Monday, February 13, 2017

State Senate Passes Bill to Punish PA Sanctuary Cities

Andrea Sears, Public News Service

The ACLU says it has seen cases in which U.S. citizens have been held in Pennsylvania jails on erroneous ICE detainers. (Neil Conway/Flickr)
The ACLU says it has seen cases in which U.S. citizens have been held in Pennsylvania jails on erroneous ICE detainers. (Neil Conway/Flickr)
HARRISBURG, Pa. - A bill that has passed in the state Senate would penalize sanctuary cities and counties in Pennsylvania.

Senate Bill 10 would withhold state money from municipalities that don't cooperate with federal immigration authorities. According to Sara Rose, an attorney with the ACLU of Pennsylvania, that could put places in a double bind for not complying with federal requests to hold a person in detention for possible immigration proceedings.

"If county jails hold people under these ICE detainers and it turns out that there's no probable cause to believe that the person is in the country without authorization," she said, "the county can be liable for damages to the person who's being held."

SB 10 now goes to the House of Representatives for consideration. Proponents of the legislation say it is about upholding the rule of law, but Rose pointed out that ICE detainers are only administrative requests and are not reviewed by a judge. She said the detainers often are issued by ICE field agents based solely on suspicion that a person may not have authorization to be in the country.

"In fact, we've had two cases here, just in Pennsylvania," she said, "on behalf of U.S. citizens who were held in jail on immigration detainers that had been issued erroneously."

Nineteen jurisdictions in Pennsylvania have announced their intentions to not cooperate with federal immigration authorities. If the bill becomes law, Rose said, the ACLU would look for ways to challenge it in court.

"We think it sets a dangerous precedent," she said, "and can really cause problems for municipalities and their relationship with immigrant communities."

Gov. Tom Wolf's office has expressed concerns about the legality of some aspects of the legislation.

The text of SB 10 is online at legis.state.pa.us.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Pennsylvania Facing More Fiscal Woes

Andrea Sears, Public News Service

Growing deficits and few reserves make Pennsylvania's budget problems worse than that of most other states. (Jason Burmeister/flickr.com)
Growing deficits and few reserves make Pennsylvania's budget problems worse than that of most other states. (Jason Burmeister/flickr.com)
HARRISBURG, Pa. – Pennsylvania is one of many states facing tough financial times, according to a series of articles examining issues facing state legislatures.

State of the States 2017 from Stateline, a project of The Pew Charitable Trusts, examines five policy areas, including maintaining health care if the Affordable Care Act is repealed, states' overall fiscal health and renewable energy.

According to Scott Greenberger, Stateline’s executive editor, the Keystone State's budget is in worse shape than most other states.

"It has very little in its rainy day fund, its reserve fund, and it is on pace for a $600 million budget shortfall in the coming months," he points out.

This year, 31 states are facing budget gaps. But with just two-tenths of 1 percent of annual expenditures in its reserve fund, Pennsylvania lags far behind many other states in being able to weather tough economic times.

Pennsylvania was one of the states that took advantage of the Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act with the federal government picking up most of the tab. But with the possible repeal of the ACA, Greenberger says the state may face tough choices.

"If that money goes away, the question will be whether states want to continue to cover the people who benefited from that expansion or not," he explains.

One recent report estimated that ACA repeal could double the state deficit and cost 137,000 jobs.

As a coal, oil and gas producer, the state may benefit financially from renewed support in Washington for fossil fuels. But Greenberger notes that Pennsylvania also is one of the 29 states that has a renewable-energy standard.

"Which means that it requires that a certain amount of the electricity sold in the state comes from approved renewable or alternative sources," he points out.

State of the States 2017 gives examples of how states have dealt successfully with the challenges that Pennsylvania and other states now face.

The Pew Charitable Trusts provided support for this reporting.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Advocates Urge Caution in Closing Prisons

Andrea Sears, Public News Service 

More than 49,000 inmates currently are held in Pennsylvania state prisons. (ErikaWittlieb/pixabay.com)
More than 49,000 inmates currently are held in Pennsylvania state prisons. (ErikaWittlieb/pixabay.com)
HARRISBURG, Pa. – Governor Tom Wolf wants to close two state prisons to cut costs, but civil-rights advocates fear that could lead to overcrowding. Closing the prisons by June 30th could save the cash-strapped commonwealth as much as $160 million in the coming fiscal year. There are fewer prisoners in the state than there were at the peak five years ago.

But, according to spokesperson Andrew Hoover with the ACLU of Pennsylvania, the overall decrease in population of the state's 26 prisons has been less than five-percent.

"It's necessary to monitor how that transition happens and if it happens smoothly," he said. "We don't want to see a situation where inmates are being crowded into fewer prisons and as a result, conditions deteriorate."

