Aument Proposes Fair Judicial Districts Legislation

HARRISBURG – Senator Ryan Aument (R-Landisville) today circulated legislation that would guarantee that the diversity of Pennsylvania and the uniqueness of its various regions would be more accurately reflected in the election of appellate judges.

Aument’s legislation, which would require approval of Pennsylvania’s voters, would divide the Commonwealth into nine (9) Commonwealth Court districts, fifteen (15) Superior Court districts, and seven (7) Supreme Court districts. 

The judicial districts would be defined by the General Assembly following the redistricting principles found in the Pennsylvania Constitution, requiring populations as equal as possible in each district with compact and contiguous geographic boundaries, and would comport with the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965. 

Importantly, candidates for appellate seats would be required to reside in the district they would represent on the court.

“It is a core principle of our republican form of government ‘that the voters should choose their representatives, not the other way around,’” said Aument.  “All the people of Pennsylvania deserve to have a fair opportunity to be represented in these important posts which greatly impact our state and people.”

Aument said the idea for the proposal was inspired by the recent Pennsylvania Supreme Court opinion on gerrymandering, where five Supreme Court justices found unconstitutional the 2011 Congressional Redistricting Law, citing the inherent unfairness of the map to allow for free and equal elections, as required under Article 1, Section 5 of Pennsylvania’s Constitution.

“I agree with the Court insofar as the opportunity to represent the people of Pennsylvania should be fair,” said Aument.  “In keeping with that laudable goal, this proposal further enshrines that principle into our Constitution so that we would no longer have disproportionate representation on the appellate judicial bench.”

Aument noted that a cursory review of Pennsylvania’s Superior Court and Commonwealth Court judge compliment shows that more than half of all the members of those courts are from only two of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties, which only represent 21% of the state’s population.

He also pointed out that five of the seven Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justices, or over two-thirds of the justices, are from Allegheny or Philadelphia counties, leaving 79% of the state’s population unrepresented on Pennsylvania’s highest court.

Taken together, only 15 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties are home to a Pennsylvania appellate court judge.

In order to promote greater diversity and fairness in judicial service, eleven other states (Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Ohio, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin) select judges and justices for either some or all of their appellate courts through the use of regional judicial district elections.

“All of our Commonwealth’s rich heritage and diversity deserves a fair chance to help make important appellate court decisions,” said Aument.  “Unfortunately, that simply is not the case today given that our appellate court judges are elected statewide, giving some areas of the state a disproportionate and unfair advantage.”

Aument’s legislation is designed to preserve the right of the people to select their judges and justices, although it could also be adopted as a component to the merit selection of judges.

“My goal is simple – fairness,” said Aument, who noted that he voted against the 2011 Congressional Redistricting Law that was also determined to be unfair by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

“I have always been open and supportive of efforts to reform our state government so that it best represents and serves the people,” said Aument.  “This proposal could easily be incorporated into other efforts to promote greater fairness in Pennsylvania.”

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CONTACT:  Jake Smeltz, (717) 787-4420

NOTE:  Map of current court compliment is attached

Baker Bill Would Aid Disabled Voters

HARRISBURG –Permanently disabled voters could have an easier time casting their ballot if a bill introduced by Sen. Lisa Baker, R-20th, becomes law. Senate Bill 263 passed the Senate unanimously this week and was sent to the House for consideration.

Currently, with physician certification, disabled and bedridden voters are added to a permanently disabled absentee ballot list. County election bureaus then automatically mail absentee ballot applications. But individuals are required to confirm their health status every four years, which can be cumbersome for many. Because they must also notify voter registration if there is a change that would prevent them from claiming permanent disability, Baker believes the verification requirement is unnecessary and should be eliminated.  

“We ought to be doing whatever we can to make it easier to vote, especially for our elderly and disabled citizens,” Baker said. “What might seem like a small inconvenience can be a huge burden for these folks. Relieving them of the additional stress and inconvenience just makes sense.”

 

Andrew M. Seder
District Communications/Constituent Services for Pike and Wayne Counties
Office of Senator Lisa Baker
2512 Route 6
Hawley, PA  18428
(570) 226-5960
aseder@pasen.gov
www.senatorbaker.com

Aument and Schwank Seek Tougher Penalties for SNAP Fraud

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HARRISBURG – Senators Ryan P. Aument (R-36) and Judy Schwank (D-11) will introduce legislation to create stronger penalties against individuals and businesses that fraudulently traffic Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.

