. “It’s a good time, now that we’re out of the Capitol, to meet with people, hear their issues—ranging from ‘I need an apartment can you help me?’ to ‘I have issues with my driver’s license, I need a new I-D.’”
The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference works with legislators from both parties and Kim is no exception. The PCC is working with her on some criminal justice issues. Those issues have become bi-partisan in recent months.
“When I first started, I didn’t know anybody who went to prison,” Kim said. “After hearing a lot of stories about the process, how people get in and then they come out, it’s very restrictive. And I don’t think it’s very fair.”
Kim shares the perspective of many lawmakers that the ‘system’ does not give offenders a second chance. It leaves them branded and makes it difficult for them to get a job and turn their lives around.
“People make mistakes,” she said. “They go to prison for it. They pay their dues. They pay their fines. And then they come out and it feels like the handcuffs are still on because there are so many obstacles and barriers. The laws that we’ve passed help seal their records so employers can’t see them but law enforcement still can. It’s helped a lot of people.”
She points out that many people commit crimes to feed drug addictions. But she says many people become healed and basically have a new life.
“Opioid addiction is terrible and people have suffered from it. We’re trying to heal them and at the same time change their lives around so that they can get back on track. If we look at people through the eyes of compassion, see them as humans, get them healed, give them resources, we could have such a better and healthier society. They’ll pay their taxes. We won’t have to imprison them for $50,000 a year. That’s ridiculous. They could be out living a life with their families that you and I want.”
Kim was a big proponent this past session for raising the minimum wage. It was the Governor’s pet project as well. But no increase was passed.
“It’s so disappointing that we couldn’t get an agreement on a number,” she said. “I think the majority of us in the House want to see a higher minimum wage, but we can’t decide on the exact number. I am hopeful that we will restart the conversation and get something—we were asking for $15 by 2023. The Republicans haven’t come back with a number but I’m hoping we can get a compromise.”
Kim is also working with colleagues on both sides of the aisle to take a look at the public school code. She says there are a lot of old mandates in the code which restrict school districts from doing well. She also pointed out the issues the Harrisburg School District is having. They are entering receivership again.
“I’m going to be working closely with the receiver so that we can get things back in order. I’m excited this could be maybe out last hurdle before we get things going well.”
And Rep. Kim had some kind words to say about the Catholic schools in her district.
“I want to thank the Catholic schools in the district for doing such a great job in educating kids. There are kids who don’t want to go to the public schools and the alternative is the Catholic schools. Their curriculum is solid and I am very appreciative of them caring for some of my students. I know they are a very valuable resource.
Catholic adoption agencies across the state have been curtailing or stopping their work altogether as a result of a policy by the Wolf Administration that would take away a lot of their power to decide who would be the best parents for adoption.
PA Rep. Dave Zimmerman (R-Lancaster) says there is still hope that a religious exemption will be granted by lawmakers for organizations.
“A number of us in the House actually held up the budget because of a religious exemption, related to the Foster care and adoption,” Zimmerman told me in his Lancaster district office. Despite their determined efforts the Governor held firm and it was kept out. “They took the religious exemption out, which means an adoption agency would have to work with any type of family arrangements, whether it’s a man and wife, or an LGBT couple. They would have to work with all of those.”
Zimmerman and several of his colleagues would like to see the exemption established. They have an agreement from House and Senate leadership to run bills in the fall to make that happen.
“This is just one area. So the question is ‘what’s next?’” Zimmerman said. “I believe that our country and our state were established on religious liberty, religious freedom. We need to have these religious exemptions available to business and family throughout our state. It’s very important.”
Zimmerman said another issue that drew debate in the last session was the compulsory age for education. The current law requires children between the ages of eight and 17 to be in school. But new regulations installed in one of the budget codes would expand that from six to 18. Zimmerman was one of the lawmakers who opposed the change.
“There are a lot of issues with that,” he said. “Some children are just not ready at six. What about someone who graduates early? What about—in our district—the Plain community that gets work permits at 15? None of that has been really addressed at this point, so there are some real concerns about the compulsory age.”
The age change was something that was being pushed by the Governor, Zimmerman said. Even though it was placed in the budget, he says there will be an effort in the fall to get the change modified.
‘I also look at it as a liberties issue,” Zimmerman added. “The parents can probably make a better decision on their children than government.”
Zimmerman remains very committed to pro-life issues. He voted for the Down Syndrome Protection Act and has signed on as a co-sponsor to Rep. Stephanie Borowicz’s (R-Centre, Clinton) “heartbeat” abortion bill, which he hopes to see introduced in the fall.
Rep. Keith Greiner (R-Lancaster) was happy with how the state budget turned out—what was spent and what was not spent.
“I thought we had a good pragmatic approach. One thing I was concerned about was making sure we had a surplus to have a significant rainy day fund,” Greiner said. As a CPA he has always made a priority of being fiscally conservative and spending taxpayer money wisely. “We funded education, which was very important, human services and those types of things, which are a huge part of the budget. But in the end we were able to have those savings too.”
Greiner says the savings are important because there will be a time when the revenue is not as high as it was this year. He wishes they could have made greater progress this past term on pension reform. But he was grateful that Thaddeus Stevens College, which has a welding division in his district, got adequate funding in the budget.
“Thaddeus Stevens just does an outstanding job,” Greiner said. “Their graduation rate is nearly 100%. Workforce development is key in the Commonwealth and we need to continue to promote that.”
Greiner says it is truly a diverse legislature in Harrisburg that does not always fall along party lines.
“I may have more in common with a Cambria Co. Democrat than maybe I do with a Chester Co. Republican,” Greiner said. “I think sometimes people look at party and it’s not always that. It can be rural and urban with the issues. The issues do vary.”
Greiner supported the increase in funding for the Education Improvement Tax Credit, which greatly benefits private schools. Republicans had been requesting $100-million, which the Governor vetoed. The final increase came in at $25-million. He sees the EITC benefitting the schools, but as a CPA he’s been touting the project at the other end as well.
“Before I became a member of the state House I encouraged businesses to participate in the EITC plan and the scholarship program because the reality is that it’s very beneficial. A lot of our kids, not only in Lancaster Co. but in Philadelphia and other areas, they attend private schools. Here in Lancaster Co. we have schools, the Water Street Rescue Mission. We have Mennonite schools and also of course our Catholic schools—Lancaster Catholic and other Catholic schools. I just think it’s a real win because not every student fits in well in the public school system.”
Democrats fought the increase in the EITC on the grounds that it took money away from public schools.
“When you look at the budget as a whole, the dollars we put in that program, it’s a significant amount but as a percentage it’s not a huge amount.”
Greiner has also signed on as a co-sponsor for the “heartbeat” bill which will be introduced by Rep. Stephanie Borowicz (R-Centre, Clinton) in the fall. He also supported the Down Syndrome Protection Act which was approved by the House this past session.
“With my background and my area here, I just think that’s critical,” Greiner said. “I will say it’s a little bit troubling and disturbing with some of the decisions that you see in New York and some of these other states. I’m a firm believer in the sanctity of life. I think science has proven that life starts very early.”
Greiner says it’s fine to compromise on the budget but not on your principles.
“Never sacrifice your values. Never sacrifice what you believe in. If someone wants to question me on a transportation vote, that’s fine. But there are certain values that if I lose an election because of it, than I lose. I think if you’re convictions are strong, you do the right thing, people can see that.”
The state budget agreement on Friday marked the end of the spring session in Harrisburg. The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference was active on a number of bills during the session—both supporting and opposing. Here is a brief run-down on the more noteworthy issues.
While organizations and lawmakers work to curb or put an end to abortion in the various legislatures, the pro-life effort continues on an entirely different front—with pregnancy centers counseling would-be mothers on their options. One of the groups that does that very effectively is Morning Star.
Morning Star was originally founded back in 1972 as Birthright. Since then it has expanded to three offices (Harrisburg, New Cumberland and Middletown).
I had the chance to sit down and talk with Leslie Moyer, Morning Star’s Sexual Risk Avoidance Program Director. Her main focus is educating young people about the advantages of waiting for authentic love before they have sex. But she gave a complete tour and rundown of what Morning Star has to offer for women who come to them believing they might be pregnant.
