Thursday, April 30, 2015

Long Past Time to Let 3rd Circuit Nominee and Pennsylvanian Restrepo Have His Hearing

By Paul Gordon, Senior Legislative Counsel, People for the American Way

This post originally appeared on the People for the American Way blog: http://blog.pfaw.org/content/long-past-time-let-3rd-circuit-nominee-restrepo-have-his-hearing

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley yesterday announced there will be a judicial nominations hearing next Wednesday, the first one since March 11. He let eight weeks go by without allowing any of President Obama's judicial nominees to testify to the committee. It isn't like there haven't been plenty of nominees who have long been ready for this. Most of those nominated as far back as last November have yet to make it even that far.

As we have written before, Eastern Pennsylvania federal judge L. Felipe Restrepo is among those nominees being obstructed. Confirmed to his current position by the Senate by unanimous voice vote in June of 2013, he earned strong statements of support from home state senators Bob Casey (a Democrat) and Pat Toomey (a Republican) when he was nominated for elevation to the Third Circuit last November.

But since then ... nothing. Chairman Grassley has conspicuously refused to schedule a hearing for him. Although Third Circuit Judge Marjorie Rendell announced in late January that she plans to take senior status this summer, thus opening a second vacancy on the court if Restrepo is not confirmed by then, Grassley did not schedule a hearing. And when the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts formally classified the vacancy Restrepo would fill as a judicial emergency in February, Grassley's response was ... nothing.

Pennsylvanians who care about their state's federal courts have been asking where their senators have been all this time, especially Toomey. As a fellow Republican, Toomey surely has Grassley's ear on matters of importance to folks in the Keystone State.

The fact that this nomination has gone for nearly half a year without a hearing says volumes about both Grassley and Toomey. As for saying things about Restrepo, he can best speak for himself, and surely would be pleased to do so, if only Grassley would let him.

** UPDATE from Keystone Progress **

Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) made the following statement today on the situation:

Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.)
Ranking Member, Senate Committee on the Judiciary
Executive Business Meeting
April 30, 2015

Today we are considering a bill introduced by Senator Franken, and cosponsored by eleven other members of this Committee, including myself.  I am proud to support S.993, the Comprehensive Justice and Mental Health Act which will reauthorize and improve the Mentally Ill Offender Treatment and Crime Reduction Act.  I was a cosponsor of this legislation when it was first introduced in 2004.  Senator Franken knows well the importance of addressing mental illness, and continuing the work of another great Minnesotan, the late Senator Paul Wellstone.  Senator Wellstone left a true legacy, ensuring that mental illness and addiction are treated just like any other physical illnesses by most insurance companies.  

This treatment is especially critical for those involved in the criminal justice system.  This bill reauthorizes that treatment, and aims to improve interactions between the mentally ill and law enforcement by supporting training programs for police and correctional officers.  This is crucial to preventing unnecessary violence in our communities.  I am grateful to Senator Franken for his commitment to this issue, and I look forward to supporting this bill. 

Unfortunately, there are no judicial nominees on today’s agenda.  This is because this Committee has not held a hearing on a judicial nomination in more than seven weeks and we have several well qualified nominees waiting for a hearing.  Five of the pending judicial nominees were nominated over five months ago, including three who will fill judicial emergency vacancies. 

Chairman Grassley noticed a nominations hearing for next week, and I hope it will include Luis Felipe Restrepo, a nominee from Pennsylvania for the Third Circuit.  Judge Restrepo was unanimously confirmed by the Senate two years ago by voice vote to serve on the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.  By all accounts he has done an outstanding job.  He was nominated to the Third Circuit over five months ago with the support of Senators Casey and Toomey.  In the time his nomination has been pending, the judgeship he will fill has become a “judicial emergency vacancy.”  I hope this judicial emergency vacancy will be considered soon.


