Harrisburg Happenings

A report on the Legislative Session Week of January 20, 2015

Governor and Lieutenant Governor Sworn In, Committees Formed

The 2015-16 Legislative Session kicked off this week with the announcement of Senate committee assignments on Monday and the inauguration of the Governor and Lieutenant Governor on Tuesday.

Lieutenant Governor Mike Stack took his oath of office during a ceremony that started at 10:30 a.m. on Tuesday in the Senate Chamber. As part of his duties, Lieutenant Governor Stack serves as the presiding officer of the Senate when it is in session.

Governor Tom Wolf’s inaugural ceremony started at noon and was held in the plaza area around the state Capitol’s East Wing.

With all of the ceremonial functions completed, the Senate started considering legislation as four committees held meetings this week. The formation of all of the Senate’s standing committees was finalized on Monday with Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati’s announcement of committee assignments.

In addition to my chairmanship of the Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee for the 2015-16 Legislative Session. I will serve on the Appropriations, Banking & Insurance, Communications & Technology, Environmental Resources & Energy, and Local Government committees.

My committee assignments cover a wide ranges of issues that could have a direct impact on the lives of the people of western Pennsylvania. The Appropriations Committee is especially important since it is the panel within the Senate that works most closely with the state budget each year and reviews all bills that involve state spending. That is going to be critical as we face a potential $2 billion structural deficit for the coming year.

Also important for our region, especially with the development of the Marcellus Shale industry, is the work of the Environmental Resources & Energy Committee. That committee will be tasked with reviewing many of the proposals from the Wolf Administration in regards to Marcellus Shale and other environmental regulations that could impact jobs and the quality of life for local residents.

Committee Approves Oil and Gas Lease Protection bills

The Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee approved two bills on Wednesday aimed at expanding the rights of landowners who currently hold leases with natural gas companies.

Senate Bill 147 would expand the Oil and Gas Lease Act by allowing royalty interest owners the opportunity to inspect records of natural gas companies to verify proper payments. The bill also requires all royalty payments to be made within 60 days of production unless otherwise stated in the contract.  Any delinquent payments would be paid with interest.

Senate Bill 148 would prohibit a gas company from retaliating against any royalty interest owner by terminating their lease agreement or ceasing development on leased property because the owner questions the accuracy of royalty payments.  Companies violating the provisions of this bill would face civil penalties of up to $1,000 per day.

The committee also approved Senate Bill 279, legislation establishing the Penn Grade Crude Development Advisory Council, which would study existing regulations and assist the Department of Environmental Protection in making changes that better address the differences between conventional and unconventional oil and gas production.

All three bills are now before the full Senate for consideration.

Bill Would Expand Ignition Interlock Requirement

The Senate Transportation Committee approved a measure on Wednesday aimed at reducing drunk driving offenses in Pennsylvania.  Senate Bill 290 would make the ignition interlock program mandatory for first-time DUI offenders with high blood alcohol levels. Currently, the ignition interlock requirement only applies to second offenses.

SB 290 would allow some individuals to operate a vehicle while under suspension and license restriction provided that they have an approved interlock device and meet other requirements.

The committee also approved Senate Bill 286 and Senate Bill 287, measures that are part of a bi-state legislative package intended to bring greater transparency and accountability to the Delaware River Port Authority.

The bills are now before the full Senate for consideration.

Purely Public Charities Bill Sent to Senate

The Senate Finance Committee approved a measure on Thursday that would clarify the process for determining the tax-exempt status of public charities. Senate Bill 4 is now before the full Senate for consideration.

The bill specifies that the General Assembly has the exclusive right to set the parameters for an organization to qualify as a purely public charity. Under current law, organizations that meet the criteria of a purely public charity are exempt from paying property taxes.

However, a 2012 Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling created a vague new standard that charitable organizations must meet in order to qualify as a purely public charity. The controversial ruling created a great deal of confusion among charities and led many municipalities to examine whether they could begin levying real estate taxes on charitable organizations who had previously been deemed exempt.

Since the bill would amend the state Constitution, it must pass in two consecutive legislative sessions before being decided by the voters via referendum. The proposal was already approved once by the General Assembly during the 2013-14 session.

 Committee Approves Age Exemption for Jury Duty

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved a measure on Thursday that would provide an age exemption from jury duty.

Senate Bill 210 would exempt those persons 75 years of age or older who wish to be excused from jury duty. At least 26 states exempt elderly persons from serving on juries.  Generally, states have set the age qualifying for the exemption at 65, 70 or 75.  For example, in West Virginia the age is 65, in Maryland the age is 70, and in New Jersey the age is 75.

Other bills approved by the committee and sent on to the full Senate for consideration include:

Senate Bill 161 would provide immunity from civil liability for hospitals that donate for humanitarian aid medical equipment and supplies which are in good condition.

Senate Bill 166 would allow courts to grant expungement if the crime is a misdemeanor of the third or second degree and the individual has not been arrested or prosecuted for seven to ten years following the completion of the sentence or judicial supervision.

Senate Bill 180 updates and revises state law relating to organ and tissue donations.

Senate Bill 283 continues the process to amend the state Constitution to eliminate the Philadelphia Traffic Court.

Senate Bill 301 consolidates various statutes into the Administrative Procedure Code.

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