Legislators with prisons in or near their districts are concerned by a potential loss of jobs. Just which prisons will close could be announced Thursday.

But the state didn't always have so many prisoners. Hoover points out that, like many states, Pennsylvania adopted "get tough on crime" laws in the 1980s with minimum mandatory sentences and longer terms for parole eligibility.

"The long sentences in Pennsylvania's sentencing structure have led to an increase in the prison population at a time when the crime rate was actually going down," he explained.

Around 1980, there were just over 8,000 inmates in Pennsylvania's state prisons. Today there are more than 49,000.

Much of the increase in the prison population has been driven by the war on drugs. Some legislators acknowledge that mass incarceration has not solved the problem. Hoover says now they need to do something about it.

"There hasn't been the kind of restructuring of sentencing that's necessary to fulfill that promise, to make drugs more of a public-health issue than a criminal issue," he added.

Hoover notes that other states have been reducing their prison populations at much faster rates than Pennsylvania.

Advocates: Repealing Obamacare Will Hit PA Children Hard

Andrea Sears, Public News Service

Medicaid expansion helped reduce the rate of uninsured children in Pennsylvania to 4.1 percent. (James Gathany, Judy Schmidt, USCDCP)
Medicaid expansion helped reduce the rate of uninsured children in Pennsylvania to 4.1 percent. (James Gathany, Judy Schmidt, USCDCP)
HARRISBURG, Pa. – Child advocates say repeal of the Affordable Care Act would leave thousands of Pennsylvania kids without health insurance. President Trump and congressional Republicans already are taking steps to repeal the landmark health-care law.

According to Joan Benso, president and CEO of Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children, that would reverse the gains the state has made toward getting all children insured.

"Some kids could lose coverage because they had pre-existing conditions," she said. "Other children could lose coverage because they are over the age limit of when you could stay on your parents' health insurance prior to ACA."

Almost 90,000 young adults who have "aged-out" of their parents' health insurance or extended Medicaid for foster children would become uninsured.

Benso pointed out that when parents get health insurance, so do their children – and prior to the ACA, there were more than 130,000 uninsured parents in Pennsylvania.

"The expansion of Medicaid in our state helped more of those families come into coverage, and we watched the number of children who were uninsured decrease," she explained.

She said the Medicaid expansion helped reduce the uninsured rate for children in Pennsylvania to 4.1 percent, an all-time low.

While federal legislators have said the Affordable Care Act will be replaced by "something better," just what that replacement would be has not been made clear. Still, Benso concedes that there may be some parts of the law that should be repealed.

"But this conversation needs to slow down until those details are on the table," she added. "We can examine them and say, 'What are the pros and cons of the alternative?'"

Right now, she said, the federal government picks up about 90 percent of the cost of the Medicaid expansion and CHIP, the Children's Health Insurance Program, in Pennsylvania, money the state cannot afford to replace.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Report Offers Legal Guidance on Sanctuary

 Andrea Sears, Public News Service 

Fearing stepped-up ICE raids, many areas are increasing protections for immigrants. (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement/Wikimedia Commons)
Fearing stepped-up ICE raids, many areas are increasing protections for immigrants. (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement/Wikimedia Commons)
HARRISBURG, Pa. – A new report offers guidance to state and local jurisdictions and institutions that want to protect immigrants threatened with deportation. About 400 counties, cities and states around the country, as well as churches, schools and hospitals, already have taken steps to create sanctuary for immigrants in their communities.

Joanna Cuevas Ingram, associate counsel at LatinoJustice PRLDEF and co-author of the report, says with widespread fear of racial profiling, hate crimes and mass deportations, the report is intended to give those offering or considering sanctuary some important legal background.

"The U.S. Constitution and civil rights law supports a wide range of local pro-immigrants' rights policies, including policies that protect undocumented community members from draconian federal immigration enforcement," she said.

President-elect Donald Trump has said immigration enforcement efforts will focus on those with serious criminal convictions, but advocates fear millions could be swept up in a wave of mass deportations.

Cuevas Ingram notes that some jurisdictions that already have some form of sanctuary in place now are looking for ways they can do more.

"They have already begun passing even stronger, more inclusive protections and even a bill that would provide some legal support to immigrant members of the community that are facing administrative hearings for deportation," she explained.

Last week the Borough Council of State College, Pennsylvania, voted unanimously to make its community a sanctuary city.

There have been concerns that the federal government could threaten to withhold funds from jurisdictions that offer sanctuary or other protections to immigrants. But Cuevas Ingram says even then, there may be some legal recourse.

"If they do get these threats of withdrawal of funding from the federal government, there is precedent and there are cases that they can look to to find some legal authority to resist any unconstitutional coercion or commandeering," she added.

