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.