Monday, June 29, 2015

Groups Want Congress to Stop Net Neutrality "Sneak Attack"

Dan Heyman, Public News Service 

PHOTO: More than 60 organizations have sent a letter calling on Congress to remove a rider in its budget bill they claim would block the FCC from implementing net neutrality rules. Photo credit: Sean MacEntee/Flickr Commons.
PHOTO: More than 60 organizations have sent a letter calling on Congress to remove a rider in its budget bill they claim would block the FCC from implementing net neutrality rules. Photo credit: Sean MacEntee/Flickr Commons.
HARRISBURG, Pa. - More than 60 civil-rights and public-interest groups have sent a letter urging Congress to protect the Federal Communications Commission's decision to keep the Internet open.

They're protesting a rider attached to a must-pass government funding package. Timothy Karr, senior director of strategy, is with the group Free Press. He says the provisions, buried inside a spending bill that's 150-pages long, would cut funding the Federal Communication Commission needs to enforce net neutrality rules.

"This is one of the more sneaky ways to do it, is to actually slip a couple lines of language into a budget appropriations bill," says Karr.

Advocates claim that by eliminating the FCC's ability to protect net neutrality, the appropriations bill would have a chilling effect on First Amendment rights and the economy. The American Library Association, the National Hispanic Media Coalition, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation were among the groups sending the letter.

In February the FCC responded to nearly four million public comments when it decided to protect the openness of the Internet - no fast lanes for corporations and slow lanes for average citizens. Karr says since the ruling, an entrenched phone and cable lobby has worked to punish the FCC in the courts and now in Congress.

"The public, on the issue of net neutrality, has been overwhelmingly in favor of open Internet protections," says Karr. "So we're seeing the backlash of that decision."

Karr adds that the funding package is inching closer to a vote before the full House, but there's still time for members to remove the provision.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Study: Raising Pennsylvania's Minimum Wage Shouldn't Hurt Employment

Dan Heyman, Public News Service 

GRAPHIC: New research from the Economic Policy Institute indicates raising the minimum wage will not slow employment. Federal figures show the minimum wage has not kept up with workers' education levels or with inflation. Graphic courtesy of the Economic Policy Institute.
GRAPHIC: New research from the Economic Policy Institute indicates raising the minimum wage will not slow employment. Federal figures show the minimum wage has not kept up with workers' education levels or with inflation. Graphic courtesy of the Economic Policy Institute.
HARRISBURG, Pa. – Gov. Tom Wolf has proposed raising Pennsylvania's minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, and new economic research suggests that shouldn't hurt employment.

Critics of increasing low-end pay say it prices some workers out of the job market.

David Cooper, a senior economic analyst with theEconomic Policy Institute, says that used to be the standard thinking among economists, but a lot of recent studies have compared employment in one location that raises the minimum with a neighbor that doesn't.

Cooper says to their surprise, economists found very little difference in job numbers.

"Given the research, any effect on employment that would happen from these increases that we're seeing right now, it's going to be very small, whether it's positive or negative," he states.

Wolf's proposal would also index the minimum to inflation, so it would keep pace with the cost of living.

Cooper says one study looked at 600 pairs of counties along state borders, and the higher minimum didn't cause significant job losses. He says researchers found that with the higher wages, employers are getting lower turnover and higher productivity, more than enough to make up for the cost of the higher pay.

And he says many minimum-wage employers are in businesses that see higher consumer demand when low-income families have more money.

"That means there's more customers coming through the door, in the retail sector in particular and in fast food,” he explains. “Presumably, a lot of those workers go out and shop in retail and buy fast food."

Cooper says the federal minimum wage hasn't been raised in years. He says since Pennsylvania still uses the federal minimum, that suggests Wolf's proposal shouldn't cause problems.

"Just strictly in purchasing-power terms, we could have a minimum wage of at least $10 an hour, or $10.10, as was talked about in Pennsylvania, and we would be no higher than we were 50 years ago," he stresses.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

If Judiciary Committee Delays Restrepo Vote, Blame Pat Toomey

The following is re-posted with permission from People for the American Way Senior Legislative Counsel Paul Gordon, originally posted on their "People For Blog" on Tuesday, June 23, 2015.  

The Judiciary Committee has announced that it will hold an executive meeting this Thursday morning, and a vote on Third Circuit nominee L. Felipe Restrepo is on the agenda.
But with very, very few exceptions, President Obama’s judicial nominees have learned that being scheduled for a committee vote is not a guarantee that the vote will happen.  In fact, once Obama became president, Republicans exercised the right of the minority party to have a committee vote “held over” (delayed) by at least a week without cause in all but 12 instances for President Obama’s judicial nominees, which is an unprecedented abuse of the rules.  They have continued this practice as the majority party.
Yet there have been exceptions.  For instance, the nominee to replace Arizona’s murdered Judge Roll did not have her committee vote needlessly held over.  Nor did six Arizona nominees up for a vote on the same day last year at a time when that state was facing a judicial emergency.  In those cases, the state’s senators were willing to ask their fellow Republicans not to hold up vitally important committee votes.  Politics and partisanship took a back seat on those days.
There surely isn’t any doubt about the need to fill the Third Circuit vacancy as soon as possible.  It has been formally designated a judicial emergency by the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts, meaning there just aren’t enough judges to handle the caseload.
Plus there’s a ticking clock: On July 1, Judge Marjorie Rendell will be taking senior status, thus creating yet another vacancy on a court that isn’t effectively handling the first one.  As for Restrepo himself, he has the strong support of his home state senators, Democrat Bob Casey and Republican Pat Toomey.
With the Senate out next week for its Independence Day recess, holding the vote over will delay it by at least two weeks, to July 9.  Why should Judge Restrepo’s committee vote be delayed for two weeks?
This is an opportunity for Pat Toomey to show leadership.  He can – and should – push for a committee vote this week.  If he has any influence among his colleagues, they will listen to him.
Pat Toomey says he supports this nomination.  His words have been wonderful.  But now is the time for deeds, not words.