The report includes a number of policy recommendations for actions that local governments can take to protect their undocumented community members.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Report Calls for Ending Automatic License Suspensions

Andrea Sears, Public News Service

In one study 45 percent of those surveyed said they lost their jobs after their licenses had been suspended. (Jeffrey M. Vinocur/Wikimedia Commons)
In one study 45 percent of those surveyed said they lost their jobs after their licenses had been suspended. (Jeffrey M. Vinocur/Wikimedia Commons)
HARRISBURG, Pa. - Pennsylvania should join the majority of states in ending the practice of automatically suspending the drivers' licenses of anyone convicted of a non-driving, drug-related offense, according to a new report.

All but 12 states and the District of Columbia have opted out of the license-suspension provision of a federal law passed in 1991, the Prison Policy Initiative report said. Its author, Joshua Aiken, a policy fellow at the initiative, said there's no evidence that suspensions deter crime, but they perpetuate the injustices of the so-called "War on Drugs."

"They're impacting low-income communities," he said, "communities who have limited access to public transportation, communities of color who are most impacted by these collateral consequences of drug convictions."

Last year, almost 20,000 Pennsylvanians had their driver's license suspended for six months for drug convictions unrelated to driving. Nationally, more than 80 percent of Americans rely on motor vehicles to get to work. In one study, Aiken said, 45 percent of people surveyed said they lost their jobs after their license had been suspended.

"A lot of times, employers, one of the first questions they ask is, 'Do you have a consistent form of transportation?' So, these suspensions really hamper people's opportunities to find and keep jobs," he said.

Almost 90 percent of those whose licenses were suspended reported a decrease in income.

The 1991 federal law threatens states with loss of federal highway funds if they don't automatically suspend the licenses of those convicted of drug offenses. However, Aiken said, there's a relatively easy way out.

"As long as the governor and the state legislators inform the Department of Transportation that they don't believe in these license suspensions and are no longer going to enforce them," he said, "they can keep their highway funding."

License suspensions are used in a variety of other circumstances, from inability to pay fines to missed child-support payments. But Aiken says many states are beginning to roll back those penalties as well.

The report is online at prisonpolicy.org.

Growth of Biofuels Threatens PA Wildlife

Andrea Sears, Public News Service

Conversion of stream buffers to crop production has increased agricultural runoff, creating problems for wildlife and water quality. (JackTheVicar/Wikipedia)
Conversion of stream buffers to crop production has increased agricultural runoff, creating problems for wildlife and water quality. (JackTheVicar/Wikipedia)
HARRISBURG, Pa. - The federal Renewable Fuel Standard has led to the destruction of millions of acres of wildlife habitat and has endangered water supplies, according to a new report.

The National Wildlife Federation report, "Fueling Destruction," said wildlife has been put at risk by converting previously uncultivated land to grow corn and soybeans, the crops used to make most ethanol and biodiesel fuels. Report author David DeGennaro, an agricultural policy specialist, said 84,000 acres were converted in Pennsylvania between 2008 and 2012 alone, destroying habitat and increasing farm runoff into waterways.

"A lot of the land that's being plowed up and converted are the buffers along waterways," he said, "and that's really important in keeping the sediment and fertilizers and pesticides from getting into water in the first place."

The Renewable Fuel Standard was intended to reduce reliance on imported oil and to cut greenhouse-gas emissions. However, critics have said the government has failed to enforce the habitat protections in the law.

Nationally, said Collin O'Mara, the federation's president and chief executive, the results, although unintended, have been severe.

"It's affecting the entire ecosystem, and we're seeing several species that are currently at risk of potential extinction in the coming decades," he said. "The habitat they depend on is in the exact corridor where we've seen the greatest land losses."

The report recommended reducing the mandate for first-generation fuels made from corn and soy, as well as funding the protection and restoration of habitats and waterways. O'Mara said the problems stem from a federal policy that required a massive increase in agricultural production.

"Farmers are not to blame in this policy," he said. "They were rationally responding to a government mandate, and so we feel like there should be a concerted effort to work with farmers to try to restore habitat on the landscape."

The report called for prioritizing the next generation of cellulosic fuels that don't require new row-crop production.

The report is online at nwf.org.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Report Shows Big Losses for PA if Affordable Care Act Is Repealed

Andrea Sears, Public News Service

An estimated 82 percent of those who would lose health coverage if the ACA is repealed are in working families. (James Gathany, Judy Schmidt, USCDCP/pixnio.com)
An estimated 82 percent of those who would lose health coverage if the ACA is repealed are in working families. (James Gathany, Judy Schmidt, USCDCP/pixnio.com)
HARRISBURG, Pa. – Almost a million Pennsylvanians would lose their health insurance with even a partial repeal of the Affordable Care Act, according to a new report. Congressional Republicans say repealing the ACA will be high on their agenda in the coming year. But a new study shows that, nationally, a partial repeal would increase the number of uninsured people by almost 30 million by 2019, compared to leaving the ACA in full effect.