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Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Industry-Backed Chemical Safety Law "Doesn't Protect Pennsylvania Families"

Dan Heyman, Public News Service (PA)

IMAGE: Public health advocates, environmental groups and chemical workers' unions all say an industry-backed bill changing the way the federal government regulates dangerous chemicals doesn't do enough to protect Pennsylvania families. Image credit: Wikimedia.
IMAGE: Public health advocates, environmental groups and chemical workers' unions all say an industry-backed bill changing the way the federal government regulates dangerous chemicals doesn't do enough to protect Pennsylvania families. Image credit: Wikimedia.
HERMITAGE, Pa. - An industry-backed bill changing the way the federal government regulates dangerous chemicals won't do enough to protect Pennsylvania families, a coalition of consumer watchdogs say.

Senate Bill 697, also known as the Vitter-Udall bill, is being considered by a Senate committee – but the legislation is also drawing criticism from public health advocates, environmental groups and chemical workers' unions.

Andy Igrejas, director of Safer Chemicals Healthy Families, says in too many cases it would tie the hands of the EPA – and would largely prevent states from doing what the EPA can't.

"The legislation does not adequately reform the federal law," says Igrejas. "But at the same time, it would chill state activity, which has been the main thing that has been protecting the public from toxic chemicals for the last 30 years."

The watchdog coalition says slow safety testing and grandfathering under the current law has resulted in 62,000 chemicals being sold on the marketplace despite unknown impacts. According to the coalition, the EPA would only test a handful of these substances in the years after this bill became law.

That scenario concerns Maureen Swanson, a mother and the director of the Healthy Children Project for the Learning Disabilities Association of America.

"Flame-retardant chemicals are extremely dangerous to brain development," says Swanson. "Under this bill, EPA would not be able to act swiftly and get those chemicals out of our products."

Senator Bob Casey has not signed on as a sponsor of the bill, but Igrejas says pressure and donations from the industry have swayed many senators.

"The two largest recipients of campaign contributions in the last year were the two sponsors of this bill," he says. "The chemical industry's primary champion in Congress, Senator David Vitter from Louisiana, and also Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico, who's a Democrat."

Chemical regulation reform has been gridlocked for years, so watchdog groups say the public is now subject to exposure due to the huge backlog of untested chemicals.

While supporters say the bill is intended to deal with that issue, critics say it was largely written on industry terms – the result of lobbying and campaign spending by chemical manufacturers.

Monday, April 27, 2015

GOP Congress Gets Environmental ‘F' Grade So Far

Dan Heyman, Public News Service (PA)

PHOTO: Conservation and environmental groups are harshly criticizing the first few months of a GOP-led Congress they say has done nothing to benefit clean air, clean water or wilderness protection. Photo credit: Beth Little.
PHOTO: Conservation and environmental groups are harshly criticizing the first few months of a GOP-led Congress they say has done nothing to benefit clean air, clean water or wilderness protection. Photo credit: Beth Little.
HARRISBURG, Pa. – The 114th U.S. Congress gets a failing grade from conservation and environmental groups for the lawmakers' first four months of the session.

The Climate Action Campaign, Defenders of Wildlife, The Wilderness Society, Clean Water Action – among others – have tallied a report card for the Republican-led Congress under Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner.

Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters, says the lawmakers haven't done much of anything to protect land, water or wildlife, or to fight climate change.

"It's an F from our perspective,” Karpinski states. “Polluters and their allies in Congress, who invested over $700 million in this new Congress, are doing all they can to try to wreck with our public health protections and destroy the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act."

Congressional Republicans say they are trying to promote growth by easing regulations. But critics contend GOP lawmakers are helping the corporations that have been major campaign donors.

The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed stronger protections for drinking water and limits on carbon pollution from power plants, and GOP lawmakers have tried – so far, unsuccessfully – to stop the agency.

Polls show strong national support for action to slow climate change, even among Republican voters.

Karpinski says under McConnell, party members seem to be answering to the big-money donors in the fossil fuel industries.

