Five things the Legislature can do to make Pennsylvanians’ lives measurably better in 2021 | John L. Micek

December 30, 2020 11:50 am

Angel Rivera, a 20-year old Harrisburg resident, holds a sign in front of the state Capitol on June 1, 2020 (Capital-Star photo).

In just a few days, lawmakers in the state House and Senate will be sworn into office, kicking off a two-year legislative session that, if past is prologue (and it almost always is), will be replete with bridge and bypass renamings, votes to declare June the official month of something-or-other, and plenty of partisan sound and fury signifying nothing much at all.

But if 2020, for all its horror, pain, trauma and frustration taught us anything at all, it’s that government, when it functions at its best, can move swiftly and reasonably efficiently to do the most good for the largest number of people.

As I observed back in April, congressional authorization of the CARES Act was an affirmation that government can move affirmatively to make people’s lives measurably better. And once that door was thrown open, there are fewer excuses not to do it again.

It’s also a truism that the Legislature, whose mitts are in almost every sector of life here in the Commonwealth, is best-positioned to improve the lives of nearly 13 million Pennsylvanians as the level of government that’s closest to the people.

And, as my friend and colleague Jan Murphy, of PennLive, reported earlier this week, lawmakers did just that, as they enacted a law cracking down on human trafficking, among other measures. As the Capital-Star’s Stephen Caruso reported back in July, lawmakers also approved, and Gov. Tom Wolf signed, a suite of police training and hiring reforms that were a first step on a much longer road.

So as the 203 members of the House and 50 members of the Senate get ready to return to work in 2021, here are a few modest suggestions on how they can best channel their energies to do the maximum amount of good right away.

Hold an honest debate on pandemic relief

Republicans who control the General Assembly spent much of 2020 squabbling with the Wolf administration over its pandemic management policies. By year’s end, that squabbling had devolved into a series of pointless and time-wasting veto override votes and mask-less and symbolic rallies that failed to produce measurable change. And given the choice during November’s budget debate, lawmakers who pleaded for assistance to business owners socked by the pandemic’s economic ravages, instead opted to spend the state’s remaining $1.3 billion in CARES Act money to backfill state police, corrections officers and public health employees’ salaries, the Capital-Star’s Stephen Caruso reported at the time.

In December, Democrats in the state Senate rolled out an ambitious, $4 billion, debt-funded relief proposal that would, among other things, provide nearly $2 billion in enhanced unemployment benefits and aid to businesses. A few weeks later, two Democratic lawmakers in the state House proposed a $200 million grant program, funded through the state’s Rainy Day Fund, for restaurant and bar owners struggling under the weight of indoor dining restrictions and rising case loads.

While it’s true that Congress has approved, and President Donald Trump has signed, a $900 billion stimulus program, lawmakers should treat that federal action as the beginning, rather than the end, of the good they can do for Pennsylvania.

Republicans have spent much of the past six weeks bleating about non-existent fraud in races that not only saw them safely re-elected, but also resulted in GOP wins in two of the three statewide row offices. Imagine if they put as much energy into solving a problem that actually exists.

Finally repeal the death penalty

Pennsylvania hasn’t executed anyone since Philadelphia torture-killer Gary Heidnik went willingly to the death chamber in 1999. A moratorium on executions imposed during the first year of Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration brought the state’s already grinding and expensive machinery of death to a complete halt. And as a new report by the Death Penalty Information Center makes clear, executions nationwide fell to historic lows during the pandemic as public opinion continued to turn against society’s ultimate sanction. And policymakers listened. Colorado, for instance, became the 22nd state to abolish capital punishment, this year.

There is no question now that the death penalty is racist and classist, with with almost half the defendants executed in 2020 being people of color, and 76 percent of the executions were for the deaths of white victims. There is also a profound innocence problem, as the DPIC report makes clear: “Five people were exonerated from death row in 2020, bringing the number of people exonerated from death row to 172 since 1973. In each of the five cases, prosecutorial misconduct contributed to the wrongful conviction,” researchers found.