Despite what many with contrary beliefs might claim, Morning Star does NOT pressure anyone to do anything.
“Whatever decision you make, we are just giving you the information so you can make the best decision,” Moyer said. “There are women who decide after they are here and had an ultrasound that they are going to abort. Thankfully that doesn’t happen very often. We never judge their decision, but we will offer to listen to their pain and guide them toward after care following an abortion if that’s what they request.”
Moyer also says Morning Star wants all mothers (and fathers) to feel love and support during their pregnancies. Fathers are often in the room during an ultrasound. Those mothers and fathers come from a variety of backgrounds.
“All incomes, every status you can think of,” Moyer said. She says some times the workers at Morning Star are the first people that a client will tell about the pregnancy.
“What if it’s a woman who’s a sophomore in college,” Moyer continued. “She does not want her family to know that she is pregnant and she will come in. We’ll help her in all the different ways that we can help her with the pregnancy, then if she decides to keep the baby and she doesn’t feel like she will have support from her family, then we can help her with that.”
Moyer says that includes helping the pregnant woman get insurance. She says that in Pennsylvania, every pregnant woman will get insurance, but has to apply for it. If she doesn’t have any income, insurance is available at no charge to the woman until the baby is six weeks old.
“If she is thinking, I can’t have this baby now, I’m not at a good place, maybe she wants to explore adoption, we can help her with that,” Moyer said. “We have even invited adoption agencies here. If she doesn’t want to go to an agency, because she’s afraid they’ll make her sign something—which isn’t legal. But sometimes they are open to having the adoption agencies come here—like a neutral turf. We will facilitate the conversation, but it’s really between her and the adoption agency.”
Morning Star is able to connect the woman with an agency that best fits their needs. And Morning Star also offers material support for the woman or the father who needs it, i.e. diapers, bottles, formula, blankets, baby toiletries and clothes up to 3T.
But once again, the work centers on counseling, not persuading.
“Our objective is to give them information about the options that are available so they can make an informed decision,” Moyer said. “They may be thinking, ‘I can’t be pregnant right now I need to get rid of this. We will help them to take a breath and think through the difficult decision that is before them. Often they have a few weeks before they have to make a decision whether to terminate the pregnancy. Many times they will say ‘I’m so glad that I came because I was able to relax and make my decision.’”
Moyer says that sometimes women will rush to an abortion center before determining whether they have a viable pregnancy. She says a quarter of all pregnancies will naturally end in miscarriage. Morning Star will perform an ultrasound right in their offices.
“If we don’t see a heartbeat, we cannot determine viability, so we will offer them another ultrasound in a week or so to track the baby’s development. We will continue offering ultrasounds until they make a decision about the pregnancy. We want to see if there is development with this fetus.”
I remember praying as a kid every night—okay, most nights– before I went to bed. I’d present a list of things I wanted God to help me achieve pretty much through early adulthood. As I got a bit older, I threw in a few ‘thank yous’ as well for the blessings I had gotten.
That has been the extent of my prayer technique. Not a huge evolution. I’ve frequently wondered, ‘am I doing this right?’ You too, right? Okay, there’s probably not a wrong way to pray, but I always thought there was a *better* way to pray.
In fact there is. And there’s an app for it. It’s called “Hallow.” One of the creators is Harrisburg native Alessandro DiSanto.
“Hallow is a Catholic prayer and meditation app that we recently launched this past December,” DiSanto told me during a recent visit back to his home turf. The Bishop McDevitt High School graduate now lives in the Chicago area. The idea started with DiSanto and some of his college friends shortly after they graduated from the University of Notre Dame and went into their separate career paths. DiSanto got into a career in finance and marketing.
“Over the past few years I really got stressed out, living in a constantly connected world, working all the time, constant email notifications. For us it was really about trying to find relief from the stresses and anxieties of everyday life. So we found our way into meditation.”
They wanted to add more depth to that and connect it to Catholic spirituality. DiSanto says they wanted to find out if there were any meditative traditions in the Church. There were a few. Or more.
“That is a pretty silly question,” DiSanto said. “There’s a two-thousand plus year history of monks and saints and going the whole way back to the desert fathers of a number of really beautiful contemplative traditions.”
They started incorporating those traditions into their own lives and combining them with what they saw on secular meditation apps that were faith free. That combination resulted in “Hallow,” an authentically Catholic meditation app.
“We talked to a lot of people—different users, even priests and other spiritual directors, and one of the big barriers to praying or finding new ways to pray is ‘man, am I doing this right?’ There’s this big fear and anxiety that builds up and often kind of takes over the whole experience. We’re not praying for you by any means, but what we try to do is give you the structure in a way that it’s easy for you to find your own voice in prayer.”
Hallow will guide you to a list of prayer topics, like joy, humility, love, or letting go. Or you can choose the daily prayers, like the novenas or gospels.
“You just pick five, then or 15 minutes, whatever you’re in the mood for that day. Hit play. You get optional background music if you like. Close your eyes and then we take you on an audio-guided prayer experience. You don’t have to worry about anything. You don’t have to follow along with words. You just close your eyes. We’ll provide the structure and the prompts and we’ll give you silence and a peaceful, safe place for you to develop your personal relationship with God.”
Hallow is accessible for iOS and Android. It features a free version and additional content for subscribers for $8.99 a month, or $59.99 a year.
The state budget agreement on Friday marked the end of the spring session in Harrisburg. The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference was active on a number of bills during the session—both supporting and opposing. Here is a brief run-down on the more noteworthy issues.
Oftentimes state legislators can feel themselves being pulled in several directions. They must stay focused on the larger issues like abortion, public and private school funding, and whether or not to raise taxes. But they also have to look out for their districts on issues that are unique to the people they represent.
Many people in the northeast have become sick of all the rain we’ve had recently, but you can understand if the residents of Columbia Co. are especially sick of that rain. The effects of that have been made worse by long-term damage to many creeks. Rep. David Millard (R-Columbia) is focused on fixing that problem.
“Whatever happens during one (rain) event brings debris in or creates a gravel bar doesn’t ever get fixed,” Millard said. “And then the next event might be less of a downpour or concentrated rainfall but it equals the previous event because the issues have not been taken care of.”
He calls it one of the high priority issues in Columbia Co.
“Put yourself in the shoes of the property owner, who faces a flood every time there is a high water event. How many times can your home taken on water? Secondly, between events we all age. Cleaning a home out in your twenties and remodeling is one thing, doing it in your seventies is another thing.”
Millard has been working to create a coordinated effort that would bring all the agencies together on the local, county, state and federal level. He says the problem is with many townships along Fishing Creek and the gravel bars that collect over a period of time. Those bars have spawned vegetation and collected various items that can block the flow of water.
“A high-water event that can force the stream to make a new footprint,” Millard said. “If the gravel bar is in the center, the water can go to the left or the right—damaging property owners’ land and homes. I believe that removing the bars and doing some stream bank stabilization will play a very important part in reducing–even with a moderate rainfall—the frequency of these devastating events to properties.”
Millard says the answer is not to dredge the entire length of the stream. The goal is to slow water down and not increase the velocity of it. But he says it’s important to also identify the relief points that will allow high water to fan out, possibly into a field.
“Yes, it would devastate a crop,” conceded Millard, “but hopefully, it would not devastate a collection of homes.”
He is looking to bring together the townships that are involved and apply for aid from programs on the various government levels.
“I want to bring resolve to the major flooding issues and put this thing to rest. I want to bring the county on board, which they already are, with a flood-resiliency officer, who really is the collector of all the information as one central and focal point to identify those problem areas.”
The state budget agreement on Friday marked the end of the spring session in Harrisburg. The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference was active on a number of bills during the session—both supporting and opposing. Here is a brief run-down on the more noteworthy issues.
PA Sen. Mario Scavello (R-Monroe, Northampton) has been a life-long Catholic and is now part of the newly-formed Most Holy Trinity Parish. Things are still getting settled there.
“We’ve combined three parishes and we’re building a new church right on the grounds of Msgr. McHugh Elementary Center in Paradise Twp.,” Scavello said. “It’s hard for some people that we’re in an auditorium. They’d rather be in a church. But I think they’re starting to realize we are going to have a church. We’re going to have a brand new church and that’s what they’re looking forward to.”
