Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Religious Freedom or Right to Discriminate?

Andrea Sears, Public News Service

LGBT advocates say the U.S. Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby ruling has encouraged states to expand so-called religious exemption laws. Credit: Skeeze/Pixabay.
LGBT advocates say the U.S. Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby ruling has encouraged states to expand so-called religious exemption laws. Credit: Skeeze/Pixabay.
HARRISBURG, Pa. – Pennsylvania's Religious Freedom Protection Act has been used since 2002 to protect an individual's right to practice their religion, but a new report says laws being introduced around the country may be used to legitimize discrimination.

The report from the Movement Advancement Project (MAP) found that in this year alone, bills creating religious exemptions to state laws have been introduced in 17 legislatures.

Report author Ineke Moshovic, MAP executive director, says the bills are reactions to same-sex marriage and the Affordable Care Act – but they don't stop there.

"The legal precedents that are being set have the ability to impact access to health care for all Americans, child welfare, child safety," she says. "It's really opening a huge can of worms."

Mushovic says the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling allowing a private employer to claim a religious exemption, rather than provide insurance coverage for birth control under the Affordable Care Act, has prompted some states to expand their definition of religious freedom.

At the ACLU of Pennsylvania, deputy legal director Mary Catherine Roper says the Keystone State law has only been used to protect people's ability to practice their religion.

"I am not aware of any instance in which the Act has been used to protect a right to discriminate against people," she says. "It's just not what our law is there for, or has been used for."

Roper says Pennsylvania has a proud tradition of protecting people's religious freedom – but she adds there's a "big difference" between practicing religion and imposing religious beliefs on others.

"When you open yourself to serving the public, you have to serve all of the public," she says. "When you're talking about public services, then the right to be free from discrimination is paramount."

Roper notes a bill to protect against discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity has just been introduced in the state Legislature, with broad support.

Mushovic cautions that lawsuits claiming religious exemptions to laws similar to the Religious Freedom Protection Act are now cropping up in other states.

"We think this is just the tip of the iceberg," she says. "Just because we haven't seen this type of litigation right now in Pennsylvania doesn't mean we won't see it."

Monday, August 31, 2015

Family Budget Data Offered as Argument for PA Minimum Wage Hike

Andrea Sears, Public News Service

Workers around the country seek a $15 an hour minimum wage. Credit: The All-Nite Images/fickr.com
Workers around the country seek a $15 an hour minimum wage. Credit: The All-Nite Images/fickr.com
HARRISBURG, Pa. – As bills to increase the minimum wage languish in Harrisburg, new information is being offered showing people earning the minimum don't come close to a secure standard of living.

The statistics, compiled by the Washington-based Economic Policy Institute, were released late last week. They show what a modest family budget looks like in 18 regions across the state.

Mark Price, a labor economist at the Keystone Research Center, says the numbers show minimum wage workers need a raise.

"When you add all the numbers up, there are a lot of families in Pennsylvania that don't earn enough to really live the comfortable, adequate lifestyle," he points out.

The minimum wage in Pennsylvania is $7.25 an hour, same as the federal minimum, which hasn't been raised since 2009.

According to Price, a full-time job at minimum wage brings in $15,000 a year, far short of what the institute finds necessary for meeting basic needs for a single adult, even in rural areas where the cost of living is slightly lower. Price says a rural adult would need almost twice the income provided by the minimum wage.

"Our estimate is that it's roughly $27,000 a year, and that includes expenses for food, transportation, housing, health care and other basic needs," he explains.

In urban areas, he says the number for a single adult's basic needs climbs to $33,000, and for a two-parent family with children it's more than $52,000.

Advocates are calling for a minimum wage of $15 an hour. And though it sounds like a lot more money, Price says it's not really a raise.

"We're not talking about raising the minimum wage above what it used to be,” he stresses. “We're really just trying to get it back to where it used to be. We're trying to restore the purchasing power that people have lost over time."

Gov. Tom Wolf has endorsed bills that would raise the wage to $10.10 an hour. A Republican bill would increase it to $8.75, but there's been no action on either proposal.

Price says the longer the budget impasse goes on in Harrisburg, the less likely there will be any minimum wage increase.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Univ. of Pittsburgh Security Guards Rally for a Contract

Andrea Sears, Public News Service 

Security guards in Pittsburgh demand better pay and training. Credit: SEIU 32BJ
Security guards in Pittsburgh demand better pay and training. Credit: SEIU 32BJ
PITTSBURGH, Pa. - University of Pittsburgh students soon will be headed back to school but campus security guards there say for them it's back to poverty.