Last session, the unlikely pair of Rep. Chris Rabb, a Black progressive from Philadelphia, and Frank Ryan, a white conservative from Lebanon County, partnered on an abolition bill. Capital punishment remains the last criminal justice reform blindspot in a General Assembly that has taken some admirable steps to fix a broken system. For all practical purposes, Pennsylvania does not have the death penalty. There should be no issue, save for a lack of political courage, in getting rid of a non-functioning statute.

Legalize recreational Cannabis 

I mean, c’mon, if New Jersey can do it … and it’ll give Lt. Gov. John Fetterman one less thing to tweet about. Senate Republicans could take that, and the roughly $600 million in revenue gleaned from legalization, and declare a win.

Approve this Constitutional amendment — not that one

Quick can you rattle off the names of the appellate judges you voted for in 2019? Can you even name four members of Pennsylvania’s Superior or Commonwealth Courts? I’m guessing no — which just underlines the inanity of our current system of electing judges, which forces allegedly impartial jurists to raise money and wage nearly information-free campaigns for office, where the real beneficiaries are members of the trial bar and deep-pocketed corporate interests and not the voters.

Now, there’s real movement afoot to make a bad system even worse with a GOP-backed effort to amend the state constitution to elect judges by region, rather than statewide. Critics warn that such a change would result in a dangerously politicized court system, WHYY-FM reported this week.

The “lack of strict mapping criteria,” in the proposal, or “any protections for racial and language minorities — combined with a total lack of transparency in the mapping process — amounts to an open invitation to legislators to engage in partisan gerrymandering in order to increase the likelihood that candidates of their political party will be elected to the courts,” Patrick Beaty, of the good government group Fair Districts PA, wrote in a Dec. 6 op-Ed for the Capital-Star.

If lawmakers are going to expend the energy on the rightfully difficult process of amending the state’s foundational document, their attention would be better directed to a proposal by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne, that would open a two-year window for civil litigation filed by the adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse. The proposed amendment won approval in the House and Senate in this year’s legislative session. Another round of approval in the 2021 session would put it before the voters as early as next spring’s primary election.

If the intent is to do the most good for the most people, Baker’s proposed amendment, which would impact thousands of people statewide, is the obvious priority over a nakedly political amendment that no one, save partisans and special interests, is crying out to have passed.

Fix special education funding

I’ve always been a huge fan of Hubert Humphrey’s maxim that the “moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in shadows of life, the sick, the needy, and the handicapped.”

So even as many Pennsylvania school districts struggled to tame rising pension costs and deal with stagnant tax revenues, the state also saddled them with shouldering the rising cost of educating students living with disabilities — without giving them the financial assistance to handle it, a new report concludes.

The state’s 501 school districts boosted their special education spending by $2 billion between 2009 and 2019, but state aid during that same period grew by just $110 million, concludes the Dec. 3 report by the Education Law Center and PA Schools Work, citing the most recent state data.

The state budget approved in November includes more than $1.1 billion in funding for special education programs. Because of the pandemic, the line item is funded at the same level as it was in the 2019-20 fiscal year.

Advocates have complained for years that the state is underfunding special education, and have called for the funding formula to be updated to provide a more level playing field for students with special needs.

In 2019, a joint analysis by the Education Law Center and Research for Action, a policy research group in Philadelphia, concluded that the formula “does not accurately account for district poverty. As a result, state special education funding does not fulfill its intended purpose of addressing funding disparities resulting from differences in local wealth.”

Analysts argued that the state needed annual funding increases of $100 million a year or more to keep pace with rising costs. This is a debate that should be moved to the front of the queue in 2021.

As I also noted in April, merely reopening after the pandemic isn’t enough. This new time calls for a reset on everything. The dawning of a new year offers just such an opportunity. The 253 members of the General Assembly should not squander it.

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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.