The legislation would seek to prevent individuals and businesses from unlawfully trading money or other goods or services in exchange for SNAP benefits. It would create a new penalty for the fraudulent trafficking of SNAP benefits in an amount greater than $2,500.

“SNAP is too important to allow any abuse of the program, especially by individuals or businesses that seek to exploit vulnerable citizens for profit,” Aument said. “When unscrupulous merchants buy benefit cards for pennies on the dollar and resell the proceeds of their crimes, everyone else pays the price.”

Under the legislation proposed by the Senators, an individual who is convicted of SNAP trafficking could be found guilty of a second-degree felony and be required to pay restitution of up to three times the amount of the fraud they committed.

“SNAP is the most critical part of the state’s strategy to ensure the nutritional needs of all Pennsylvanians are met, regardless of their income,” Schwank said. “Allowing individuals and businesses to abuse this program for profit only takes benefits away from the individuals and families who need our help the most.”

Last year, the Office of State Inspector General (OSIG) uncovered a scheme involving a Harrisburg restaurant trading drugs for EBT cards and buying thousands of dollars of supplies from a food wholesale club to be resold for profit. The plot involved the fraudulent use of nearly 60 different SNAP recipients’ benefits.

The legislation would also allow the Inspector General to report SNAP traffickers to local and state licensing entities to pursue disqualification for future public contracts. The bipartisan bill is being introduced at the request of OSIG.

CONTACT:  Jake Smeltz (717) 787-4420 (Senator Aument)
Jamie Klein (717) 787-8925 (Senator Schwank)

Senate approves lieutenant governor reform legislation

HARRISBURG – Today, the Senate approved bipartisan legislation with a vote of 50-0 to reform the way the lieutenant governor is elected in Pennsylvania. 

Senate Bill 761 would amend the state’s constitution to allow gubernatorial candidates to select their running mate subsequent to the primary election.  This bill will require governor and lieutenant governor candidates to first campaign together and then, once elected, work together as a team with a shared vision.  This is not a difficult concept – it’s simple common sense.  The goal is teamwork and cooperation.

Senator David G. Argall (R-Berks/Schuylkill), the prime sponsor of the bill, noted that this type of change to the current election process allows for better leadership and collaboration.  “The very troubled relationship between the governor and the lieutenant governor is no secret to any of us.  The state of Pennsylvania shouldn’t continue to be stuck with the current dysfunctional system that we now see on the second floor of the capitol.,” said Argall. 

Under this legislation, the state’s Constitution would be amended to require gubernatorial candidates to select their running mate after the primary election – subject to the approval of their state committees – which is a process very similar to how our presidential candidates have selected their running mates for a long, long time. The bill will now move to the House of Representatives for consideration. The earliest it could go into effect is 2022.  Should the measure pass, Pennsylvania would join thirteen other states that allow the candidate for governor to select the candidate for lieutenant governor. 

 

Contact: Mary Beth Dougherty
570-773-0891

Senate State Government Committee to Hold Public Hearing on Redistricting Legislation

(Harrisburg) – Senator Mike Folmer (R – 48), as chair of the Senate State Government Committee, will hold a public hearing on a number of bills to change how Pennsylvania’s redistricting process is conducted.

Senate Bill 22 (Senators Boscola and Scavello), Senate Bill 243 (Senator Leach), Senate Bill 464 (Senator Blake), and Senate Bill 767 (Senator Costa) are all proposed amendments to the Pennsylvania Constitution to change the process for how election lines are drawn.

“Redistricting changes have long been a goal of mine and I had planned to hold a series of hearings on bills that have been referred to the Senate State Government Committee, however, lawsuits over the 2011 maps were filed and I was previously forced to put these hearings on hold,” said Folmer.

Senator Folmer hopes the public hearing on possible redistricting changes will help to identify ways to better promote openness, transparency, and accountability, which have long been goals of his.

Article I, Section 2 of the United States Constitution as amended by the 14th Amendment establishes the requirement to apportion Congressional Districts and gives the states authority to establish the qualifications.  Article II, Sections 16 and 17 of the Pennsylvania Constitution establish the number of House and Senate members for the General Assembly and the manner in which District lines are to be established.

“As someone who both carries – and reads – these documents, I take seriously the powers and duties of government so as to ensure we never forget their intended purpose of representing ‘We the People,’” added Folmer.

The public hearing will be held at 9:00 a.m. on Tuesday, March 27 in Hearing Room One, North Office Building, Harrisburg.