The senator smiles when he recalls his early life in the church as he grew up in the Bronx. We talked about being Catholic ‘back in the day.’
“I went to Mt. Carmel Elementary and actually K to 4 was the Dominican nuns and then 5-on was the Holy Cross Brothers for me. I was an altar boy at Mt. Carmel Church on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx. He says his two brothers were altar boys as well.
“I enjoyed my past–a lot of memories, altar boy for many years. Sometimes I’ll see a photo of somebody that got married there and I say, ‘wait a minute, that’s me in the picture.’”
As a staunch Catholic, Scavello is also very staunch in his pro-life beliefs.
“I’m pro-life. I will always vote pro-life,” he said. “I believe the baby in the womb needs protection just like anyone else. I know folks out there who can’t have kids. If you don’t want the baby then give it up for adoption but don’t make that decision and take life away.”
Scavello talked very highly about the Pregnancy Resource Center of the Poconos in his district that works with mothers who are undecided and gives them the help and counseling they need.
“Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the time they end up having their baby and they’re very happy that they did and that they didn’t make that mistake. I’m a big supporter. They have a banquet and it’s a packed house. For me it’s rewarding to see how many people get together to protect life.”
It’s also rewarding for all of us who are pro-life to see how many legislators get together for the same cause. The numbers are pretty impressive. And while most pro-life lawmakers are Republican, there are a fair amount of Democrats who vote that way as well.
“We are in the majority,” Scavello said. “And that’s great.”
Scavello is supporting the “Heartbeat” bill, which has been proposed by Rep. Stephanie Borowicz (R-Centre, Clinton) and would prohibit an abortion once a heartbeat is detected. Scavello expects the bill to be brought up in September or October when the legislators are back in session.
The senator was also a big supporter of the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC). Governor Wolf vetoed the original bill which called for an increase of $100-million in the EITC but the final budget agreement included a $25-million boost in the program and a $5-million dollar increase in its sister program, the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit Program (OSTC). Scavello was grateful for that.
“You ask for up here,” he said and gestured with his hand above his head. “You might not get that, but you get something in the middle, which is okay.”
Several residents came to the town hall hosted by PA Sen. David Argall (R-Berks, Schuylkill) and Rep. Barry Jozwiak (R-Berks) in Strausstown, Berks Co. back on June 21st with a number of questions. But there seemed to be one issue in particular that got the locals fired up the most and it was not a new one by any means.
“I think the key question is we need to find a better way to fund our public schools than this property tax that dates back to the 1600’s,” said Sen. Argall. “I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again–it’s rotten to the core and there has to be a better way to fund the public schools than a tax on your home that is based on: when did you fix your roof? How many acres do you own? When was it re-assessed?”
The two lawmakers were challenged on what they’ve done to fix the problem when, in fact, both have been part of efforts to find a solution.
“Those are issues that I’ve been working for a long time,” Argall said. “But as I’ve told students that I’ve talked to–you could have the best idea in the world, but if you don’t get 102 representatives, 26 senators and the signature of the Governor, then your idea doesn’t go forward.”
That was not the only issue that was brought up and raised the ire of at least some of the residents. Another one was the need for genuine welfare reform.
At all of these public meetings, no one ever stands up and says hurt someone with a disability, hurt poor people,” Argall said. “But it’s the abuse of the system they don’t like–the fact that there are still—unfortunately—abled-bodied people in the system that are collecting benefits, who really ought to be encouraged to work. That was something that we were unanimous on today.
“But the devil is always in the details, but we are looking for some way to encourage less welfare and more work for those people who do have the ability to go to work every day.
Those are issues that I’ve been working for a long time. But as I’ve told students that I’ve talked to–You could have the best idea in the world, but if you don’t get 102 representatives, 26 senators and the signature of the governor, then your idea doesn’t go forward.
We hear and read this statement a lot in June: “legislators are busy working on getting a state budget done in time.” So how many people actually have a hand in crafting the final state budget? Apparently there aren’t a ton of chairs around the negotiating table.
“I think people would be surprised, even disappointed, to learn about how much the general members know about the particulars of the budget,” said Rep. Mike Jones (R-York). “It’s really negotiated by those at the leadership level. And there are pluses and minuses to that.”
Jones might not be busy at the budget talks but he has been busy. He’s only in his first term as a state representative but has already proven to be a friend to Catholic voters. For one thing, he has been a big proponent of the Educational Improvement Tax Credit. It has been a contentious issue at the Capitol with Democrats and Republicans generally at opposite ends of the spectrum.
“E.I.T.C. is something I’m really passionate about. My wife and I have supported a school in York—Logos Academy—for a number of years. It’s like a lot of Catholic schools. They really depend on this. It’s a great program.”
Jones talked about the $100-million increase that Republicans in the House and Senate pushed through each chamber, only to have the Governor veto it.
“You compare that to about a $6.5-billion budget that goes to public schools. We have 14% of our kids in private schools. Those are kids that the public schools don’t have to pay to educate. This is a great, great deal.”
And remember, the parents of those kids are still paying their property taxes to public schools that they don’t use. Yes, I did it too.
“We average about $1,700 a kid on the E.I.T.C. program and it’s middle and low-income,” said Jones. “That’s opposed to $17,000 for every public school student. I’m extremely disappointed that the Governor chose to veto it, but we are hopeful that it will end up in the budget.”
As I write this, there is talk of at least part of that $100,000 increase still going to the E.I.T.C., but not all of it.
“It’s not dead yet,” said Jones. “My guess is we won’t get the whole $100-million, but we’ll get something. That’s just a guess.”
Jones is also a strong pro-lifer and is on board as a co-sponsor for the “heartbeat” anti-abortion bill sponsored by Rep. Stephanie Borowicz (R-Centre, Clinton).
“I can respect other people’s positions on it. I think there’s some room there for reasonable people to disagree. But my wife and I have adopted four children, so I know first-hand what the right thing to do is. It’s just something that is near and dear to my heart.”
Jones choked up for a few seconds before continuing.
‘We’ve seen things in the last year that I think are unconscionable and were unfathomable just a couple of years ago. There’s always been honest disagreement on the issue. I think you could get a lot of people to compromise. There are things you could talk about that I don’t agree with, but are reasonable.”
“But we have the Governor of Virginia talking about a nine-month old baby—newborn– that we’re going to lay them on a table, make them comfortable and wait for them to die?? We have the General Assembly of New York standing and applauding abortion on demand up to nine months. What have we become? Like I said, it’s unconscionable.”
It was back in March that Chloe Kondrich and her dad Kurt joined the PA Catholic Conference, legislators and several advocates at the state Capitol to announce the Down Syndrome Protection Act. House Bill 321 was sponsored by Speaker of the House Mike Turzai (R-Allegheny) and Rep. Kate Klunk (R-York). It would prohibit an abortion based solely on the diagnosis of possible Down syndrome with the unborn baby.
Two months later the bill passed the House and now sits in the Senate for further consideration.
It was reminiscent of another bill that passed on behalf of those with Down syndrome—Chloe’s Law. Yes, it is the same Chloe. For a young lady she has certainly done a lot. Chloe has Down syndrome, but along with her dad she is working to change the perception of those who would like to eradicate it. “Embrace, don’t’ Erase” is her mantra.
Chloe’s Law was passed back in 2014 with Rep. Jim Marshall (R-Beaver, Butler) as the prime sponsor of House Bill 2111. It made sure that a woman who has undergone genetic testing for Down syndrome would hear about the positive outcomes that are associated with having a child with the syndrome.
“It was brought to me by her dad, Kurt,” Marshall told me in his Capitol office. “We discussed the issue of bringing more awareness to Down syndrome. The children are delightful, joyful. They really embrace life. I think Kurt brought such a good message that I said ‘I’ll gladly do that and sponsor this legislation.’”
The bill paved the way for information to be made readily available for parents about what to expect.
“Chloe has been such an advocate for embracing children and adults with Down syndrome,” Marshall said. “Everybody loves her.”
