Friday, February 20, 2015

Republican Inaction as Judicial Emergencies Jump

This post originally appeared on the People for the American Way blog.

Written by Paul Gordon of People for the American Way

Yesterday we blogged about how the Senate Judiciary Committee and Chairman Chuck Grassley ought to move judicial nominations next week when they return from recess. We noted that the number of vacancies has increased from 38 at the end of last year's lame duck session to 46 today, with fourteen of those officially designated as judicial emergencies.
Well, we've had developments since yesterday's post. First, next week's committee schedule is up, and no hearings have been announced for judicial nominees.
And secondly, the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts this morning designated an additional five vacancies as judicial emergencies, so the total has jumped from 14 to 19.
These new emergencies include one in the Northern District of Texas, which has been vacant since July of 2013 and which had been announced in advance in April of that year. Yet it was not until last July that Sens. Cornyn and Cruz announced a process to identify Northern District recommendations to the White House. Perhaps if they had not waited more than a year after being notified of this vacancy, it would be filled today. Instead, there is no nominee yet, and a vacancy that should not still exist is instead a judicial emergency.
Texas now has seven judicial emergencies, more than a third of the national total. Two of them have nominees who should have advanced to the Senate floor last week, but were delayed when Republicans decided to delay the scheduled committee vote on four fully vetted district court nominees by two weeks simply because they could.
Another of the newly designated emergencies is in the Third Circuit. The good news is that district court judge L. Felipe Restrepo was nominated to fill this seat way back in November, and that he has the enthusiastic support of his home state senators, Democrat Bob Casey and Republican Pat Toomey. The bad news is that Chairman Grassley continues not to schedule a hearing for this highly qualified nominee (or any other). With this vacancy now a judicial emergency and a second vacancy on the circuit opening in July, the decision to slow-walk this nomination is even more harmful.
So as of today, the number of judicial emergencies has jumped from 12 at the beginning of the year to 19 today. Senate Republicans can and should do much more to get that number moving back down.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Gas Pipeline Hits Resistance

MAP: Dominion and its partners are surveying route for the controversial Atlantic Coast Pipeline and many landowners object. It's one of three proposed pipelines intended to carry gas from Marcellus and Utica fields. Map courtesy of Appalachian Mountain Advocates.
MAP: Dominion and its partners are surveying route for the controversial Atlantic Coast Pipeline and many landowners object. It's one of three proposed pipelines intended to carry gas from Marcellus and Utica fields. Map courtesy of Appalachian Mountain Advocates.

Dan Heyman, Public News Service (PA)

Dominion Energy and partners are running into intense resistance in their efforts to survey for a huge pipeline intended to carry Marcellus and Utica natural gas. 

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline has provoked intense opposition from landowners. Pen Goodall's sheep farm is straddling the Virginia, West Virginia border. He's being sued for refusing to allow Dominion surveyors onto his land but says he'd rather go to jail than let them survey.

"I'm going to stand my ground because it will just totally destroy everything I have ever done," says Goodall. "My farm has around 32 springs on it, and creeks and once it's gone, it's gone."

The $5 billion, 550-mile pipeline would carry 1.5 billion cubic feet of gas a day from northern West Virginia with connections to Ohio and Pennsylvania. It would reach as far as North Carolina. Dominion says it would lower natural-gas prices, which should create 2,000 jobs.

Rick Webb, coordinator of the Dominion Pipeline Monitoring Coalition, says the preferred route would pass though some environmentally sensitive areas. He says it would send the pipeline through land that's very rugged, tough and problematic to build in. 

But he says the company seems to care little what landowners and environmental groups say, although they may run into legal issues they can't ignore.

"I don't think public opinion is the problem," says Webb. "It's the legal issues. Some of these landscapes have protections. Dominion is going to have problems. It's not going to be able to circumvent dealing with these issues."

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

PA Treads Water on Serving School Breakfasts

Dan Heyman, Public News Service (PA)

PHOTO: As a hunger-fighting strategy, the number of children getting breakfast in school is rising, but the figures in Pennsylvania are rising very slowly, according to a new national report. Photo courtesy Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger.
PHOTO: As a hunger-fighting strategy, the number of children getting breakfast in school is rising, but the figures in Pennsylvania are rising very slowly, according to a new national report. Photo courtesy Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger.
HARRISBURG, Pa. - The number of kids getting breakfast at school has been rising nationally, but Pennsylvania has seen only a slight improvement.