 

ContactFred Sembach (717) 787-5708

Senate Appropriations Committee approves lieutenant governor reform legislation

HARRISBURG – Today, the Senate Appropriation Committee unanimously passed bipartisan legislation to reform the way the lieutenant governor is elected in Pennsylvania. 

Senate Bill 761 would amend the state’s constitution to allow gubernatorial candidates to select their running mate subsequent to the primary election, which is a process similar to how presidential candidates currently select their vice presidential running mates.

Senator David G. Argall (R-Berks/Schuylkill), the prime sponsor of the bill, noted that this type of change to the current election process allows for better leadership and collaboration.  “I am pleased that my colleagues recognize that a dysfunctional relationship between our current governor and lieutenant governor is not only embarrassing, but is detrimental to Pennsylvania’s citizens who expect our leaders to work with one another on a shared vision that will strengthen Pennsylvania,” said Argall. 

The bill will now mover to the full Senate for consideration. The earliest it could go into effect is 2022, since the constitution requires that it be approved in two consecutive sessions of the General Assembly and then approved by popular vote.   Should the measure pass, Pennsylvania would join thirteen other states that allow the candidate for governor to select the candidate for lieutenant governor. 

 

Contact: Mary Beth Dougherty
570-773-0891

Senate Judiciary Committee to Hold Public Hearings on Pending Criminal Justice Reforms

Today, State Senator Stewart J. Greenleaf announced that the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a public hearing on Monday, March 19th on a number of criminal justice reform measures that are pending before the Senate.  The hearing will take place from 9:30am to 1:00pm in North Office Building Hearing Room #1).  A second hearing will take place on March 26th.

Greenleaf, a longtime advocate for corrections reforms, is pushing for action on bills that he feels are long overdue such as providing judges an alternative to mandatory minimum sentences, expanding the use of post-conviction DNA testing for offenders who claim to be innocent, and diverting those with mental illness from the criminal justice system.  The committee will also hear testimony on grand jury reform.   

“We are going to examine several issues relating to corrections reforms,” said Senator Greenleaf.  “While we have made great progress in recent years reversing the unintended consequences of the past, there are still great injustices built into the system which must be rectified.”

Agenda:

9:30 a.m.
Introductory Remarks by Senator Greenleaf

9:35 a.m.
Secretary John E. Wetzel
Department of Corrections
Consolidation of the Department of Corrections and the Board of Probation and Parole; Prison Industry Enhancement; Justice Reinvestment Initiative

10:30 a.m.
Carl Reynolds
Council of State Governments Justice Center
Justice Reinvestment Initiative Phase 2; Cap on Prison Terms for County Probation Violations; Grant Program for Mental Health Diversion

 11:30 a.m.
Marissa Bluestine
Pennsylvania Innocence Project
Post-Conviction Relief Act Amendments; DNA Testing for Exoneration; Compensation for Wrongful Conviction; Brady Violations

12:30 p.m.
Peter F. Vaira, Esq.
Pennsylvania Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers
Grand Jury Reform

Contact:  Aaron Zappia (724) 984-1342

Martin Proposes Reforms to Property Tax Collection System

HARRISBURG – Senator Scott Martin (R-13) announced legislation today that would give counties, municipalities and school districts more flexibility in the collection of property taxes.

Martin’s bill would give local governing bodies the option to eliminate the position of Tax Collector and allow counties and municipalities to have the County Treasurer administrate property tax collection.  It would also permit school districts to collect their own property taxes without having to enter into any special costly agreements. The measure would allow many local governing bodies to avoid a duplication of services and cut through layers of red tape that only serve to increase costs to taxpayers, Martin said. 

“Government should always strive to modernize and improve its operations,” Martin said. “My legislation is designed to help local governments move into the 21st Century and utilize the most efficient and effective means of collecting property taxes in order reduce costs to taxpayers.”

The legislation would not mandate the elimination of the Tax Collector in any county, municipality or school district. It would only offer governing bodies the option to eliminate the position if those entities believe they can collect property taxes more efficiently and effectively.

In current practice, County Treasurers are authorized to collect property taxes for municipalities and school districts can collect their own, only after navigating archaic red tape that is also costly.

Current restrictions on the use of County Treasurers for tax collection services lead many municipalities to seek out candidates to run for the office and resign immediately after getting elected to create a vacancy. The alternative is risking an unqualified individual being elected to the office and creating confusion and unnecessary costs to taxpayers, Martin said.