At less than $9 an hour, security guards at the university are among the lowest paid in the city. This morning, dozens of guards and their supporters held a march and rally on the campus calling for a fair contract.

According to Sam Williamson, Western Pennsylvania Area leader for SEIU 32BJ, the Service Employees International Union, the current situation isn't just bad for workers.

"These workers across the city are paid poverty wages and receive virtually no training, and that creates a dangerous situation for themselves and for people in the buildings that they're paid to protect," says Williamson.

Last April, security officers across the city started bargaining for their first-ever contract and some firms have reached tentative deals, including better pay and benefits.

Williamson says the guards would eventually like to see their pay rise to $15 an hour, but better training is important now. The city of Pittsburgh recently passed a law requiring uniform, high- quality training for contract security officers in the city.

"Part of the security officers demands is that these firms work with them to comply with that law and ensure that they actually get the training that they need and they have been calling for for quite a long time," says Williamson.

A spokesperson for U.S. Security Associates, the firm employing the guards at the university, says they actively are negotiating with the union and look forward to an agreement that benefits both the workers and the company.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Keystone Progress Stands with Black Lives Matter

The following statement was adopted by the boards of Keystone Progress and the Keystone Progress Education Fund:

Keystone Progress stands with the Black Lives Matter movement to address the pervasive problems of racial and economic justice that have stained our nation.

As an organization, we acknowledge the many ways in which Black people are denied basic human
rights and dignity. We acknowledge that Black women continue to bear the burden of a relentless assault on their children and their families.  We acknowledge that Black men are locked up at
disproportionate rates, for disproportionate lengths of time, denying them a chance to be the fathers and sons and brothers their families want and need.  Keystone Progress is ready to have the difficult, messy, emotional, yet critical dialogue about institutional structures that put up barriers to advancement for Black people in this country.  And we acknowledge that the reason the lives of Black people — not ALL people — exist within these parameters is a consequence of a society built and run upon the realities of white privilege.

This structural racism is pervasive in our society - from police shootings to the courts to incarceration, and racial disparities persist in healthcare, housing, job opportunities, and education.

Black lives matter.  More than 500 people, a disproportionate number of them African-American, have been shot dead by police this year.  Others, such as Sandra Bland, who died in a Texas jail cell under suspicious circumstances, have died while in police custody.  Harassment based on race remains evident in too many routine police matters as well, evidenced by “stop and frisk” practices. All have serious health consequences from loss of life to serious injuries to exacerbating physical and mental health problems.​
Inequity in incarceration. With 5 percent of the world population, the United States has 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. Though only one-fourth of the U.S. population combined, African-Americans and Latinos comprise 58 percent of the prisoners.  One in three African-American males born today is likely, under current trends, to spend time in prison. Arrests for drug offenses and minimum sentencing laws disproportionately affect African-Americans.
Racism remains a significant public health issue. Even with the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, racial disparities continue in access to health services and health outcomes. African-Americans, for example, have shorter life expectancies, higher infant mortality rates, and higher rates of chronic illness, such as higher blood pressure, that can lead to strokes and diabetes than whites. Overall racial discrimination significantly contributes to stress and other adverse health factors.
African-Americans and Latinos have higher jobless rates than white Americans, and have been disproportionately affected by cuts in public-sector jobs, long a key area where ethnic minorities, who face greater racism in private employment, have traditionally had greater opportunity. A result is lower incomes and a wealth gap.
Each one of these areas, as well as racial disparities in other walks of life, such as education, housing and homelessness, and environmental racism, deserve attention, thoughtful consideration, meaningful discussion,from candidates for elected office, institutions, organizations, and every individual in an effort to move towards systemic solutions..

