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State Roundup: A Time for New Beginnings

The first skirmishes of the state budget were fought this week as the Corbett administration previewed their coming budget proposal ... and more.

By PA Independent Staff

 

HARRISBURG — The last month of 2012 kicked off with a number of new beginnings in Harrisburg.

The first skirmishes of the state budget were fought this week as the Corbett administration previewed their coming budget proposal, a state senator wants to create a new way of awarding Pennsylvania’s electoral votes and Pennsylvania is looking to open up new horizons in the Far East.

That, plus the first openly gay Republican lawmaker, in this week in review.

Fiscal cliff, personnel costs throw kinks in already-stressed budget planning

State officials are prepping the 2013-2014 state budget, and so far, there’s at least half a billion they’ll need to come up with.

The state expects next year’s revenue growth to be around $813,000. That growth isn’t enough to cover new mandatory expenditures totaling $1.3 billion, including cost increases for pension payments and medical assistance.

 

“In an environment where you’re not raising taxes, not generating more revenue, the dynamic of this is that you have to go back into the general fund to find half a billion dollars in savings to come out at level,” said Budget Secretary Charles Zogby on Wednesday.

Expected personnel cost increases are stretching the budget even more thin. The governor has told departments to keep funding level, and increased cost for employees may end up forcing between 7 percent and 8 percent cuts.

Should leaders in Washington fail to avoid careening off the so-called “fiscal cliff,” the state would be out another $300 million dollars in several areas, including special education and social service block grants.

Zogby said that the state already has told departments it won’t backfill any loss of federal dollars.

But, Zogby said there may be exceptions based on what happens. Come spring, when the state knows what lawmakers in Washington have done, “there may be decisions made in individual areas to break from that general rule,” Zogby said.

See the state’s full mid-year budget briefing here.

More online transparency coming to state financial records

The state plans Dec. 20 to launch PennWATCH, an online database displaying financial information for state spending and investments, after about a year and a half of planning.

Data will include expenditure descriptions, funding amounts, employee titles and salaries — much of the kind of information now accessed through Right-to-Know requests.

Officials point to the database as a milestone for government transparency.

Gov. Tom Corbett praised PennWATCH while speaking about what he considered accomplishments in the first half of his term.

PennWATCH was created through legislation in the summer of 2011.

“You’re going to be able to see just about everything you’re legally allowed to see,” Corbett said of the program.

Users will access the site at “pennwatch.pa.gov.”

Senator wants to change how Pennsylvania’s electoral votes are awarded

Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Chester, said Monday he plans to propose a change that would award the state’s electoral votes proportionally, in place of the current winner-take-all method.

“This advantage of this system is clear: It much more accurately reflects the will of the voters in our state,” Pileggi said in a statement.

 

Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Chester

Pennsylvania would be the first state to award its electoral votes in such a way, though two votes would remain tied to the winner of the popular vote, according to Pileggi’s plan.

In November, President Obama won 52 percent of the vote in Pennsylvania and captured all 20 of the state’s electoral votes en route to a 332-206 victory in the Electoral College.

In the proportional system proposed by Pileggi, Obama would have won 12 votes; Republican nominee Mitt Romney would have won eight votes.

The change would not have altered the outcome of the national election, but it would have reduced Pennsylvania’s significance for Obama from a 20-point victory to, effectively, a four-point victory, putting the state on par with states such as Idaho, Rhode Island and New Hampshire.

Pennsylvania sets sight on Jakarta for trade markets

 

Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia

Pennsylvania is positioned to play a key role in growing trade relations between the United States and Indonesia.

The state is opening a new trade office in Jakarta, bolstered by federal funding. Though plenty of states operate international business offices and trade missions to boost exports, Pennsylvania will be the first to have an official trade presence in the fast-growing, far-away southeastern Asia archipelago.

The offices are designed to introduce state business owners to clients overseas.

The Indonesia office will be funded using a portion of a $2.3 million federal grant the state received this year from theU.S. Small Business Administration. The funds will be used for contracts with Indonesian business officials who help connect Pennsylvanian businesses with new clients, and existing state employees will manage the program.

The amount was the largest any state received, said Wilfred Muskens, deputy secretary for theOffice of International Business Development in the Department of Community and Economic Development.

“We’re ready to take a risk and go out and be the first in a new market,” said Muskens, who has worked for the state since Gov. Tom Ridge’s administration.

Ruling strengthens property rights in PA

A Commonwealth Court ruling is being hailed as a victory for property rights and a small blow against civil asset forfeiture laws, which allow the state to seize private property that may be connected to a crime.

 

In a decision filed last month, Commonwealth Court Judge Dan Pellegrini called the state’s civil asset forfeiture law “state-sanctioned theft” and ordered a lower court to re-examine a recent forfeiture case in Centre County. Though the state is expected to appeal the ruling, Pellegrini’s decision may set a new precedent for these types of cases, making it more difficult for the state to seize private property believed to have been used in a crime and guaranteeing defendants the chance to be heard in court before property is taken.

“It’s a win for property owners. It’s a win for property rights in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” said Steven Passarello, the Blair County attorney who argued the case before the state court.

In the majority opinion, Pellegrini wrote that forfeiture cases in Pennsylvania should be viewed as “quasi-criminal” instead of civil, so hearings and possibly even jury trials would be required before the government can seize property.

The case is expected to be appealed to the state Supreme Court.

Fleck is first openly gay GOP lawmaker in Pennsylvania

News of Rep. Mike Fleck, R-Huntingdon, coming out as gay in a local newspaper over the weekend quickly circulated throughout the state.

 

Fleck, who is serving his second term, was married for nearly a decade, and also worked as a district executive for the Boy Scouts of America. He also served as chairman of the Huntingdon County United Way Campaign, according to the Huntingdon Daily News’ article.

Fleck is Pennsylvania’s first openly gay Republican state lawmaker.

Fleck’s 81st district is a swath of land in the heart of central Pennsylvania that spans Blair, Huntingdon and Mifflin counties. The district has had a Republican representative since 1969. Fleck ran unopposed this year, and was also unchallenged in 2010.

Earlier this year, Pennsylvania saw its first openly gay lawmaker elected. Philadelphia Democrat Brian Sims beat sitting Rep. Babette Josephs, D-Philadelphia, in a primary election and went on to win the general. After Sims heard Fleck’s announcement, he went on to write a column for Huffington Post, in which he applauded Rep. Fleck for his honesty.

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