Marshall is also one of the sponsors of the “heartbeat” anti-abortion bill that is being sponsored by Rep. Stephanie Borowicz (R-Centre, Clinton). That is another effort by the pro-life caucus at the state capitol that followed several pro-abortion laws being passed in other states.
“I’m pro-life and I just believe that we have to take care of every child, not just from birth, but from conception to natural death. We have to eliminate—it’s really hard to talk about. I just think the brutality of ending life in the room like that…that’s life.”
“I don’t know if Pennsylvania can get there. I hope we can. Many other states have gotten there, like Ohio. That’s very important–very important to support life.”
Marshall is also sponsoring what he calls a “50-50 bill.” It allows college teams to hold 50-50 raffles at their home games like the pro teams do.
“Penn State would probably offer something for their communities. The Eagles currently have a program where they help to provide glasses for underprivileged kids in the Philadelphia area. This bill would help to expand that.”
There are plenty of examples of legislators in Harrisburg that have taken jobs in public service after spending several years working in other careers. Sen. Maria Collett (D-Bucks, Montgomery) was a nurse and a lawyer. Sen. Steve Santarsiero (D-Bucks) was a lawyer and a teacher. Rep. Frank Ryan (R-Lebanon) was a C.P.A. and served in Iraq.
Then there are those who feeling the calling much earlier in life–like as kids.
Like Rep. John Hershey.
“My grandfather was actually a legislator,” said Hershey (R-Franklin, Juniata, Mifflin). “I heard very tangible stories about how he was able to help people with municipal issues, or even down to helping a lady get a skunk out from under her porch.”
I remember interviewing his grandfather—Rep. Art Hershey of Chester Co.– while I worked in local radio for WCOJ-AM. Art Hershey was a farmer by a trade and one of the nicest men you’d ever be lucky enough to meet. He entered office in Harrisburg in 1983 and retired in 2008.
“I got to hear a lot of stories about how politics and how the public policy we work on here in Harrisburg here can impact people’s lives in a positive way,” John Hershey said.
John Hershey paid his dues along the way as well. He majored in politics at Messiah College. He interned under U.S. House Speaker John Boehner. He worked for Congressman Charlie Dent.
“It was an incredible learning experience. I would do it all over again and Congressman Dent was a great boss,” Hershey said. “He was on Appropriations so I got a chance to really see the nuts and bolts of how budgets work and how government funds things. At the same time I really love that I’m in Harrisburg now. The closer you get to the people, so to speak, the more impact your decisions have on their lives.”
He talked about working in Washington on things like defense spending as compared to working in Harrisburg to help someone get their road fixed.
“I have a lot more fun being closer to the people I serve now than when I was in Washington.”
With dairy farming in the blood lines, Hershey is a strong advocate for the group. He drew praise from Rep. Kate Klunk (R-York) this week for comments he made in the House Agriculture & Rural Affairs Committee about educating young people on what is–and what is not– milk.
“A lot of these kids today, because of some rules that came out at the federal level about fat content in milk, they might think that an almond milk alternative that might have a lot of sugars and things like that, is just as healthy as a calcium-dense, vitamin D-dense whole milk,” Hershey said.
I reached out to Hershey because I saw he had signed on as a co-sponsor for the “heartbeat” anti-abortion bill that is expected to be introduced in the fall by Rep. Stephanie Borowicz (R-Centre, Clinton).
“I ran on the issue of protecting the right to life and we recently passed the Down syndrome abortion ban,” Hershey said. “Rep. Borowicz approached me and said she would like to take things further to protect the right to life if there’s been a heartbeat detected. If a heartbeat is detected, the fetus might not be viable, but it’s pretty scientifically evident that there is a life in there. You can’t just claim it’s a clump of cells any more or something like that.”
State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe (R-Butler) was sitting in his Capitol office one day when he got a text message from his daughter. It was the kind of message that Metcalfe had never gotten before. His daughter was pregnant and was sending him an ultrasound recording of her baby.
“To be able to listen to your grandchild’s heartbeat, that early in life, and then to think there are parents out there slaughtering their children and nobody is stepping in to defend those unborn,” Metcalfe told me as we sat in that same office. “It struck me so emotionally to be able to hear my grandchild’s heartbeat. It’s like wow, my grandchild’s going to be born and I can already hear her heartbeat.”
I’ve been talking with Metcalfe and other pro-life lawmakers who have signed on to be co-sponsors of the “heartbeat bill” that is being put forth by Rep. Stephanie Borowicz (R-Centre, Clinton). It would prohibit an abortion after a heartbeat is detected. Borowicz has gotten a good response from her colleagues but is looking for even more co-sponsors before she plans to introduce it in the fall session.
“When parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters can hear the heartbeat of that baby, I think that changes things as far as how you treat that life,” Metcalfe said. “I think this is a great bill. I think we need to move on it swiftly as so many other states have done. I think the pro-life make-up of our General Assembly should ensure victory on that vote.”
Metcalfe did concede that Governor Wolf is not pro-life, so there is the threat of a veto if the heartbeat bill does pass. But he said that should not stop the effort.
“It is our duty to put good policy on his desk. And then he does what he’s going to do as Governor and then we have a duty to execute in override fashion if we have enough votes to make the policy happen without his signature.”
Metcalfe is very conservative and has long advocated for smaller government and minimal taxation. But he was also recently named Chairman of the Environmental Resources & Energy Committee. That job keeps him in tune with the state parks, waterways, air quality and waste issues.
“Our first public hearing this year was on the nuclear waste issue,” he said. “There’s been some talk in the hallways of subsidizing nuclear power, which many of us don’t agree with. I support nuclear power, but there are some waste issues that have to be considered when you’re talking about the total cost to the consumer and the taxpayer.”
Metcalfe talked about a health issue that most people are probably not aware of. It deals with compounds that are found in a wide range of products, including Teflon pans and onesies for babies. He says the compounds can be toxic and that a petition is being circulated to have the state regulate their usage.
Like many of us, PA Rep. Lee James (R-Butler, Venango) is old enough to remember the Roe V. Wade decision on abortion of 1973. He’s made some observations since then.
“For many, many years, the over-arching concern has been for women’s health. And that is an important issue,” James said. “But in my view, in that period of time, we have forgotten about the fetus and I’m very pro-fetus. I’m not anti-woman by any stretch of the imagination. I have two daughters and a wife. I just think more care needs to be taken with consideration for that fetus.”
James pointed out that last session lawmakers asked for a very small modification in Pennsylvania’s abortion law by going for a ban after 20 weeks instead of the current 24. He also noted the “heart-beat” bill, which has been started this session. He says there are modifications which can be done without endangering the mother.
“I understand the reason for rape, incest and health of the mother. I’m perfectly good with those things. I would like civilization to have more care for the fetus, which is helpless.”
I thanked James for his support for the E.I.T.C. bill which passed the House this month and passed the Senate this week. It has been a big help for Catholic schools, but James thinks the benefit goes much further than that.
“I think it’s a huge help for communities, period,” he said. “If I’m a business person and I’m very concerned about certain issues where I live, then I can steer my tax dollars and get a portion of the consideration back from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. If I agree to make a contribution for two years, it’s a 90% credit. So I’m still paying my taxes and in fact I’m paying a little bit more because I’m not getting 100% for what I’m paying but I’m supporting my local community and I think that’s very critical.”
This is budget time around the Capitol and there will be a lot of work being done to get it finished by the end of the month deadline. That makes for a lot of needs and ideas to be rolled up into one spending plan.
“We are a diverse state. I come from western Pennsylvania where—as a general statement– the number of high school graduates is going down,” James said. “Therefore our student population is shrinking modestly almost every year. That compares to the eastern half of the state, where I don’t live but they’re growing gangbusters, I hear, and they need more relief. I’m sensitive to that.”
James also talked about the “hold harmless” policy, which guarantees that school districts will not get their funding cut from the previous year.
“To western Pennsylvania schools, “hold harmless” means we’ll be able to open the doors tomorrow morning. If that goes away, half of schools will have to close down because we will lose between 30 and 40% of the support we get to keep our districts thriving and open to new students.”
