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State Roundup: Election Day Draws Near with Voter ID Decision Unknown

Less than two months before the general election, Pennsylvania voters still don’t know if they’ll need photo ID at the polls.

By PA Independent Staff

HARRISBURG – After last week’s hearing in Philadelphia, the state Supreme Court shuffled the voter ID law decision back to the lower Commonwealth Court. And, the high court has yet to announce its opinion on the future of Pennsylvania’s legislative districts under wraps.

Also, there’s a mere weekend to go before state lawmakers make their final pushes for the legislative session. The first day back is Monday.

Lawmakers are likely to opine on big-ticket topics like transportation, pension funding and property tax reform. But the chance that detailed plans will come to fruition before Election Day is pretty slim – and following Election Day, it’s a lame-duck session.

Rather, there’s plenty of work to be done addressing policy items leftover from the budget season – including plans on charter school reform.

Supreme Court punts on voter ID bill

The state Supreme Court ruled 4-2 this week to send Pennsylvania’s controversial new voter ID law back to a lower court for further review, less than seven weeks before the law would go into effect on Election Day.

The Supremes instructed Commonwealth Court to review the law a second time by analyzing how the state was implementing the requirements and fulfilling its promises to ensure all Pennsylvanians had access to the necessary photo identification before the election.

The first time around, the lower court had ruled that the law was within the General Assembly’s constitutional authority to regulate elections, but had skirted the issue of implementation.

Opponents of the law say it could be constitutional, but only if enough time is given for all residents to comply with the requirement. They say that is not the case here.

The Supreme Court ordered a new ruling from the lower court by Oct. 2, and a hearing in Commonwealth Court has been scheduled for Tuesday.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Debra Todd ripped the high court for failing to overturn the law and kicking the issue back down the ladder.

Republican internal poll shows Pennsylvania competitive; Dems scoff

An internal poll released this week by the Pennsylvania Republican Party makes the case that Mitt Romney has a good chance to win the Keystone State in November.

The poll, conducted by Harrisburg-based Susquehanna Polling and Research, showed Romney trailing President Barack Obama by a single point, 48-47.

This poll runs counter to mounting evidence that shows Obama with a lead of five and nine points in Pennsylvania. The polling firm, which has a reputation for Republican-leaning results, did not disclose details about different cross-sections of the voters surveyed.

Two other polls released this week showed Obama leading in Pennsylvania by six points and nine points.

In the U.S. Senate race, the Susquehannah poll showed Republican challenger Tom Smith within three points of Sen. Bob Casey, a first term Democrat.

Most other polls have shown Casey winning by a double-digit margin.

Pennsylvania Democrats were quick to scoff at the Republican poll, with party spokesman Mark Nicastre calling it “complete fiction.”

Democratic lawmaker paid himself with campaign cash

A state lawmaker from Cambria County has, since 2009, paid himself $16,000 in campaign money by renting a campaign office in a building he owns.

State Rep. Gary Haluska, D-Cambria, spends $400 per month to rent space for a campaign office at 404 Park Ave., in his hometown of Patton, according to state campaign finance records. The campaign office is within the offices of Fix-It Shop Automotive, an auto repair garage owned solely by Haluska, according to his state ethics disclosures going back several years.

The use of his own campaign cash to pay rent in a building he owns is not against state law, and Haluska said it was a legitimate expense.

“It doesn’t matter if I pay rent here or pay rent somewhere else,” he said. “The office space is not being used, so rather than go somewhere else, we have everything over here.”

Since the automotive shop is directly across the street from his district office, having his campaign headquartered there for logistical reasons makes sense, Haluska argued.

Tim Potts, executive director of Democracy Rising Pennsylvania, a good-government group, said office space could have been given to the campaign as an “in-kind contribution” that would not require any payment of rent to Haluska’s business.

“I doubt that people who donated to his campaign expected him to just put some of that money in his own pocket,” Potts said. “It’s ethically awkward, but it’s not illegal.”

DNA analysis bill, online impersonation laws to come up

The House Judiciary Committee has a packed schedule on Tuesday, addressing a number of potential new statutes.

One bill was already vetted in the Senate, and voted on in December. The legislation would require DNA collection at the point-of-arrest for individuals charged with felonies, before being convicted.

Bill sponsor Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi, R-Delaware says it’s a modern-day, technology-aided practice that helps keeps people behind bars. And it maintains that it’s constitutional, despite the fact civil liberties groups like the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania say it violates Fourth Amendment rights against unlawful search and seizure.

“It’s been proven in the 26 states that have a broader pre-conviction DNA collection system that it saves lives,” Pileggi told PA Independent. “It removes from the general population violent predators.”

Another bill the committee will take up Tuesday would create a new crime altogether. Rep. Katharine Watson, R-Bucks, sponsored a bill that would make it a misdemeanor to impersonate someone online, whether it be through social media, email or a webpage.

Addressing the First Amendment issues that the law could raise, Watson said the language of the bill is being further narrowed to make sure that protected speech like commentary and parody won’t fall under the law.

Pension investments miss mark, debt grows higher

The state Public School Employees Retirement System, or PSERS, reported earnings of 3.4 percent during the fiscal year that ended on June 30, which is better than many similar funds but still well below the 7.5 percent returns that are built into the pension system’s accounting.

Falling short of that 7.5 percent mark effectively increases the unfunded liability that must be made up in the future by some combination of future investment returns, contributions from workers and tax dollars.

At the end of 2011, PSERS had an unfunded liability of about $27 billion, and pension experts say it could grow to more than $30 billion after the returns from the most recent year.

Evelyn Tatkovski, spokeswoman for PSERS, attributed the lower-than-expected returns to the fact that markets were down overall, and Alan Van Noord, PSERS chief investment officer, said the fund’s decision to diversify and reduce its high-risk investments helped it to out-perform many other public pension funds during the 2011-12 fiscal year.

Pennsylvania unemployment continues to rise

In August, Pennsylvania’s unemployment rate rose to 8.1 percent, tying the national average.

The number of jobless residents now totals 525,000, according to the Department of Labor and Industry.

In July, the rate was 7.9 percent. Overall, it has increased by half a percentage point in the last two months.

State officials maintain that the state’s unemployment rate has been at or below the federal level for the last 70 months.

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