That was the case in East Lampeter Township in Lancaster County when a write-in candidate won the office in 2013 with one vote.  As of March 2017, more than $90,000 was owed to the county from 2016 tax collections. $40,000 is still owed to taxpayers for double payments resulting from incorrect information and unauthorized property tax bills, and dozens of other taxpayers had to fight to avoid losing their property based on two different tax bills being sent out.

Similar problems arose in Manheim Township School District when a new Tax Collector was elected in 2013. The district alleges that the individual never took any steps to collect school district taxes, resulting in thousands of dollars in lost legal fees to address a resulting lawsuit, even though the school district has been collecting their own property taxes for over 20-plus years.

“We have seen several unfortunate cases in which unnecessary layers of bureaucracy have created confusion and increased costs for taxpayers,” Martin said. “We need to empower local governing bodies to find ways to cut through the red tape and deliver services like tax collection without unnecessary costs or headaches for taxpayers.”

CONTACT: Terry Trego (717) 787-6535

Folmer, Vulakovich Introduce Civil Service Reform

Senators Mike Folmer (R-48) and Randy Vulakovich (R-38) have introduced legislation that aims to modernize the Civil Service Commission. 

Senate Bill 1037 would streamline the Commission by shifting several responsibilities to the Commonwealth’s Office of Administration, including merit-based hiring, civil service applications, certifications, examinations and promotions. The changes will not impact veterans’ preference.

“For over 75 years, the Civil Service Commission has had two prime responsibilities: merit-based hiring and appeals from employment decisions,” said Senator Folmer. “Our proposed legislation would allow the Commission to focus on appeals while consolidating the Commonwealth’s merit-based hiring into the Office of Administration.  These changes will better serve the needs of 21st Century job applicants.”

Senator Folmer and Vulakovich introduced legislation that was signed into law as Act 69 of 2016 to bring modest changes to the Commission by allowing it to, among other things: notify applications of job openings or tests by email; expand its “Rule of Three” provision; and establish “vacancy-based hiring.”

However, after a year, the law has not yet been implemented, resulting in renewed efforts by Senators Folmer and Vulakovich to modernize the Commission.

“I am always looking to reform government operations to enhance efficiencies and effectiveness,” said Senator Vulakovich. “It has become clear that additional Civil Service reform is necessary so the agency’s customers – those seeking employment with the Commonwealth – receive the customer service they deserve.”

The legislation was assigned to the Senate State Government Committee and it is supported by the Office of Administration and the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.

Contact:

Fred Sembach (717) 787-5708 (Folmer)
Scot A. Pitzer (717) 787-6538 (Vulakovich)

DiSanto Bill Expanding Public Employee Pension Forfeiture Act Approved by Senate

Harrisburg – Legislation introduced by State Senator John DiSanto (R-15) to ensure that public employees who commit job-related felonies are stripped of their taxpayer-funded pension was approved today by the Senate and now goes to the House of Representatives for consideration.

Currently, the Public Employee Pension Forfeiture Act requires a public employee to forfeit his or her pension only for certain crimes listed in the act. In practice, this law allows public employees charged with a forfeiture crime to plead guilty to a different non-forfeiture crime in order to avoid pension forfeiture.

Senate Bill 611 would require pension forfeiture if a public employee or public official is convicted, pleads guilty, or pleads no contest to any felony offense related to his or her employment.

The measure also closes the “Mellow Loophole,” through which former State Senator Bob Mellow of Lackawanna County had his $245,000 a year pension restored despite pleading guilty and being sent to prison on federal conspiracy charges.

“This was the most egregious example — but not the only one – of unscrupulous public officials betraying citizens with their actions and being handsomely rewarded for it – with those same citizens being forced to pick up the tab,” said DiSanto. “It’s beyond adding insult to injury. It’s outright contempt for the people. This needs to end now.”

In addition, the legislation ensures that criminal convictions involving public officials are reported to state pension boards. Current law does not require the employee, courts, or state agencies to send copies of court records upon conviction. Instead, pension boards learn of pension forfeiture cases through agency websites and newspaper articles. Under Senator DiSanto’s bill, courts would now be required to notify state pension systems of all pension forfeiture cases.

“The skyrocketing costs of public pensions in Pennsylvania have turned the state budget into a mess and have driven up school property taxes, while taxpayers are continuing to fund the pensions of public employees who commit felonies on the job,” DiSanto said.  “It is well past time to require all egregious offenders to face a financial penalty for violating the public trust. We need to get this done for the taxpayers of Pennsylvania.”

 

CONTACT: Chuck Erdman cerdman@pasen.gov (717) 787-6801