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Election-law debate redux

State lawmakers seem ready to relaunch their long-standing debate over election reforms — with Republicans even labeling their latest bill version “2.0.”

Republicans in Harrisburg and Gov. Tom Wolf both appear willing to negotiate, especially since Wolf indicated he’d be open to some voter ID requirements. But the distance between the two parties becomes clear when reviewing their dueling proposals.

The 183-page GOP bill, submitted Wednesday, was already undergoing revisions a day later. The initial proposal would sharply limit the number of ballot drop boxes and would impose new voter ID rules.

Titled the Pennsylvania Voting Rights Protection Act, the GOP bill would also set new rules for early in-person voting: Beginning in 2025, counties would open at least one early voting center for several days before each election.

The rules are evidently too much for the governor. A Wolf spokeswoman told PennLive: “He will not support any election reforms that suppress the vote with unnecessary restrictions.”

The bill rolls back some of the changes made in Act 77 of 2019, a sweeping election reform law that passed with bipartisan support. That law established universal mail-in voting.

After Donald Trump lost Pennsylvania to Joe Biden, some GOP lawmakers called for provisions to be reversed and demanded audits of the results. Since then, they’ve sparred with Wolf over any tweaks to the law.

The new Republican bill has support from dozens of party members, including state Rep. Lou Schmitt, R-Altoona, state Rep. Jedd Wheeland, R-Lycoming, state Rep. Bud Cook, R-Washington, state Rep. Clint Owlett, R-Tioga, state Rep. Tommy Sankey, R-Clearfield, and state Rep. Rich Irvin, R-Huntingdon.

Meanwhile, Democrats are considering their own bill — a potential start for negotiations. state Rep. Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia, circulated a framework this week that would allow 15 days of early voting, same-day voter registration and the option for teenagers to pre-register in time for their 18th birthdays.

One thing is clear: Wolf’s allies think mail-in voting is here to stay.

“Mail-in voting, a signature achievement of that law, has been embraced by Pennsylvania voters as a safe and convenient option to return a ballot,” McClinton said.

Reps support deer disease cash

Several Pennsylvania members of Congress have signed on to a bill that would put $70 million each year toward researching and stopping chronic wasting disease, a fatal illness that threatens the state’s deer population.

U.S. Rep. Glenn “GT” Thompson, R-15th District, introduced the Chronic Wasting Disease Research and Management Act last month, alongside U.S. Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis. Since then, several more — U.S. Rep. John Joyce, R-13th District, U.S. Rep. Fred Keller, R-12th District, U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-1st District, and U.S. Rep. Guy Reschenthaler, R-14th District — have all signed on as co-sponsors.

The bill would authorize funds until 2028 to stop the transmissible brain disease, which bears similarities to so-called mad cow disease. Money would pay for testing, genetic research and studies to slow its spread, with more money going to the hardest-hit areas.

The illness has thinned deer herds across the country and has affected Pennsylvania’s population since its first detection here in 2012.

“CWD has been a big problem for the deer populations of Pennsylvania,” Thompson said in a news release. “It is imperative we better understand the genetic implications of the disease, so we can develop policies best suited to solve the problem.”

A similar 2019 bill aimed at researching the disease didn’t generate as much congressional interest as the current version, and never made it to a House vote.

Transit bodies prepare for windfall

Local governments across the country are waiting to see where hundreds of billions of new dollars will go as federal infrastructure funding prepares to make its way to the states.

Funding could go to transit, road and bridge projects, while national services like Amtrak are already planning for a potential windfall.

The national passenger railway network is considering service expansions, including an additional cross-state train and new routes from northeastern Pennsylvania to New York City.

But it’s local governments that could reap much of the benefit, with grants going to local transit agencies and projects. The Allegheny County Port Authority expects some $4 billion over five years, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported this month.

Lawmakers involved in the bill’s passage are already touting the benefits in their states and districts. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., held a press conference Thursday to discuss infrastructure work — expanded broadband internet, road repair, climate mitigation — days after boasting of a $24 million grant to develop transportation in Johns­town.

Bill would ban pets in drivers’ seats

A state lawmaker is making a new effort to ban drivers from keeping animals in their laps.

State Rep. Angel Cruz, D-Philadelphia, announced this week that he’ll propose a change to the vehicle code that would keep animals out of drivers’ immediate surroundings.

“Driving while holding a pet, regardless of its size, is undoubtedly a safety hazard — to the animal, the driver and all individuals on the road,” Cruz said in a memo.

A similar effort by Cruz in 2017 drew several co-sponsors but was never passed.

Ryan Brown covers statewide politics for Ogden Newspapers. He can be reached at rbrown@altoonamirror.com.

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