House spars over cash cuts

Local lawmakers voted Wednesday to eliminate the state’s General Assistance program, which directs some $54 million a year in cash payments to Pennsylvania residents.

The program, long a target of GOP officials, covers those who don’t qualify for the federal program called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. General Assistance recipients include permanently or temporarily disabled people, parents of young children and those in drug and alcohol recovery programs that preclude work.

All but a handful of state Republican representatives voted to eliminate the program after a bitter floor debate Wednesday. Rep. Louis C. Schmitt Jr., R-Altoona; Rep. Jim Gregory, R-Hollidaysburg; Rep. Rich Irvin, R-Huntingdon; and Rep. Jesse Topper, R-Bedford; all supported the move.

Republicans argued the program doesn’t face sufficient oversight and remains subject to abuse; in response, Democrats asked why the GOP didn’t propose transparency reforms instead of total elimination.

Rep. Frank Burns, D-Johnstown, was the only House Democrat to join the GOP in the vote.

The program was eliminated under Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, then revived by a court ruling. Its survival is now likely tied to last-minute state budget negotiations.

“It’s not a lot of money, but it’s literally the difference between living and dying for many people,” Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler, D-Philadelphia, said, according to PennLive.

Minimum wage remains in budget balance

As Gov. Tom Wolf and lawmakers spar over budget details, the prospect of a minimum wage hike remains unclear — but state Democrats are pushing the issue as hard as ever.

The governor’s office and its allies in the Legislature spent much of last week calling for a negotiated wage hike as part of a budget bargain.

“On Monday, a gentleman asked me why his minimum wage job in (New York) pays so much more than his minimum wage job in Pa.,” Wolf tweeted Friday. “I told him what I’ve been saying for years: because PA’s GOP-controlled legislature hasn’t taken action to raise the wage.”

Pennsylvania’s minimum wage is $7.25, the same rate since 2009 and significantly less than all its neighbors. Wolf’s office has pointed to some neighboring states already planning gradual increases to $15 per hour — more than double Pennsylvania’s rate.

Many elected Republicans remain skeptical, and business groups have issued statements and op-eds opposing an increase. Lawmakers have given reporters conflicting opinions in the last few days: Some say a deal remains possible, while others say a hike is “not on the table.”

Meanwhile, in Washington, the Democratic-controlled House is slated to consider gradually increasing the federal minimum to reach $15 per hour in five years. All nine of Pennsylvania’s Democratic representatives have signed on as cosponsors, but even if it passed, the bill would likely die in the Senate long before it reached President Donald Trump’s desk.

Open primaries a possibility

Pennsylvania inched closer to open primaries last week, with a bill to extend the ballot to unaffiliated voters passing a Senate committee 9-2.

Senators from both parties — including state Sen. Judy Ward, R-Blair, supported the plan to let the state’s hundreds of thousands of independent voters participate in party primaries. Proposed by Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, the bill is one of several that could reform the state’s voting system as activists keep up the pressure in Harrisburg.

Many states allow independent or unaffiliated voters to take part in either the Democratic or Republican primaries, a point Scarnati pressed to colleagues. Just 18 percent of registered voters took part in the state’s most recent primaries, he noted — a share that could go up if otherwise disenfranchised independents got a voice in the major parties.

By passing a Senate committee, Scarnati’s bill has already gone further than a version proposed in the last legislative session. It awaits further attention alongside several other election reforms, including one to allow absentee voting in all circumstances.

Wolf gets survivors’ bill of rights

A bill by state Sen. Wayne Langerholc, R-Cambria, to create a so-called “sexual assault survivors’ bill of rights” was sent to Gov. Wolf’s desk this weekend, after it passed both chambers of the Legislature unanimously.

The proposal, Senate Bill 399, would keep sexual assault victims informed as medical evidence — commonly called rape kits — moves through hospitals and the legal system. Under the bill, the authorities would tell victims their rights, ensure they’re not charged for medical tests and keep them abreast of test results.

In a memo to colleagues, Langerholc, a former prosecutor, said the bill expands on similar federal laws. It also builds on another bill by Langerholc — signed into law by Wolf last year — that established a hotline to ensure investigators quickly collect rape kits.

“While the federal law provides basic rights for sexual assault survivors in federal cases, it should also serve as a model for states to adopt to ensure that the same rights and protections are extended to survivors at the state and local levels, where the vast majority of sexual assault cases are tried,” Langerholc wrote.

Senate Bill 399 passed the Senate 46-0 in April, passed the House 200-0 on Wednesday and won a second unanimous Senate vote the same day.

It is one of several bills addressing sexual assault and criminal justice to reach Wolf’s desk this week. Others — including a bill banning female genital mutilation and one banning courtroom cross-examination over alleged victims’ sexual histories — are also set for Wolf’s pen.