Keystone Progress supports efforts at comprehensive solutions including, but not limited to:

  • Comprehensive criminal justice reforms, including national standards for greater public oversight, accountability, and prosecution for rights violations, improved racial bias training, and diversity in hiring.
  • Systemic prison and sentencing reform to reduce mass incarcerations and disparities, and improved prison and jail health services.
  • Supporting what is widely known as “ban the box” so that employers consider a job candidate’s qualifications first, without the stigma of a criminal record. These initiatives provide applicants a fair chance by removing the conviction history question on the job application and delaying the background check inquiry until later in the hiring.
  • Genuine, universal guaranteed healthcare based on a single standard of quality care for everyone, best achieved by an upgraded and expanded Medicare for all that would help reduce racial disparities and discrimination in healthcare.
  • An end to austerity economic policies that disproportionately affect minority populations. Focus on increased revenue, not budget cuts, such as could be achieved by a tax on Wall Street speculation, closing loopholes that allow corporations to pay little or no tax on profits, and eliminating tax avoidance schemes such as "carried interest,” that could raise hundreds of billions of dollars annually for living-wage job; increased funding for healthcare, housing, and education; and robust action to combat climate change and environmental devastation that also hit low-income and minority communities in higher percentages.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Chinese Coal Use Falls Amid Shift To Renewables

Dan Heyman, Public News Service 

Production of Chinese coal mines and the use of coal by power plants fell by more than 3 percent last year and looks likely to continue falling. Photo by Peter Van den Bossche/Wikimedia.
Production of Chinese coal mines and the use of coal by power plants fell by more than 3 percent last year and looks likely to continue falling. Photo by Peter Van den Bossche/Wikimedia.
HARRISBURG, Pa. – China's use of coal fell last year and looks likely to keep falling.

The U.S. coal lobby argues that any reduction in American carbon pollution will be swallowed up by more CO2 from China.

But after decades of explosive growth, Chinese coal use fell by as much as 3.5 percent last year.

Some of that is due to a slowing economy, but Nicole Ghio, a representative with the Sierra Club's international climate and energy program, says the government there has declared it is shifting away from coal.

She says international observers have been stunned by how quickly and totally they are putting that change in place.

"The important thing to understand is that it's real,” she stresses. “We've already seen the use of coal in China drop in 2014, which is huge. No one could have even imagined that happening."

Ghio says the Chinese government has declared a moratorium on new coal-fired power plants. She says China is closing some existing plants, and not running many of the others full time.

Ghio adds the Chinese government is commanding that the economy put its full weight behind renewable energy, especially solar.

She says in part that's because thousands of people die there every day due to the country's notoriously bad air pollution.

"Air pollution in China is estimated to kill around 4,000 people a day,” she points out. “And that's largely coming from coal-fired power."

Ghio adds India – the next largest developing country – also is moving rapidly to renewables. She says that's being driven by the fact that small, local wind and solar projects typically are cheaper than extending the main electric grid.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Poll Finds Environment as Important as Immigration to Latino Voters

Dan Heyman, Public News Service

CHART: A new survey of Latino voters finds they are very focused on environmental issues, and are highly likely to support candidates more protective of the environment. Chart by Latino Decisions.
CHART: A new survey of Latino voters finds they are very focused on environmental issues, and are highly likely to support candidates more protective of the environment. Chart by Latino Decisions.
HARRISBURG, Pa. – Latino voters are as focused on protecting the environment as they are on immigration reform, according to a new poll.

The national survey done for Earthjustice and the advocacy group GreenLatinos found 4 out of 5 very concerned about clean air, clean water and climate change.

Adrian Pantoja, a senior analyst at the polling firm Latino Decisions, says nearly 8 out of 10 of those surveyed said they have personally seen the impacts of climate change.

And he says these attitudes are likely to show up on Election Day.

"Here you have over three quarters of Latinos saying yes, they have directly experienced the effects of climate change,” says Pantoja, who is also a professor of Political Studies and Chicano Studies at Pitzer College. “So this is not an abstract issue for Latinos."

The poll comes at time when regulations to cut carbon pollution are being scrutinized, with critics claiming the rules will raise the cost of electricity.

Pantoja says his firm’s survey found three quarters were willing to pay $5 to $10 more a month for clean power.

Pantoja adds most Latinos have had little contact with green groups and don't call themselves environmentalists. But he says they have a deep-rooted conservationist impulse – even Cuban-Americans, who tend to vote Republican.

Pantoja says politicians and the media often assume Latinos are primarily concerned with immigration and economic issues like jobs. He agrees that those are important.

"But notice where environmental issues are,” he states. “They're as important as immigration reform. The issues are equivalent."

Pantoja says Latino voters reject the claim that there's a trade off between the economy and the environment.