State Rep. Aaron Bernstine (R-Beaver, Butler, Lawrence) has introduced legislation that would separate public and private schools for most sports in PIAA state championship play. The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference is fully on board with House Bill 1600 and, in fact, has worked closely with Bernstine for several months on crafting the measure.
It’s no coincidence that Bernstine is naming his bill “The Parity in Interscholastic Athletics Act.” Yes, that’s PIAA as well.
“This bill is equally centered and focuses on students and student athletes from private and public schools across Pennsylvania,” Bernstine told the press at the Capitol Tuesday morning. He explained that his bill only modifies the state play-offs. Everything will remain the same through the district championship.
“And then at the very end, the one bracket of the public schools and the other bracket of the private schools will play each other in what we’ll call a Super Bowl—or a final championship game.”
“This legislation is not just about trophies and rings and banners. This is also about making sure that students are protected,” Bernstine said, noting that it eliminates transfer rules up until the mid-point of the season. It also offers Catholic schools equal representation on the PIAA board.
Eric Failing, the Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, says the compromise was made in the face of impending change and offers Catholic schools and students many benefits and protections. Failing had been concerned that Catholic schools in certain regions would be avoided by public schools, who were threatening to break away from the PIAA.
“This is about academics. This is about athletics. And this is about fairness,” Failing told the press Tuesday morning. “We care about the kids. We want to make sure that all the kids across the Commonwealth have an equal and fair opportunity to participate in sports.”
“I’ve already started receiving emails. I’ve already started receiving phone calls,” Failing continued. “I’ve already started getting questions and concerns from people and I understand that. This is a big change. We’ve worked very, very hard together. This has been a fantastic partnership between the public schools, the legislature and the private schools to put this together.”
Failing sought to reassure anyone with any initial concerns.
“Please, don’t make any snap judgements or any snap decisions until you get a chance to fully look at the legislation. I think we made a lot of positive steps in this bill to protect all of our student athletes from all of our different schools, whether they are public or private. This is about the kids. It’s what we care about. It’s what we’ve always cared about.”
You won’t be able to find many PA lawmakers with free time on their hands during the month of June thanks to the ongoing budget talks. House Education Committee Majority Chair Curt Sonney is feeling the time crunch as well.
“The Education Committee is always a very busy committee,” he told us in his Capitol office. We know–it took a while for us to get the appointment! “It’s not just the committee, but all of the representatives have education concerns that they bring to the committee, or through the introduction of bills that they bring to the committee.”
He says it’s a very interesting position–especially in today’s environment with things like school choice. Sonney’s committee approved House Bill 800, which calls for an increase in the Educational Improvement Tax Credit. That credit has been a huge help to Catholic schools.
The E.I.T.C. allows corporations to take a percentage of money they donate to scholarship funds and use that as a write-off on state taxes. Those scholarship funds can be used by private schools.
“School choice is a national trend, but in Pennsylvania we’ve been kind of ahead of the curve and are a little bit more open than most other states in the way that we treat education today. It makes for some interesting dynamics. It interests me greatly.”
Sonney feels there are some much needed changes that need to be brought forward and some difficult decisions that have to be made. He says he’s looking to “refine” Pennsylvania’s system of choice.
“We hear continually from our traditional public schools about the burden of the cyber charter cost,” he said. “I– along with the committee– have made several field trips to go and look at the schools, see first-hand and talk with administrators to get a full understanding of what’s going on in the cyber world—not only from cyber charter schools themselves but also from public schools to see what they’re doing about cyber education. Most of them have some kind of offering today from the cyber world.”
Sonney talked of the PA residents who are paying property taxes—which fund public schools– but are choosing to send their child to a private school.
“That choice should not be left out,” Sonney said. “That is really the purpose of the E.I.T.C. There’s a lot of discussion on House Bill 800 and the increase of $100-million, but ironically in the grand scheme of things, for what we spend on K-12 education in this Commonwealth, that $100-million is really a drop in the bucket. It really and truly is.”
To illustrate that point, consider that Governor Wolf’s budget proposal calls for $12.7-billion to be spent on pre-k to 12 public education. And just to emphasize, that is *B*illions we’re talking about. House Bill 800 is calling for an increase of $100-million in the E.I.T.C. That is *M*illions we’re talking about.
Sonney gave a great illustration to understand the difference between millions and billions. One-million seconds is 11-1/2 days. One-billion seconds, he says, is nearly 32 years!
House Bill 800 has gotten a bunch of Republican sponsors and even a few Democratic sponsors, including Mike Driscoll, Tina Davis, Tony DeLuca and Mark Rozzi.
PA Rep. Frank Ryan (R-Lebanon) is co-sponsoring a bill to abolish the death penalty in Pennsylvania. It’s a noteworthy move to say the least. Ryan is a conservative and is partnering with one of the more liberal lawmakers in the House, Rep. Chris Rabb (D-Philadelphia).
“Chris approached me because he knew I was against the death penalty,” Ryan told me during a visit to our offices. “We talked about it for about two or three months to craft language that we were both satisfied with.”
Ryan and Rabb feel the justice system leaves poor people at a disadvantage because they can’t afford the kind of representation that those with money are able to hire.
“That’s because of the way we fund the Public Defender’s Office,” Ryan said. “That will lead to an additional reform that I’m looking to do at some point in time where the State actually provides the funding for public defenders at the state level.” That way he says the process will be more consistent from county to county.
Ryan says another reason that he is against the death penalty is that it’s too expensive. The mandatory review for any death penalty sentence can cost anywhere from $800,000 to over a $1-million and take twenty years to complete.
“But I think the most troubling aspect of it for me,” Ryan continued. “Is that they found that a significant number of those people convicted and sentenced to death were actually found to be innocent. “Normally in a court case you are found guilty or not guilty. But apparently in a death penalty case you can be exonerated.”
Ryan also cited his pro-life beliefs for his stance on the death penalty. And he says he has concerns about giving the state that kind of power.
“I think the thing that clinched it for me was that I had a woman approach me whose daughter had been killed at the University of Pennsylvania a number of years earlier. She was asked to testify at the death penalty trial for the man convicted in the murder. She asked for leniency and a life sentence–instead of death. She said to me ‘Frank, putting him to death doesn’t bring my daughter back to life.’ And that really clinched it for me. I’ve talked to a lot of people who have gone through the same thing, and they’ve said it might feel good to get that retribution but that they didn’t feel better as time went on. They said it was like picking at a scab any time the case came up for review or repeal.”
Ryan also talked about his support for House Bill 800, which calls for more funding for the Educational Improvement Tax Credit. That passed the House and is now in the Senate. It has been a big help for Catholic schools.
“I think the E.I.T.C. is the one time that we have the chance to say to parochial schools and private schools ‘thank you for what you are doing for our community.’ Number one it gives parents choice, and number two, the amount of money the Commonwealth saves—on just what the Catholic Church alone is doing—is absolutely mind boggling. And we’re not diverting money from the public schools.”
Ryan says that through the E.I.T.C. the State is providing a low-cost option for families to allow them to go to an alternative education source with high-quality education.
“I’m so thankful that the Speaker and the Leader were willing to push it. I’m thankful for the PA Catholic Conference and others Christian organizations for their help as well.”
Ever since word came out about a budget surplus in Harrisburg, there have been two main factions—those that want to spend it and those that want to save it. You can put Rep. Rich Irvin (R-Centre, Huntingdon, Mifflin) squarely in the “save it” camp.
“Even though we have a surplus on the revenue, we need to make sure that we continue to be fiscally conservative,” Irvin told me in his Capitol office. “We have to put a little money aside for the Rainy Day fund for whenever the revenues aren’t coming in. We’re very dependent on the economy and right now we have a booming economy.”
Like many fellow Republicans, Irvin does not like the fact that the Governor is looking to increase the tax burden on natural gas drillers. He points out that the industry already pays a substantial impact fee on top of the standard taxes and fees that all PA businesses pay.
While Irvin says that much of the work this month among lawmakers will deal with the State budget, he will also be keeping his eye on other issues. One such issue is abortion, which has been a point of contention in many other states.
“I am very much a pro-life legislator. I think that what we’ve been seeing in other states where they’re allowing mothers to give birth and have abortions at that point in time is despicable. I’ve had a lot of constituents reaching out to ask me to make sure that this does not happen in Pennsylvania.”