A new report from the Food Research and Action Center shows a small increase in the number of children in need who have breakfast at school - less than a percentage point, compared with an increase of almost 3 percent nationally.

Kathy Fisher, policy manager for the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger, said the state needs to do better.

"Of every 100 kids who get lunch, Pennsylvania reaches about 45 with breakfast," she said, "and that's where we're not reaching enough of those kids, with breakfast at school."

Statistics show that kids who eat breakfast in school have better attendance, better test scores and fewer discipline problems. As one school official put it, students can't be hungry to learn if they're just plain hungry.

According to the Food Research and Action Center, 320,000 more children nationwide ate a healthy breakfast at school last year than the year before. Today, said FRAC president Jim Weill, more than 11 million low-income kids eat breakfast at school.

"That's just hugely important," he said, "not just so kids are less hungry, but hugely important for their health, for their behavior in school, and for their ability to learn."

Many schools have increased breakfast participation by changing how the meal is served - letting the kids eat in class, or grabbing their breakfast and taking it with them. Fisher said these techniques work - and don't turn the meal into a disruption. Quite the opposite, she said.

"Schools making breakfast part of the day, while they're taking roll or doing other work," she said. "It doesn't necessarily have to be an interruption to instruction. And it also, we've also heard from many teachers, helps build community."

The first week in March is National School Breakfast Week.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Pennsylvania Teachers Hope Gov. Wolf Delivers on Education Funding

February 3, 2015 - Melinda Tuhus, Public News Service (PA)

PHOTO: The Pennsylvania State Education Association says it's looking to new Governor Tom Wolf and the state Legislature for ideas to raise and allocate more money for education. Photo courtesy of PSEA.
PHOTO: The Pennsylvania State Education Association says it's looking to new Governor Tom Wolf and the state Legislature for ideas to raise and allocate more money for education. Photo courtesy of PSEA.
HARRISBURG, Pa. - One of the key planks of Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf's successful gubernatorial campaign was restoring funding cuts made to education. Now that he's in office, Pennsylvania teachers hope he'll be able to deliver.

Mike Crossey, president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, says education pre-K through grade 12 saw a billion dollars in cuts under former Gov. Tom Corbett, whom Wolf defeated by a wide margin. Crossey says educators, and parents, are expecting better.

"Anywhere in the state of Pennsylvania, the mandate is to restore the cuts to education," says Crossey. "We need to give the schools the resources they need so every child in Pennsylvania can get a world-class education."

He says $400 million could be generated if the Legislature repeals the so-called "Delaware loophole" that allows businesses that incorporate in Delaware but operate in Pennsylvania to avoid the corporate net income tax. Repeal attempts have been tried unsuccessfully in other years.

Crossey says teachers are concerned school funding could become a "tug of war" issue between a Democratic governor and a Republican legislature, but he thinks compromises can be reached.

"The voters voted for divided government, which allows for debate and dialogue," he says. "The voters did not vote for deadlock or gridlock in the state of Pennsylvania."

Another potential pot of education money could come from taxing natural gas development. A 3.2 percent tax has been proposed by a bipartisan handful of state lawmakers. Crossey points out Pennsylvania currently levies no extraction tax on the gas industry.

"If we would tax that at the same rate as West Virginia, that alone would bring in close to a billion dollars," says Crossey. "I think what we ought to be doing is looking at that one tax alone to restore education cuts."

Gov. Wolf proposed a five percent tax on gas developers during his campaign, and has mentioned it as a funding source for education. He has said it would also focus on improving safety in the gas industry.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Manufacturing Still Matters in Pennsylvania

Industry Accounts for 9.8% of State Employment and $77.4 Billion in GDP

HARRISBURG (Jan. 23, 2015) – Manufacturing is still a large and vital part of the Pennsylvania economy despite misguided policies that have shrunk manufacturing employment and hurt its international competiveness, according to The Manufacturing Footprint and the Importance of U.S. Manufacturing Jobs, a new study from Robert E. Scott, Director of Trade and Manufacturing Policy Research at the Economic Policy Institute.