He says they don't think protecting the environment automatically means fewer jobs. And he says they're nearly 15 percent more likely than non-Hispanics to say humans are changing the climate.

"When we asked Latinos, 66 percent of them – a 14-point difference – say the causes of global warming are human activities," he points out.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

FERC May Thin Out Duplicate Gas Pipeline Proposals

Dan Heyman, Public News Service

PHOTO: Pipeline opponents are asking federal regulators to thin out duplicate pipeline proposals that would carry Marcellus and Utica shale natural gas to markets on th east cost. Photo by the Dominion Monitoring Coalition.
PHOTO: Pipeline opponents are asking federal regulators to thin out duplicate pipeline proposals that would carry Marcellus and Utica shale natural gas to markets on th east cost. Photo by the Dominion Monitoring Coalition.
PITTSBURGH – Opponents of pipeline construction want federal regulators to say which of several near-identical natural gas pipelines don't have to be built.

Energy companies are asking to build three 42-inch gas pipelines to carry Utica and Marcellus shale natural gas to eastern markets.

Attorney Joe Lovett, executive director of Appalachian Mountain Advocates, says all the pipelines go from the same sources to the same markets, or connected markets.

Lovett's group has requested the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to perform an overall Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which he says will force regulators to decide which of the projects is simply duplication.

"There's already a spaghetti of pipelines," he says. "We believe those pipelines are already sufficient to carry the gas from northern West Virginia and Western Pennsylvania to the south."

Other companies are asking to build a number of pipelines in Pennsylvania, some of which would connect. The companies argue there is sufficient demand to justify bringing gas to the southeast. They say the pipelines would actually serve separate markets, and need separate lines.

Lovett says once the gas is in the southeast, gas companies could reach various markets through the existing pipeline network. But he says pipeline companies have an incentive to build lines they don't actually need – and if the gas goes to regulated utilities, the cost would automatically be passed on to consumers.

"The companies are approaching this in a piecemeal fashion. We think that FERC has to look at it in a holistic way," he says. "You can't look at these things in isolation. I think FERC will realize that and will do it."

Virginia Senator Tim Kaine asked FERC to consider making the pipelines share a path, or even a single large pipe. Documents filed by the agency indicate FERC staff is weighing that option, although gas companies oppose it.

FERC may rule on an EIS and the pipeline applications this fall.

Monday, August 10, 2015

March Toward Cleaner Air in PA

Greg Stotelmyer , Public News Service

PHOTO: The American Lung Association is among the many health groups that say tougher pollution standards are a big step toward cleaner air in the U.S., especially for low-income residents who live near dirty power plants. Photo courtesy Sierra Club.
PHOTO: The American Lung Association is among the many health groups that say tougher pollution standards are a big step toward cleaner air in the U.S., especially for low-income residents who live near dirty power plants. Photo courtesy Sierra Club.
PHILADELPHIA - Since the Clean Air Act of 1970, America's air has gotten cleaner, but the American Lung Association's 2015 State of the Air report finds that 44 percent of the nation still lives where pollution levels are too often dangerous to breath.

That's more than 138 million Americans.

Enter the Obama administration's new rules on carbon pollution designed to cut emissions by 32 percent nationwide over the next 15 years. The American Lung Association's Janice Nolen, assistant vice president of National Policy, says people who live closest to dirty power plants have the most to gain from the Clean Energy Plan.

She remembers when the Northeast was often referred to as the tailpipe of the nation.

"We've done a great job at helping to clean up some of that so that places, when you get further out, are not as polluted as they once were," Nolen says. "But a lot of the states, like Pennsylvania, are areas where the pollution levels are higher than they should be already because of the pollution from power plants."

The National Black Chamber of Commerce maintains tougher pollution standards will be "especially severe" on African Americans and Hispanics. A 153-page report issued by the organization in June says the new pollution-cutting rules will destroy millions of jobs and more than double the cost of power and natural gas.

Nolen disagrees, explaining the Clean Energy Plan directly addresses the criticisms of the National Black Chamber of Commerce and other opponents.

"Under the plan as it's in place now, the requirements would be that we make sure that we're not harming these people," says Nolen. "Which means for the first time, they may actually get more cleanup than they would otherwise."

Joe Minott, executive director of the Clean Air Council, says while the state has cut carbon dioxide emissions by 15 percent over the last decade, the EPA's plan will allow Pennsylvania to, as he puts it, "finally get serious about slowing climate change."