Irvin says that questionable actions by some of his colleagues that are pro-choice have motivated the pro-life caucus. He says that pro-life caucus includes many Democrats as well.
“It reaches across the aisle. It’s a very bi-partisan issue for the most part,” Irvin said. “It’s Republicans and Democrats both. You have the major “T” in the middle of the state, but that reaches out into the western part of the state where a lot of Democrats are pro-life.”
For many people the month of June is a time for relaxation and enjoyment. It’s time to open the pool. Have cookouts. The kids are off from school. It’s vacation season.
For Pennsylvania legislators it’s quite the opposite. They still have a budget to get done.
“I used to love June,” said Sen. Pat Stefano (R-Fayette, Somerset, Westmoreland). “But since I’ve been in the Senate, June is budget season.”
This year, though, their work is a bit different.
“In the past we were always trying to fill all the holes and stretch every tax dollar to provide all the services the State needed,” Stefano said. “Then we were in a declining economy. However, things have changed. We have a surplus this year.”
That’s great, right? So where’s the problem?
Let’s compare it to the couple that gets a big tax refund or an inheritance. One person starts thinking of ways to spend it. The other immediately thinks of ways to save it or invest it. That appears to be the case in PA.
You can put Sen. Stefano on the conservative side. He feels the surplus needs to be put aside for the rainy days.
“You know what happens when you spend it? That becomes a recurring expense and you can have bigger holes to fill when you have a downturn in the economy.”
Sen. Stefano has also partnered with Sen. Camera Bartolotta (R-Beaver, Greene, Washington) to put together a no-tax alternative to the Governor’s “Restore PA.”
“He was asking to put a burden on one specific industry and borrow into the future to do some restoration of Pennsylvania,” Stefano said of Governor Wolf’s plan to invest $4.5-billion over the next four years in a variety of projects across the state. They would be funded by what the Governor calls a “commonsense” severance tax on natural gas production.
Stefano agrees that the work definitely needs to be done, however….
“We need work for bridges. We need work for flooding. Blight is a big issue no matter where you go,” he said. “But that’s a tax burden on one specific industry.”
Stefano says that he and Sen. Bartolotta are proposing that the Governor lift the moratorium on non-surface disturbance drilling of State forest land.
“That will generate enough income for the state. Some models say it would result in more money than what the Governor is asking for—without borrowing and without putting a burden in one specific industry. This is a resource already under our feet, already part of our energy portfolio. Let’s make use of it in the most proper way and put it towards conservation, with blight and flood control.”
Stefano says they are still in the early stages of the bill—working on the language and looking for co-sponsors.
PA Rep. Seth Grove (R-York Co.) is questioning a plan by some Democrats in Harrisburg to spend
$125-million in budget surpluses.
Grove reacted to comments by Sen. Vincent Hughes’ (D-Philadelphia/Montgomery) that support spending the surplus revenue or tapping tap special fund reserve accounts to help public schools across the state. All but $40-million of that would go to Philadelphia schools, which are in Hughes’ district.
“After being told by the Wolf administration the money in these special fund reserve accounts were committed and couldn’t be used to fill the budget gap two years ago,” Grove said. “I’m shocked to hear Sen. Hughes and his Democratic colleagues in the House and Senate now want to tap this funding stream for new spending. Especially after their opposition to Gov. Tom Wolf’s proposal to use special funds to balance next year’s budget.
“Two years ago, the administration and Democrats pushed for broad tax increases, which were thankfully staved off by House Republicans, instead of using these reserve accounts,” Grove continued. “We must plan for the future and put the surplus away in the rainy day fund for when the economy does falter and tax revenue decreases, as well as, improve our bond rating and stabilize the general fund cash flow.
Democrats say the plan would require the school districts to use the funding for emergency repairs, including lead and asbestos remediation, HVAC repair or replacement; electrical system repair and plumbing concerns.
The follows passage two weeks ago of House Bill 800, which calls for an increase of $100-million in the Educational Improvement Tax Credit, or EITC. That’s a program which allows corporations to donate to scholarship funds which have been a huge help to private schools.
The bill was passed along party lines, with Republicans supporting the bill and Democrats vigorously opposing it. Governor Wolf is calling for over $9-Billion in his budget to go toward public schools.
PA Senator John DiSanto (R-Dauphin & Perry Cos.) is sponsoring a bill that would help those convicted of a crime try to turn their lives around and pursue a career. It covers occupational licensure reform and it deals specifically with re-doing the requirements for people that need licenses.
“There are so many licenses that are required for so many jobs in PA,” Sen. DiSanto told me in his Capitol office. “Lots of times when people are convicted of crimes and they come out they’re automatically excluded from even applying for these licenses because they have misdemeanor or felony convictions. And those convictions may have nothing to do with what their license would cover.”
DiSanto said a prime example is someone trying to become a barber.
“If you were involved in some kind of criminal activity, burglary or something like that, and you paid your debt to society—why can’t you come out and get a barber’s license? Why can’t you get a license for cosmetology? Why can’t you become an auctioneer? ”
DiSanto has some solid co-sponsorship on both sides of the aisle, including Sens. Lisa Baker, Camera Bartolotta, Scott Martin, Kim Ward and Kristin Phillips-Hill on the Republican side; and Sens. Judy Schwank, Maria Collett and Christine Tartaglione on the Democratic side.
There is also a companion bill in the House, sponsored by Rep. Sheryl Delozier (R-Cumberland Co.), which has bi-partisan support as well.
“It’s an inherent conflict in the corrections system,” DiSanto said. “We train a lot of these people for these different kinds of jobs (in prison) and when they come out they find out they’re not eligible because of their criminal record. So we’re really tightening that whole process up.”
“We’re working closely with the Governor’s office to take out a lot of the vague language and put in specific requirements that permit you or disallow you from having a particular job that will be posted so that everybody will know before you even have to go before a board to get a license.”
The bill would not apply to violent, repeat criminals.
DiSanto said he sees a lot of interest—from both sides of the aisle—locally and nationally on criminal justice reform.
“It is so expense for us to house non-violent criminals. It’s important to have them re-enter society. We should do everything we can to get them re-entered, productive and re-united with their families. It just makes sense.”
DiSanto said he’s looking to get the bill finished by June 30th.
There are a number of attorneys that have made the jump to holding public office. It seems there have also been a fair amount of teachers who have gone into politics as well. But I can’t recall seeing any elected officials who once worked as attorneys *and* as teachers. Well, PA Sen. Steve Santarsiero is one such individual.
It was back on September 11th, 2001 when Santarsiero sat in his Newark, N.J. law office and watched the terrorist attacks on New York City. It motivated him to seek a career in public service. He got a teaching certificate by taking night classes at Holy Family University—a Catholic college–and eventually became a high school social studies teacher.
But he soon got pulled into another form of serving the public. In 2003, Sentarsiero ran for and won a seat as a township supervisor. In 2008, he won a State House seat. Last year he was elected as a State Senator.
It’s no wonder with his teaching background that he continues to be a leader in education. He talked about the two Blue Ribbon Catholic Schools in his district.
“Both Mt. Carmel and St. Jude– I’m really proud of the kids and obviously the teachers and the families that help make them such strong schools. I want to congratulate them and send along my best wishes to them and cheer them on to continue their good work.”
Santarsiero’s district is full of good schools. “We have some really terrific schools—both private and public. We are really blessed that we have communities that support them. And one of the most important things—I know as a former public school teacher myself—is having strong parent support and strong family support for our schools. That makes a difference.”
I talked with the Senator in his Newtown district office. But it’s an event that happened in another Newtown in a different state that has motivated him to take action against gun violence.
“That’s been an issue that I’ve been involved with, particularly since the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut. We’ve been trying for years to get reasonable gun violence prevention measures passed in Harrisburg. We’re continuing that fight. I continue to be one of the prime sponsors of the background check bill that would require that a background check be performed every time a firearm was purchase in Pennsylvania, whether it be at private sale or otherwise. We’re hoping we can get that bill up for a vote.”
Santarsiero has also proposed a bill in the Senate that would call for safe storage of firearms when they’re not being used.