Manufacturing directly employs over half a million Pennsylvania workers (563,500)—one in every 10 Pennsylvania jobs. All told (counting indirect supply-chain jobs—engineering services, marketing, etc.—and jobs created by the spending of manufacturing wages and profits), manufacturing accounts for 21.3 percent of employment in the United States—a total of 29.1 million jobs. Moreover, manufacturing jobs are high quality jobs. On average, manufacturing workers earned $2.52 more an hour than other workers in 2012 and 2013. According to the Center for Workforce Information and Analysis, manufacturing wages average about $54,000 in Pennsylvania compared to less than $47,000 in the rest of the economy.

Manufacturing was responsible for 12% of Pennsylvania’s gross domestic product in 2013, or $77.4 billion.

“Manufacturing is not the dying or outdated sector of the economy it’s frequently made out to be,” said Stephen Herzenberg, economist and executive director of the Keystone Research Center. “On the contrary, manufacturing is still an important part of the state economy. It is a source of good jobs, and policymakers should work to shore up and expand our manufacturing sector in Pennsylvania and throughout the country.”

Nearly 20 years of policy failures have eroded U.S. manufacturing. From 1998-2013, Pennsylvania lost 314,000 manufacturing jobs. However, there are steps that can be taken to reverse manufacturing’s decline. In the paper, Scott identifies reducing currency manipulation, shrinking the U.S. trade deficit, and investing in infrastructure and research and development as key ways to rebuild and expand U.S. manufacturing.

An online interactive map allows members of the media and public to access data on the importance of manufacturing in their congressional district, and shows which industry sectors account for the most jobs. A glance at the map of Pennsylvania shows that rural areas through Pennsylvania’s “T” and York, Lancaster, the Lehigh Valley, Reading, and Erie are all areas with above-average shares of manufacturing jobs. The map also shows that all but a couple of Pennsylvania’s 18 congressional districts have a manufacturing employment share near or above the national average. “Pennsylvania’s 13 Republican and five Democratic congressional representatives should be leading proponents of the manufacturing agenda in the United States Congress,” Herzenberg said.

Within Pennsylvania, strong bipartisan support also exists for manufacturing. Gov. Wolf’s “Made in PA” plan highlights the potential to boost innovation, capitalizing on Pennsylvania’s 130 higher education institutions, and the need for 21st century workforce initiatives, including apprenticeship. Former Gov. Corbett’s Team Pennsylvania Manufacturing Advisory Council mapped out an array of state workforce, innovation, and financial initiatives that would boost manufacturing.
“Manufacturing in Pennsylvania is ripe for bipartisan cooperation to create more jobs that pay,” Herzenberg said.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

ACLU Says Law Silences Free Speech Rights of Prisoners

January 13, 2015 - Melinda Tuhus, Public News Service (PA)

PHOTO: Attorney Sara Rose with the Pennsylvania ACLU says a new state law tramples the free speech rights of prisoners and former prisoners. Photo courtesy S. Rose.
PHOTO: Attorney Sara Rose with the Pennsylvania ACLU says a new state law tramples the free speech rights of prisoners and former prisoners. Photo courtesy S. Rose.
PITTSBURGH - The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Pennsylvania filed a lawsuit last week aimed at stopping enforcement of what it calls the "Silencing Act."

Passed by the legislature last year, the act allows prosecutors or victims of a personal injury crime to obtain an injunction to prohibit anyone convicted of such a crime from engaging in any conduct that would cause "mental anguish" to the victim or the victim's family members.

Sara Rose, a staff attorney for the ACLU, says it wasn't hard too see the act's immediate challenges to the First Amendment.

"The broad impact this law could have on the First Amendment rights is significant," she says. "Not only for offenders, but the people who work with them and the people who report on what happens inside of prisons."

The suit was filed on behalf of four former prisoners who are now community leaders, several journalists and media organizations, and a professor who works with prisoners.

Rose notes the impact goes beyond the groups the plaintiffs represent, because the act prevents anyone else from hearing offenders' statements and opinions.