"EPA's mission is to protect our health, protect our air, protect our water,” he stresses. “They're moving forward with historic steps – and Sen. McConnell is trying to block them."

Karpinski accuses Republicans in Congress of trying to undermine some bedrock conservation laws – threatening a longtime consensus that's protected the national parks and forests, wildlife refuges and federal wilderness.

Ed Zahniser is the son of Howard Zahniser, the Pennsylvania conservationist and principal author of the Wilderness Act. He says the Act has preserved what are now some of the nation's greatest treasures – but he thinks today, it would not have passed.

"One could hardly think of a vote today – even on motherhood or apple pie – that would result in a vote of 370-some to one in the House, and 78 to 12 in the Senate," Ed Zahniser says.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Philly Airport Worker: Low Wages Making a Decent Life All But Impossible

Dan Heyman, Public News Service (PA)

PHOTO: Some Philadelphia airport workers are protesting their employers' failure to meet the $12 per hour wage standard set by the city council. Photograph by Matt Stanley Photo.
PHOTO: Some Philadelphia airport workers are protesting their employers' failure to meet the $12 per hour wage standard set by the city council. Photograph by Matt Stanley Photo.
HARRISBURG, Pa. – One of the Philadelphia International Airport (PHL) workers fighting for $12 an hour says his current minimum wage pay is keeping him from having a decent life.

Philadelphia’s mayor signed an executive order saying PHL workers should make $12 an hour, but some private contractors are still paying a lot less.

Hasson Benson has been a baggage handler for PrimeFlight for more than a year. The 21-year-old lives with his mother and sister, who he helps to support.

"Pay us $7.25 as if we were high school kids with summer jobs, not realizing that some of us are grown with two to three kids,” he says. “I don't understand."

Several hundred of the contractors' employees staged a symbolic one-day strike April 2. PrimeFlight has been largely silent on the issue, but another contractor announced plans to raise wages to the level set by the city.

The Service Employees International Union says it is bringing pressure through the city government and through the airlines that hire the contractors.

Last fall, after five of its employees received an award for good service, PrimeFlight released a statement saying how proud it was, stating, in part, "customer service is important in any business, but it takes on even greater significance at a major airport."

But Benson says the company doesn't offer any benefits worth having. He says the company doesn’t supply the equipment that employees need, such as gloves or kneepads. And he says the low wages make it tough for employees like him trying to work their way through college.

"If we get the $12, it would just feel like the weight is lifted off of my shoulders because I could provide more,” he explains. “I know I would be at school knowing, 'OK I've got enough money and I don't have to worry about while I'm doing my work.'"

Benson says poor wages are part of the reason he hasn't gotten married, moved into his own place and started a family. He's studying allied health at a community college, but he says minimum wage is a real threat to those career plans.

"Being in school and working, it's already hard enough,” he stresses. “It's always so much on my mind I think about dropping out all the time. But I know I have a family to take care of, so I got to push myself."

Friday, April 10, 2015

In PA, One in Seven Risks Going Hungry

Dan Heyman, Public News Service (PA)


PHOTO: A new report from the Food Research and Action Center says slightly more than 15 percent of Pennsylvanians risk going hungry and don't always have enough money to buy food. Photo courtesy U.S. Dept. of Agriculture.
PHOTO: A new report from the Food Research and Action Center says slightly more than 15 percent of Pennsylvanians risk going hungry and don't always have enough money to buy food. Photo courtesy U.S. Dept. of Agriculture.
HARRISBURG, Pa. - One Pennsylvanian in seven risks going hungry, according to a new report, and that number is higher in places such as Philadelphia.

According to the national analysis from the Food Research and Action Center, slightly more than 15 percent of Pennsylvanians live with food hardship and one in six - about 17 percent - of Philadelphia residents live with the threat of hunger.

Kathy Fisher, policy manager for the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger, said the slowly improving economy hasn't really changed that picture.