“We have found in states like, for example, Connecticut and Massachusetts that have passed those types of laws… that the numbers of suicides and homicides and even just accidents that have occurred with guns have dramatically decreased. So that’s a reasonable thing that we can do in Pennsylvania.”
Santarsiero also feels there is a good opportunity for the state to grow the economy through the promotion of renewable energy.
“We are sitting just a few blocks away from a company that sells solar panels and is doing pretty well,” he said. “But we need to increase our standards in Pennsylvania. We’re lagging far behind our neighboring states in the amount of renewable energy that is required on an annual basis. And I think we can do that. I have a bill. It’s a bi-partisan bill that would do that. I’m pretty excited about that.”
You absolutely can NOT call PA Sen. Maria Collett a career politician. It has become a negative connotation over the years, but it’s something that does not apply in her case. Collett is a freshman Democratic Senator representing Bucks and Montgomery Counties. She has also been an attorney AND a nurse!
“It’s interesting when I tell people the different career paths that I’ve had, it seems as if they don’t really fit together,” Collett told me during a visit to her district office in North Wales. “But when I talk about advocacy and when I talk about the work I’ve done in those fields…when I was an attorney I was an advocate for children that were victimized by abuse and neglect. So for me it was really an extension of finding ways where I could be impactful in people’s lives.”
After working as a Deputy Attorney General in Camden County, N.J. Collett went into nursing and became a Level I trauma nurse, and later worked in pediatric home health and in long-term care working with aging adults.
“I’m really thankful to have found bedside nursing. It really turned into a calling for me,” she said. “Once I landed at the bedside where I was interacting with people and working to hopefully get them to a better place and a better quality of life than they ended up in the hospital with, it felt like the right fit for me.”
And then she was ready for yet another jump—this time into the field of public service. Collett sees it as a continuation of her career path. “It’s finding a way to advocate for people on a broader scale to improve their quality of life.”
Collett was a political novice when she ran for the 12th District Senate seat last year. She won handily in November, defeating Republican Steward Greenleaf Jr., the son of the man who just retired from the PA Senate and held the seat for decades.
One of her top priorities now is helping older citizens maintain their quality of life. She has a live-in motivation in that cause.
“My dad is 84. He lives with us. We’re honored to have him. But I know a lot of people that are aging don’t have the privilege of living with family members, so what can I do in the legislature to assist our aging population to make sure they can age the way they want to, where they want to and enjoy the remaining years of their life. “
Another public health issue that Collett is focused on is improving and maintaining safe drinking water. She says the run-off from the military base in her district in Horsham is affecting people’s health.
“Those chemicals have been linked to certain medical conditions that can be devastating. For me it’s a way of figuring out how we hold the polluters accountable–how do we make sure they’re held accountable for the cleanup and how do we have access to safe and clean drinking water?”
Collett assures residents in her district that they do have safe and clean water, thanks to the municipalities taking the lead in seeing to the quality. To help continue that, the Senator has proposed two bills—SB 581 and SB 582—that talk about the chemicals in the water and “what needs to be done to help the water authorities keep the water safe and maybe unlock some funding to help with clean-up,” she said.
“It’s really about wanting to do the right thing for people. But there is a barrier there. It comes at a high cost and people are paying for that with their water bills.”
Russ Diamond has introduced a constitutional amendment to change the way we elect judges in Pennsylvania. Instead of electing judges for appellate courts—Commonwealth, Superior and Supreme — on a *state-wide basis*, the bill would have the state divided into districts. It would also require the voters and the candidates to live in a particular district.
“Pennsylvania could easily be divided into seven or eight regions with distinctive cultures, different traditions and different views on what the constitution actually means,” Diamond said. “For instance, when we deal with laws in the General Assembly, we have a wide, diverse group of 203 people, and we run ideas through a filter to get a consensus for the best law for Pennsylvania as a whole.”
But Diamond feels the process should be different for laws. “That regional diversity should be represented on our courts.”
Diamond says he has run in two state-wide races and it takes a lot of energy and a lot of money. He says the district system would be a lot easier for voters to know who those judicial candidates are.
But Diamond says his favorite bill right now is the one to end Daylight Saving Time.
“The real goal there is to stop the nuisance and the absolutely archaic practice of changing clocks twice a year in Pennsylvania,” Diamond said. “It’s a public safety concern. Workplace accidents, heart attacks strokes, all sorts of bad health effects come into play in the weeks after we change those clocks—both in the fall and in the spring.”
The question that would arise is: what time will we settle on—daylight time or standard time? Diamond says states can change to permanent standard time without federal approval. But to stay on Daylight Saving Time, Diamond says, you need Congressional approval. At least that’s way it supposed to be. He doesn’t think it would be a big deal to defy Congress on the issue. He says PA already does it with medical marijuana.
It was hard for me to get a time slot to talk with Diamond. All lawmakers are very busy these days. A lot of that is due to committee meetings on the budget.
“Our business on the floor right now, is not really all that much budget-related, but our meetings before we go into session–yesterday I had probably six to eight meetings before we even went on the floor into session with people with budget concerns. This time of the year really heats up as far as off-the-floor meetings for legislators.”
I had met Diamond when he was a political activist back in 2005 after the infamous late-night/early-morning PA legislative pay-raise vote. He started the group PACleanSweep.com, which was dedicated to ousting all incumbents. I asked Russ if he likes it better on the inside.
“It was a lot easier when I was standing outside the Capitol throwing rocks,” he said. “–because I didn’t have to be diplomatic. I have to be a lot more diplomatic now. It really hasn’t changed my viewpoints, but I have to be a lot more diplomatic because the people in this building are my colleagues and I’ve gotten to know them as human beings.”
“For the vast majority of my colleagues, they are all fine human beings, with families, wives, husbands, children.”
“When you look across that aisle and instead of seeing them as the enemy and get to know them as human beings, you find a lot more commonalities than differences. Then you can find ideas that you can work together on. I think that’s the most important thing about being here.”
She is evidence that hard work can pay off. First-time PA Sen. Katie Muth (D-Berks, Montgomery & Chester Cos.) came from a working class family and displayed an incredible work ethic to stage a stunning upset last fall for her first job in public office.
Muth said she originally got the idea to run for office about three or four years ago when she realized that equal pay was an issue in the field of sports medicine and athletic training.
“My husband and I met in grad school. We have the same degrees and he at one point made more than double what I did,” Muth told me in her Royersford district office. “Sort of seeing how legislation plays into equal pay—and I did some concussion research policy when I was in grad school. So that was my formal introduction into policy because we did pass a state-wide concussion policy Arizona.”
Muth said that just seeing the un-level playing field for working-class people made her realize that every-day citizens face a battle to compete with those in power. She became so motivated that she thought she would go to law school to increase her chances of getting elected.
“Luckily I met some very wise people that talked me out of that,” she said. “They told me ‘you’re a teacher, you’re a healthcare provider. We have enough lawyers. Let’s try something different.”
Muth said when she first started she didn’t realize how much money she had to raise to become a viable political candidate. Katie and her husband raised $40,000 in the first six months. She also decided to hit the pavement and the doors in her district.
“We knocked on over 110,000 doors,” she said. “We talked to voters of all parties, just about fairness, transparency and accountability. Those three things resonate with all party registrations, so it just wasn’t about selling anything. It was about having a conversation about what is happening now from a Democracy standpoint and how our pay-to-play system really limits our ability to have a true democracy.”
The message took root. Muth increased voter turnout in the November general election by 31% in beating four-term incumbent John Rafferty by almost 7,000 votes. Rafferty had won by 18,000 votes in his last election.
“If I had a dollar for every time someone told me that ‘you can’t win’ I would never have to fund-raise again,” Muth said.
Muth said she benefitted from a bunch of small-dollar donors, and that she took no special interest money and no corporate PAC money. But she did say she had an army behind her.
“We had over 50,000 hand-written post cards from people in the state writing them, people in New York writing them, people in Hawaii, and California,” she said. “We were going to win even if it was an unconventional way!”
Muth said she knocked on doors every weekend from two weeks after the 2017 municipal election, except for one weekend after the primary.
