HARRISBURG – While Gov. Tom Wolf and other Democrats focused on the lack of action on increasing the minimum wage, several other closely-watched issue remained unresolved as lawmakers wrapped up their work at the Capitol on Friday.
Hotly-debated propsals like fixing the statute of limitations for child sex abuse victims, finding ways to eliminate gerrymandering, and confronting the problem of cyber school funding were all ignored in the June debate at the Capitol.
The state House in April passed legislation that would allow voters statewide to weigh in on a ballot to determine whether the state Constitution should be amended to allow survivors of child sex abuse to sue organizations that covered up child predators. A bill to accomplish the same thing without amending the Constitution – a process that takes two legislative sessions – was introduced in the state Senate. Both measures didn’t move in the Senate.
“It’s stuck in committee,” said Shaun Dougherty, a Johnstown man and a survivor of clergy abuse, who has been active in lobbying for statute of limitations reform.
Dougherty said efforts to get the law changed may get more momentum once the compensation funds launched in most of the state’s Catholic dioceses have made settlement payments to many of the victims.
In New York, the Catholic Church relaxed its lobbying against the civil window once their compensation funds had settled with many victims.
“I suspect that’s how it will play out in Pennsylvania,” he said.
In the meantime, survivors and their supporters aren’t treading water, he said.
A new group called Pennsylvania United to Protect Children has formed and will hold a series of listening sessions across the state – one in each of the state’s eight Catholic dioceses, Dougherty said. The first stop? Brookville, Jefferson County, in the heart of the district of Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati, Dougherty said.
That session is scheduled for July 11 and is intended to provide community members with information about child abuse and to get them to lobby lawmakers, Dougherty said.
One of the pieces of legislation passed as part of the budget was HB 48, which would allow the state to borrow $90 million to cover a portion of the costs faced by counties when replacing voting machines. The measure would also eliminate straight party voting as a single-button option for voters.
The legislation passed both chambers on Thursday, but wasn’t among a raft of budget-related bills signed by Wolf on Friday. Wolf hasn't publicly said if he plans to sign the voting reform bill.
The move to provide funding for voting machines was something county officials clamored for, state Sen. John Gordner, R-Columbia County, the author of the legislation, said in a statement.
Election advocates would welcome it, as well, said Common Cause executive director Micah Sims.
Sims said that the move to eliminate straight-party voting as a button option on voting machines is more controversial.
State Rep. Garth Everett, R-Lycoming County, said that Pennsylvania is one of only eight states that have a straight party voting option on voting machines.
On the floor of the House, Everett said he considers the move to eliminate the option a “good government” reform.
Sims said that Democratic lawmakers noted that there was evidence in Michigan that eliminating straight party voting disenfranchised minority voters.
In a statement Friday, Marc Stier, director of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, a labor-linked think tank urged Wolf to veto the bill over the straight-party ticket change.
"Like the unnecessary Voter ID laws and partisan redistricting plans they have adopted in the past, this is another shameful attempt by a Republican Party to rig our political system in their favor,” he said.
Missing from Senate Bill 48 were other widely-debated election reforms, including allowing independent voters to vote in the primaries or any attempt at fixing the way the state draws its legislative and Congressional boundaries.
Sims said those issues will likely draw much more attention when lawmakers return to the Capitol in the fall, especially with the 2020 Census and the next redistricting process looming after that.
Wolf appointed a commission to weigh possible reforms to the redistricting process. Their report is due later this summer.
Sims said he thinks the state should focus on fixing the way Congressional maps are drawn. Changing the state Legislative maps would require a Constitutional amendment.
While other advocates have suggested the state could get a Constitutional amendment passed in time, Sims said it seems unlikely.
“That’s a heavy lift,” he said.
Charter school reform
The need for the state to tackle the way charter schools, and in particular, cyber-charter schools, are funded has been a matter of increasing controversy, but that too remains unresolved in Harrisburg.
Lobbyists for charter schools on Friday said they were disappointed that the state budget didn’t include changes they’d sought.
“Each year, despite our best efforts, commonsense changes to our state's charter laws are thwarted by elected officials playing partisan politics or powerful special interest groups threatened by the success and popularity of charter schools,” said Ana Meyers, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools.
One measure would have made it easier for charter schools to buy vacant public school buildings and get access to public schools for standardized testing. Another would have changed the approval process for charter schools.
Susan Spicka, executive director of Education Voters of Pennsylvania, a group that lobbies for more public school funding, said she’s glad the Legislature passed on those reforms.
“The legislature was correct to reject legislation that would have stripped control from communities over the unfettered expansion of even the poorest performing charter schools and that would have saddled communities with enormous increases in charter school tuition payments,” she said.
“Lawmakers’ focus should be on enacting legislation that will control exploding cyber charter school costs that force tax increases in school districts in every corner of the state,” Spicka said.