Minott says climate change threatens children, the elderly and low income communities the most.

"This plan takes environmental justice seriously," he says. "Which is important, since six of Pennsylvania's seven coal-fired power plants are in areas where 30 percent of the low-income population lives within a three-mile radius of a power plant."

According to Minott, 11 Pennsylvania counties had failing grades for ozone smog pollution last year, with Philadelphia and Pittsburgh each suffering more than 30 code orange days, which alert residents to their city's poor air quality.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Conservationists: Clean Power Plan Will Help Protect Pennsylvania Natural Resources

Greg Stotelmyer , Public News Service 

PHOTO: Conservationists say nature is a winner under the first-ever federal rules limiting carbon emissions from power plants. Photo credit: Greg Stotelmyer.
PHOTO: Conservationists say nature is a winner under the first-ever federal rules limiting carbon emissions from power plants. Photo credit: Greg Stotelmyer.
PITTSBURGH – A plan for reducing carbon pollution in the U.S. has been finalized by the Obama administration. The EPA's Clean Power Plan, released Monday, sets a 32 percent goal for cutting emissions from power plants by 2030.

Ed Perry, Pennsylvania coordinator for the National Wildlife Federation's Climate Change Campaign, calls the plan a "flexible, science-based" rule. He says he's confident it will create "real progress" in protecting natural resources.

"Climate scientists say we need to reduce carbon pollution by 80 percent by the year 2050," he says. "So this is a big step in that direction."

Pennsylvania is the fourth-largest coal producer in the country, and according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, receives 36 percent of its electricity from coal. Monday's rollout of the Clean Energy Plan was met with a backlash of legal opposition, with utilities and political leaders in some states saying tougher rules will be an economic hardship.

Perry points to the wooly adelgid as a prime example of how a changing climate is harming some species. As winters have warmed, Perry says the insect has moved north, decimating hemlock trees in Pennsylvania.

"If we don't take action to reduce carbon pollution, we are going to see our state fish, the brook trout, the state bird, the rough grouse, and our state tree, the hemlock, gone from Pennsylvania by the year 2100," he says.

A coalition of environmental, clean energy, public health, labor and faith groups predicts the Clean Power Plan will provide up to $45 billion in climate and health-related benefits.

Jeaneen Zappa, executive director of Pittsburgh-based Conservation Consultants, one of the coalition organizations, says a new focus on cleaner power and energy efficiency will also lower electric bills.

"Energy efficiency is the simplest, and cheapest, first step to better financial health and grid health, and to reduce carbon footprint," she says.

Last year, renewable energy accounted for just four percent of Pennsylvania's net electricity generation.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Report Finds Room for Budget Compromise in Tax Relief Plans

Greg Stotelmyer , Public News Service

PHOTO: A new report from the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center finds the tax-relief plans of House Republicans and Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf are a good starting point for budget compromise. Photo by Stephanie Frank.
PHOTO: A new report from the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center finds the tax-relief plans of House Republicans and Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf are a good starting point for budget compromise. Photo by Stephanie Frank.
HARRISBURG, Pa. - It's been a month of budget gridlock in Pennsylvania after Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, vetoed the Republican Legislature's spending plan, claiming it is unbalanced and would lead to a $3 billion deficit. However, a new report finds common ground for compromise in the tax-relief plans proposed by House Republicans and the governor.

Economist Stephen Herzenberg, co-author of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center report, said a lot of overlap exists between the two plans on property-tax reform.

"Many places get a similar reduction in property taxes under each plan," he said, "and those reductions in property taxes are paid for in similar ways, with an identical personal income-tax increase and a similar increase in the sales tax."

Wolf vetoed the budget in part because he said it drastically underfunds the state's schools.

Herzenberg said a detailed, side-by-side comparison of the two tax relief plans makes the governor's proposal look "surprisingly good" in many areas of the state represented by Republicans who champion lower property taxes. He said "128 of 238 rural school districts in Pennsylvania do better under the governor's plan - more property tax relief for homeowners under the governor's plan."

Herzenberg acknowledged that Wolf's plan would distribute less in total tax relief than would the House plan - about $3.8 billion compared with around $4.8 billion. Still, he said, hat's a good starting point.

"Reform on property taxes is not a panacea," he said. "It doesn't solve the whole budget challenge by itself, but it would be a huge step forward."

The report is online at pennbpc.org.