"It violates not just the First Amendment rights of offenders, but also the First Amendment rights of those who wish to hear what they have to say," says Rose.

She adds the law already has gone into effect, but at this point, the ACLU believes no victims or prosecutors have sought an injunction against any offenders.

Rose says a potential financial penalty for prisoners or ex-prisoners who speak out also constrains their right to free speech.

"The law does contain a provision that would allow the court to charge the offender with costs and attorneys fees if the injunction is issued," she says.

The law was aimed at silencing Mumia Abu-Jamal, who was convicted of killing a Philadelphia police officer in 1982 and is serving a life sentence. He maintains he is innocent.

Monday, January 12, 2015

McCord: PA Will Benefit from Embracing Clean Power

Mary Kuhlman, Public News Service (PA)

HARRISBURG, Pa. - While the Environmental Protection Agencies proposal to curb carbon pollution may be a difficult pill for coal supporters to swallow, one state leader is convinced the benefits outweigh the costs. About 40 percent of Pennsylvania's electricity comes from coal, and the Clean Power Plan calls for the state to reduce carbon emissions from coal power plants 32 percent by the year 2030. 

State Treasurer Rob McCord admits there are costs and concerns to be addressed, but says there's much to gain by embracing the goals of the plan. 

"We have families who depend on the income from working in the coal industry," he says. "But what we need to take a look at is that, in the last decade, we've generated hundreds of thousands of jobs now in green technology industries related to energy, as opposed to the 7,500 jobs in coal."

McCord says the plan would also reduce climate change, and help those who suffer from asthma and other lung conditions by improving air quality. In the last two years, the EPA has received more than eight million public comments supporting federal limits on carbon pollution from power plants. The rules are supposed to be finalized this summer, although GOP leaders in Congress say they'll try to prevent that.

The EPA has crafted the plan so states are allowed flexibility in how they meet their goals. Instead of waiting for federal regulators to decide how Pennsylvania will reduce carbon emissions, McCord says the State Legislature should adopt its own approach with wind and solar power, and other innovations. 

"Net metering is a big opportunity for families; generating green technology is a big opportunity for businesses," he says. "Incentives for conservation, we get a $3 return for every dollar spent on any kind of conservation. All of those things could be put into a customized bill."

McCord believes the savings that result from moving to a clean energy economy can create new opportunities for those families and businesses that have depended on coal for their livelihood. 

"Provide special incentives to transition away from a dependence on coal," says McCord. "We may want to invest in things like carbon sequestration, so that our coal reserves become more valuable as well as safer over time and we could have subsidies for the families that are losing jobs."

McCord says measures implemented to meet the EPA's goals could generate nearly $90 billion per year in savings for less than $9 billion per year in investment between now and 2030.

The Astonishing Cost of Ohio’s Lowest Performing School

Ohio’s most expensive failing school is ECOT, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow. It has theoqesthfaduation rate of any school in the state, yet is never held accountable. It is financed by taking funds away from much more successful schools and districts.
“The Columbus Dispatch wrote recently of the academic failures of the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) where the graduation rate of 38% is among the worst of any school in the state. Among Ohio’s 613 traditional public school districts , the lowest graduation rate is 60.9%. In addition, ECOT received all Fs and one D on the state’s most recent report card.
“Despite its abysmal performance record, ECOT continues to expand. More than 14,500 children are currently enrolled, making ECOT the equivalent of the 10th largest school district in the state. The Dispatch story noted that ECOT founder William Lager has donated more than $1 million to Ohio politicians in the last five years as his school has grown exponentially.
“Information at helps clarify the burden that local public schools must bear to cover the costs of students who chose to attend ECOT. Kids in all 88 Ohio counties are impacted. More than 95% of school districts – 586 of 613 districts – have students and money being transferred to ECOT. As one of the state’s 9 statewide e-schools and one of the country’s largest for-profit K-12 schools, ECOT’s poor performance is exacerbated by its extraordinary financial impact on children throughout the state.”

