Casey joins local airport fight

Political Notebook

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., took up the cause of west-central Pennsylvania’s rural airports last week, calling on the U.S. Department of Trans­portation to keep funding flights in Altoona and Johnstown.

The two airports have faced the threat of subsidy elimination since at least last month, when transportation officials warned that they don’t meet federal requirements.

“I urge you to reconsider this termination and grant Altoona (a) waiver to continue providing air service to under-served regions of Pennsylvania,” Casey wrote Tuesday in a letter to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao.

Rural airports — including Altoona-Blair County and the John Murtha-Johnstown Cambria County airports — rely on federal subsidies to keep flights affordable. Under the federal Essential Air Service program, those airports can keep getting help as long as they meet a minimum number of passengers and don’t allow per-passenger subsidies to become too large.

The department has made good on past threats to scrap small airports’ subsidies: Since 1989, it has booted nearly 50 airports from the program for costing too much or failing to meet required passenger numbers, according to a federal list updated in February.

Casey blamed Altoona’s failure to meet subsidy rules on several issues, most notably a pilot shortage that affects many small and rural airports.

While it is far from guaranteed that the federal government would withdraw money from Altoona and Johnstown’s airports this year, Casey warned that cancellation could throw small-city economies into disarray.

“Termination of Altoona’s participation in the EAS program would have a truly devastating impact on the local economy,” he said. “At a time when jobs are already so hard to come by in our rural communities, it makes no sense to take actions that will only make the problem worse.”

Trump backs state

pot laws

President Donald Trump’s announcement last week that he might back a bill protecting state and local marijuana users could be a key moment in Pennsy­l­vania’s move toward more liberal drug laws.

“We’re looking at it. But I probably will end up supporting that, yes,” Trump said Friday, referring to a new bipartisan Senate proposal that would change drug laws to protect users who adhere to state and local rules.

That shift — which breaks with Attorney General Jeff Sessions and much of Trump’s own administration — would boost efforts to solidify local and state marijuana laws that allow medical and recreational use.

For years, states and cities have passed their own laws allowing more widespread use of the drug. But with a federal ban still in effect, state officials and local marijuana advocates are left uncertain.

Pennsylvania is still establishing a broad medical marijuana program, while several municipalities — including Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and State College — have removed criminal penalties for personal use. A federal ban still impedes progress, however, with many marijuana businesses shut out of financing and banking.

On Friday, Gov. Tom Wolf joined several fellow governors in a letter urging congressional leaders to pass the bill, called the STATES Act.

“Whether a state maintains the prohibition or chooses a different path, the STATES Act ensures that the federal government is a partner rather than an impediment — an objective the federal government should always strive to achieve,” the governors wrote.

Hazing bill set for vote

A so-called anti-hazing bill introduced in the wake of a Penn State University fraternity death made its way out of a House committee last week, setting it on a path for final passage after it got unanimous Senate support.

The proposed law — named for Timothy Piazza, a Penn State sophomore who died last year during a fraternity initiation party — would create new criminal charges for hazing that puts incoming members at risk of harm. It carves out some exceptions, including athletic, military and law enforcement “contests, competitions and events.”

The bill also would allow authorities to seize property and assets involved in hazing, while requiring universities to set and publish anti-hazing policies.

Corman’s bill made its way out of the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, setting the stage for a final vote. The committee passage came days after a Centre County judge dropped the most serious charges against those accused of involvement in Piazza’s death.

The bill, officially titled Senate Bill 1090, passed the Senate in April with a unanimous vote.

In other news, state lawmakers are set to meet Thursday in the Capitol to discuss chronic wasting disease, with the meeting broadcast for the public, officials said. The House Game and Fisheries Committee is slated to meet at 10 a.m. Thursday to discuss the disease, which has spread among Pennsylvania’s deer since it first appeared in Blair and Bedford counties.

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