"To say that it's a percentage or two better, certainly that helps," she said, "but the vast majority of those people who were struggling in 2008, 2009 are still struggling."

The research from FRAC - titled "How Hungry is America?" - tallied how many Americans couldn't afford to buy food at some time during 2014. Nationally, that number is slightly more than 17 percent - about one in six.

The Republican-controlled Congress is threatening to cut the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program - food stamps - as a budget-cutting measure. Fisher said she thinks it's a terrible idea. While economic growth eventually might bring more jobs and better wages to the state, she said that doesn't mean much to people who are older or disabled, or to children - the groups who depend most heavily on the safety net.

"It's not as if the seniors are going to go out and get work," she said. "And SNAP - food stamps - is certainly the nation's No. 1 defense against hunger."

Fisher said SNAP was cut last year, and has been a regular target for reductions for several years. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the program, SNAP has very low rates of waste, fraud and abuse.

The report is online at frac.org.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Study Finds Frackers Averaging 2.5 Violations a Day

Dan Heyman, Public News Service (PA)

PHOTO: A new study of online records for just three states found fracking companies committed an average of two-and-a-half violations of drilling rules a day. Photo courtesy of the Sierra Club.
PHOTO: A new study of online records for just three states found fracking companies committed an average of two-and-a-half violations of drilling rules a day. Photo courtesy of the Sierra Club.
HARRISBURG, Pa. - On average, fracking companies commit more than two-and-a-half environmental violations a day, according to a new study drawn from just a small portion of available public record information.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) studied five years' worth of online reports for Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Colorado. According to report co-author and NRDC policy analyst Amy Mall, she and her team totaled up at least 4,600 citations – about 18 per week.

She says some of the 68 drillers they looked at ran up hundreds of violations, including wastewater spills, well leaks and pipeline ruptures.

"When companies are seriously violating the law on a regular basis, they're what we would call a repeat offender," says Wall. "They need to be shut down or they need to be prohibited from getting new permits."

Mall says the study didn't examine the records from the 33 states that don't post citations on-line. And she says they didn't include all the companies doing hydraulic fracturing, which suggests the violations they found are just a fraction of the total.

According to Mall, the fact that most of the public record is inaccessible means it's out of reach for most people. She says this covers a variety of violations, some of which are of immediate public interest.

"It could be contamination of a drinking water source," she says. "It could be a pit that overflowed. It could be not having the right paperwork on site. It really varies quite widely."

The oil and gas industry says the NRDC study includes a lot of "paperwork violations" over what they call clerical issues. Mall says some of those can actually be pretty important.

"If it was information on what chemicals might be used, or whether a well passed a certain type of an integrity test, even a paper violation could be quite serious," she says.

Of the three states the NRDC examined, Pennsylvania had by far the most violations. Mall says that may have as much to do with how the state enforces their rules as anything else.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Pennsylvania Kids Form New Education Organization




Pennsylvania Kids Form New Education Organization


HARRISBURG , PA – A statewide coalition of kids from across Pennsylvania today announced a new campaign, “Kids Against Education,” to support the radical education budget position of state legislators like Senator Scott Wagner (R-York).


“We are sending out a HUGE thank you to Senator Scott Wagner and his friends in Harrisburg for working hard to choke off funding for our schools,” said Kids Against Education spokeskid Matilda Wormwood. “Closed schools mean we can have recess all day forever. Politics seem stupid, but this is an idea we can really get behind!"
“Even if they don't close my school, art and music are overrated. We need to make sure we get rid of those no matter what,” said Kids Against Education member Kevin McCallister.
The new group is calling on Senator Scott Wagner to convince his Republican colleagues to stand their ground in budget negotiations on completely unrelated items like pensions and liquor privatization in order to ensure that schools don’t get the funding needed to adequately educate Pennsylvania kids.
“Sure, a strong, fully-funded public education system made things better in the past, but we won't know because, BOOM, no more history class," said Wormwood.


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