Monday, June 22, 2015

Just the Facts On Wolf's Budget, Ma'am

Dan Heyman, Public News Service (PA)

PHOTO: New, simple-to-understand fact sheets have been compiled that list the effects Gov. Tom Wolf's budget would have on each part of the state. Photo courtesy Pennsylvania General Assembly.
PHOTO: New, simple-to-understand fact sheets have been compiled that list the effects Gov. Tom Wolf's budget would have on each part of the state. Photo courtesy Pennsylvania General Assembly.
HARRISBURG, Pa. – The rhetoric's getting thick around Gov. Tom Wolf's big budget package, but the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center says it can help.

The organization has produced easy-to-understand two-page "Budget Fact Sheets" that detail the effects that Wolf's complex proposal would have on each state House and Senate district.

Stephen Herzenberg, executive director of the Keystone Research Center, says the summaries show what each legislative and school district would get in terms of new funding, and how much property tax relief a typical homeowner in that community could expect. He says the "plain facts" are there to help Pennsylvanians decide for themselves.

"Break outside the partisan fencing in Harrisburg," Herzenberg advises. "Don't listen to the governor's spin, don't listen to the criticism the governor's receiving. These are the facts; people can rely on this information and draw their own conclusions."

The fact sheets can be found on the center's website.

In one example, the fact sheets for Titusville show that school district would get $550,000 more, and a typical homeowner there would pay nearly $300 less in property taxes.

Some have criticized the new natural-gas severance tax that would pay for part of that. But Titusville School District Superintendent Karen Jez says in the past few years, they've had to lay off one of every six staffers.

"We went from class sizes of 20, 21 at the elementary to, this coming year, we have class sizes of 28 at the elementary," says Jez. "If we actually would see the money, it certainly would help us moving in the right direction."

Jez adds the district is concerned that the property tax relief is done in the right way, so it can continue to rely on that income in the future.

Along with a number of other changes, Gov. Wolf also has proposed raising the minimum wage. The fact sheets include the percentage of workers in each district who could expect a bump.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Reforms Aim to End Pennsylvania Civil Forfeiture Abuses

 Dan Heyman, Public News Service (PA)

MAP: According to an analysis by the ACLU of Pennsylvania, civil asset forfeiture in a city like Philadelphia is costing innocent residents millions in cash and property every year, with an outsized proportion coming from poor and African-American neighborhoods and citizens. Map courtesy of the ACLU of Pennsylvania.
MAP: According to an analysis by the ACLU of Pennsylvania, civil asset forfeiture in a city like Philadelphia is costing innocent residents millions in cash and property every year, with an outsized proportion coming from poor and African-American neighborhoods and citizens. Map courtesy of the ACLU of Pennsylvania.
HARRISBURG, Pa. - Police departments in Pennsylvania are taking millions of dollars of property every year from people who haven't been convicted of any crime. But lawmakers from both parties are backing legislation to change that.

Civil liberties groups say civil asset forfeiture in Pennsylvania at the state and local level has totaled $25 million in a single year. Andy Hoover, legislative director with the ACLU of Pennsylvania, says Senate Bill 869 would require a criminal conviction before police can take ownership of money or property. He says people are often amazed how often that doesn't happen now.

"In Philadelphia, in over 300 cases we randomly selected, one third of those cases did not involve a conviction of the property owner," he says. "This is a real problem."

According to the analysis by the state ACLU, asset forfeiture lands hardest on poor people and African-Americans. Hoover describes this as a basic violation of due process rights.

"That's why this reform that's being introduced is so important," says Hoover. "It will ensure people's due process rights are protected, and that their property rights are protected by requiring a conviction before their property is forfeited."

According to Hoover, since police departments get the proceeds of forfeitures, they have an incentive to do more of it.

Hoover says one provision of the new legislation would route forfeiture money to the general fund of the overseeing governmental body, the county, or the commonwealth – and this would help remove any profit motive. He also says requiring criminal guilt would mean police could still have civil asset forfeiture as a crime-fighting tool, while reducing the abuse.

"They can still use this tool, but they will have to get a conviction," he says. "When people they hear about this, they respond, 'This is just common sense. Of course you should convict someone of a crime before you take their property.'"

Police contend civil asset forfeiture is an important crime-fighting tool. But Hoover says it's reached the point where police and district attorneys in the commonwealth now expect those funds to be built into annual budgets.