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Educators Say New Pennsylvania Governor's "Mandate" is to Invest in

PHOTO: Educators say Pennsylvania's incoming governor will have a chance to undo funding cuts that have hurt student achievement. Photo montage courtesy of the National Education Association.
PHOTO: Educators say Pennsylvania's incoming governor will have a chance to undo funding cuts that have hurt student achievement. Photo montage courtesy of the National Education Association.
HARRISBURG, Pa. - Incoming Pennsylvania governor Tom Wolf faces big budget problems, but educators say he at least received a clear mandate from voters to reverse damaging cuts to schools.

Retired Pittsburgh public school teacher Mike Crossey, president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA), says past policies "blew a big red hole" in the state's budget, and reversed 10 years of improving academic achievement and test scores.

While he says Wolf faces a tough job to undo the damage, Crossey also notes the possibility of bipartisan cooperation following the "big vote of approval" for the governor-elect.

"Tom Wolf has a mandate to come in and not only start investing more in our schools," says Crossey, "but invest wisely so our students, no matter their zip code, have as much a chance to succeed as anyone."

The school funding cuts came as part a broader push to lower taxes and spending, but Crossey says those cuts haven't worked as well as its supporters had hoped, particularly outgoing Governor Tom Corbett. Crossey says Wolf's campaign included proposals to raise revenue, including a tax on gas drillers and closing corporate loopholes. He adds that expanding Medicaid in the commonwealth would bring in almost $500 million.

According to Crossey, the revenue options offer a chance to get school funding and achievement scores back on track.

"You don't throw money at an issue or at a problem, but you invest wisely," he says. "From our point of view, investing money in schools and kids is the best way to grow Pennsylvania."

According to PSEA figures, funding cuts landed hardest on schools least able to deal with them. While the average cut was about $85 per student in the commonwealth's 50 wealthiest schools, Crossey says the cut to the Reading school district was more than $1,300 per student.

"Reading is the poorest city in America. They don't have the tax base or the wherewithal to make up that kind of funding cut," he says.

Crossey addressed the issue in conjunction with the celebration of American Education Week. He says it marks a good opportunity for a fresh, nonpartisan look at how the state is funding schools.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Is Corbett’s attack on Philly teachers a political move based on his secret poll?

Keystone Progress files Right to Know Law request seeking correspondence between Governor’s Office and School Reform Commission to uncover the truth

(HARRISBURG, PA) Keystone Progress (KP) has filed a Right to Know Law request with the Office of Open Records seeking:

1.    All written communications between the Office of the Governor and any member of the Philadelphia School Reform Commission (i.e., Bill Greene, Sylvia Simms, Feather Houstoun, Farah Jimenez, and Marjorie Neff) from August 1, 2014 to the date this letter is received.
2.    All communications between the Office of the Governor and any staff member of the School District of Philadelphia from August 1, 2014 to the date this letter is received.

“We are filing this request for information because the recent attacks on Philadelphia’s schools by Tom Corbett’s School Reform Commission reeks of political opportunism,” said Keystone Progress Executive Director Michael Morrill. “This is especially important in light of the secret poll that the Philadelphia City Paper uncovered last year that recommended Corbett’s campaign should take on the Philly teachers as part of his re-election strategy.”

Morrill is referring to a Philadelphia City Paper article by Daniel Denvir that exposed a secret poll that recommended Corbett should attack Philadelphia teachers as “enemies.” (“Secret poll: Corbett should exploit Philly school crisis, attack teachers union for political gain,” Philadelphia City Paper, 6/19/2013)

The poll summary said, "With Governor Corbett's weak job approval, re-elect and ballot support numbers, the current Philadelphia school crisis presents an opportunity for the Governor to wedge the electorate on an issue that is favorable to him… Staging this battle presents Corbett with an opportunity to coalesce his base, focus on a key emerging issue in the state, and campaign against an 'enemy' that's going to aggressively oppose him in '14 in any case."

The pollster, Public Opinion Strategies, went on to say, “Taking on this fight moves Corbett's approval scores on handling education" and "boosts his overall approval numbers."

“This poll’s recommendation that Corbett should attack Philadelphia teachers and the recent decision by Corbett’s SRC to act on that recommendation right before the election seems to be more than coincidental,” continued Morrill. “That’s why we have filed this Right to Know Law request.”

KP believes in public accountability and regularly files Right to Know Law requests seeking information that should be available to the public.

The Governor’s office has five business days to respond to the request.

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