Joan Alker, executive director of Georgetown University's Center for Children and Families, said that would apply to children as well.

"The number of uninsured kids would double if Congress takes away health coverage by repealing the ACA without first doing the hard work of negotiating a replacement plan and 'stapling' it to that same bill," she said.

The report by the Urban Institute said in Pennsylvania, some 956,000 would be without health insurance, a difference of more than 130 percent.

And according to Alker, more than 80 percent of those who would lose their insurance are in working families.

"The majority of those are non-Hispanic whites, and 80 percent of the adults becoming uninsured would not have college degrees," she added.

The report also found that with the elimination of the Medicaid expansion, premium tax credits and cost-sharing, federal spending on health care would drop by $109 billion by 2019.

But Aiker pointed out that, though insurance may be lost, families' health-care needs won't go away.

"And the responsibility for responding to that will fall squarely into the states' laps, and we'll have huge gaps in our health-care safety net," Aiker explained.

The report estimates that an ACA repeal would cost Pennsylvania alone $36 billion in lost federal Medicaid and Children's Health Insurance Program dollars over ten years.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Report Shows Billions in Raises for Workers Over 4 Years

Andrea Sears, Public News Service

Since the Fight for 15 began, 19 million workers have won raises totaling $61.5 billion. (Fibonacci Blue/flickr.com)
Since the Fight for 15 began, 19 million workers have won raises totaling $61.5 billion. (Fibonacci Blue/flickr.com)
HARRISBURG, Pa. – As thousands of low-wage workers staged strikes and protests in cities across the country, a new report shows the fight for a $15 minimum wage is making a difference. Tuesday's job actions in more than 320 cities nationwide marked the fourth anniversary of the first Fight for 15 strike by fast-food workers in New York.

According to Yannet Lathrop, researcher and policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project, their report shows that the movement has had an impact, raising wages for millions across the country.

"Since the Fight for 15 started, 19 million workers have benefited from this, and the total raise that workers have received is over $61 billion so far," she said.

Still, 43 percent of U.S. workers are earning less than $15 an hour. Opponents of raising the minimum wage say it will cause job losses, and hurt small businesses.

But Lathrop noted that in Seattle, which has begun phasing in a $15 minimum wage, there has been job growth in the restaurant industry, the employment sector most affected by the increase.

"We also saw lower unemployment rates compared to the state as a whole, so overall the indication is that the $15 minimum wage has not really caused a catastrophe as predicted by opponents," she explained.

At least 20 cities and dozens of large companies have raised their minimum wages since 2012. New York and California have passed $15 minimum-wage laws and voters in four states approved raising their minimums in this month's election.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

PA School District Says Transgender Students Have No Protections

Andrea Sears, Public News Service

The transgender students in one Pittsburgh-area high school can use only single-stall restrooms, or ones that don't match their gender identity. (sarahmirk/Wikimedia Commons)
The transgender students in one Pittsburgh-area high school can use only single-stall restrooms, or ones that don't match their gender identity. (sarahmirk/Wikimedia Commons)
PITTSBURGH - A suburban Pittsburgh school district claims it is within its rights to require transgender students to use restrooms and locker rooms that don't match their gender identity - or to use totally separate facilities.

The Pine-Richland School District asked a federal court on Monday to dismiss a lawsuit filed on behalf of three high school seniors, saying neither the Constitution nor federal law protects transgender students. Omar Gonzalez-Pagan, an attorney with Lambda Legal, said several other courts have disagreed with the school's argument.

"Courts in Ohio, Virginia, North Carolina, Wisconsin have already held in favor of very similar claims to the ones we're making under Title IX and the Equal Protection Clause," he said.

According to Gonzalez-Pagan, the school board reversed its longstanding, inclusive restroom policy in response to pressure from anti-LGBT groups and individuals.

"For several years, transgender students were allowed to use the restroom consistent with their gender identity," he said, "and the administration nor we are aware of any problems or incidents, or misconduct by any students."

Meanwhile, he said the three plaintiffs in the case have found their senior year disrupted, and their safety and security at school compromised.

"They feel stigmatized and marginalized for being forced to either use a restroom that nobody else is forced to use or being relegated to use restrooms that are not consistent with who they are," he said.

The restroom policy was enacted this fall. Lambda Legal has requested a temporary injunction preventing the policy from being enforced. A hearing on that request is scheduled for Dec. 1.

More information is online at lambdalegal.org.