“To knock a big senate district you have to have a ground game that if it was raining or snowing—we did pull people in if it was lightning—but otherwise we were out there in the freezing cold. I went out there in December of 2017 to talk to all Republicans in Chester County. I didn’t think we’d have any volunteers but we had ten people show up.
“I just thought if we told the truth and worked as hard as we possibly could that if we lost we knew we left everything out on the field that we possibly could have. I come from sports so I always gave 110%. If you lost, at least you know you did everything in your power to win”
“It’s really a crisis that’s occurring—not just in the state of Pennsylvania,” said PA Rep. Stephen Barrar (R-Chester & Delaware Cos.). “It’s occurring nationwide.”
Barrar is talking about the scarcity of firefighters and other first responders across the state. He chairs the House Veterans Affairs and Emergency Preparedness Committee and heads the group which has been selected to tackle the problem.
“The SR-6 Commission was put together with a House and Senate resolution to create a commission to look into the crisis that’s occurring within the Emergency Management System around the State of Pennsylvania,” said Rep. Barrar. That deals with firefighters, EMT’s, paramedics and other first responders around P-A.
“When I first came here in 1996, there were over 200,000 volunteer firefighters in the State of Pennsylvania and today there are less than 40,000 firefighters in the state and that number may include a bunch of EMT’s.”
Barrar says part of it is tied to the various fire departments not being to get increases in their budgets and to ambulance companies not being able to get reimbursements for their services.
“Every month I get notified about a fire or ambulance company that has shut its doors,” he said. “How do we stop that from happening? It’s up to the state to have a plan to deal with this crisis before we end up seeing people dying because they pick up the phone to call 9-1-1 and nobody responds in the appropriate amount of time.”
Barrar says there about 35 recommendations that come out of the SR-6 Commission. He says the most important one deals with recruiting and retention of new firefighters and volunteers to staff the fire houses and ambulance services that are highly trained *and* are willing to volunteer.
“If not, we’re going to have pay them and then that will create a different kind of crisis because that’s going to be very, very expensive,” Barrar said. “Most people don’t realize the tradition of volunteer firefighters started in Philadelphia with Benjamin Franklin. It has lasted for hundreds of years and we want to see it continue.”
Barrar says everything in the report will take separate pieces of legislation to be put into effect. He says they’re in the process of having those bills written and assigned to the House members that will try to push them through. The hardest part will be to get the necessary funding.
“I was disappointed in this year’s budget because the Governor increased spending by over $900-million this year and not one penny was spent toward the crisis we currently see,” Barrar said. “That at times makes me want to call for a very special session on this crisis.”
I asked Barrar if he thinks it’s gotten to that point.
“Yes I do,” he said. “One of the things we can do is start allocating real dollars. Right now we have a $30-million program that benefits the whole State of Pennsylvania. But with over a thousand fire companies, that $30-million doesn’t buy a whole lot. We need about ten times that if we’re really going to make an impact here.”
Barrar said there are some ways to get that, possibly with the severance tax on natural gas drilling or re-purposing the current tax on alcohol into the emergency management area.
The pro-life caucus in the PA House has been very active this session, sparked by a wave of pro-abortion legislation in other states. Freshman PA Rep. Jim Struzzi (R-Indiana Co.) has been right there with his support.
“As a father of four children, this type of legislation is very important to me,” Struzzi told me in his Capitol office. “Hearing about some of those barbaric laws that have been passed in other states that are basically killing unborn children I think is just an atrocity and it’s a human injustice.
Among the legislation proposed in the last couple of months in Harrisburg has been the Down syndrome bill, which would prohibit an abortion based solely on a Down syndrome diagnosis. That followed the heart-beat bill–proposed two months ago by Rep. Stephanie Borowicz. That would prohibit an abortion if a heartbeat was detected in the fetus.
“I was very, very eager to co-sponsor that bill. I believe I was one of the first co-sponsors of that legislation,” Struzzi said. “Anyone who’s ever held a child, saw their children being born. I was there for all my children being born. I cut their umbilical cord and I held them when they were born. That’s life. And it’s life inside the womb as well. To me, as soon as you detect a heartbeat, that’s a human being that needs and deserves the right to live.”
Struzzi concedes that it is a long process and it might be very tough to get the bill passed. In fact, Governor Wolf has promised to veto any such abortion bills that make it to his desk.
“But I still think it’s important we take a strong stance on this,” Struzzi said. “We need to let people know that we’re not going to stand for those atrocities in Pennsylvania.”
Struzzi says his district is unique and has a very diverse population, thanks in large part to the presence of Indiana University of PA. There is art and culture on one hand, while on the other hand there is a strong natural gas presence and the two of the largest coal fire electric generation plants in the state.
“Obviously then I’m going to be pro-energy, pro-natural gas,” Struzzi said. ‘We lost a lot of jobs when the commodity prices fell several years ago. We’d like to see that come back and be strong as we are the center of the Marcellus Shale and Utica Basin for natural gas extraction.”
Struzzi says work force and job creation is very important. He says that are many issues that contribute to that, including the drug addiction issue.
“It’s very hard for employers to find people who can pass a drug test and are willing to show up for work on time,” he said. “It’s important that we make sure that we’re providing an active work force so we can continue to attract business.
Struzzi also sees property tax reform as something very important to his district and many others around the state.
“Recently we went thought a property value reassessment. That caused a lot of people’s taxes that hadn’t been changed for 50 years to in some cases quadruple and sadly that put some senior citizens out of their homes.”
Lawmakers in Harrisburg have been approaching school safety from many angles. One bill in particular by Rep. Matt Gabler (R-Elk & Clearfield Cos.) would call for special signal lights to be put on smaller school vehicles.
“I had the idea come to me because I have some constituents who live on a rural road without street lights,” Gabler told me. “They put their little girl in a school “vehicle.” It’s a specific term. It’s smaller than a school bus. It’s basically a van.
“These school vehicles have a placard on the side but they don’t have any special lights and they’re tough to see, especially at the top of a hill or around a blind curve.”
Gabler’s bill would call for such vehicles to have a yellow flashing or rotating light on their roof if officials thought it was useful for their routes. He says he’s been talking with several transportation contractors who tell him they would love to take advantage of that to keep everyone safer.
“Sometimes you get win-wins you come up with. Not everything in Harrisburg is always a knock-down, drag-out fight,” said Gabler. “A lot of times you come up with real solutions that help real people and make an impact on people’s lives. That’s what makes this job so interesting.”
And speaking of win-win, Gabler is a big proponent of the Educational Investment Tax Credit. It allows businesses to make a donation to a scholarship organization or an educational improvement organization in exchange for a credit on their state taxes.
“It’s a great program,” said Gabler, who is a product of the Catholic school system. “What it allows them to do is drive money into our education system. Some of that money is used in non-public schools like Catholic schools to provide scholarship money to offset tuition. But our public schools are able to use some of this money for Science Technology Education and Math programs. I’ve got schools that have used it for robotics competitions, and to help their music and dance programs.”
Gabler says it brings more money into the education system than it costs on the other side in the form of the tax credit since donors aren’t able to write off the full amount of the donation. Still, as he says, it’s a win-win.
“I think my favorite legislation that we’ve done during my time in the House is the expansions that we’ve made to this program that have allowed this universe of tax credits to grow. As a result, more and more businesses through their generosity can be providing money to our education system to help our students and ultimately help our educational systems—public and non-public.”
Gabler has spent several years of service in the U.S. Army Reserve. He was deployed to the Middle East last year and spent nearly the entire year there while getting promoted to the rank of major.
He got involved in politics back in 2008 when he decided to run against incumbent Democrat Dan Surra, a man who had held the office since 1991. Surra was going to be running unopposed when Gabler decided to jump in.
“I actually did a write-in campaign during the primary to get on the ballot,” Gabler said. “From there I started knocking on doors. I went door to door and got a lot of ‘you’re running against who? You don’t have a chance.”
Gabler told those people he had a vision for the future of the area. They apparently liked what they heard and it turns out Gabler did have a chance. He beat the well-entrenched incumbent.
“It’s been a great opportunity and a great responsibility and something that has enabled me to get involved in a bunch of great conversations, whether it’s school student safety, or the EITC or other things that are important to folks. It’s been a great ride.”