A report on the Legislative Session Week of June 22, 2015
Senate Approves Horse Racing Industry Bill
The Senate approved legislation I introduced that makes substantial regulatory changes necessary to protect and bolster Pennsylvania’s horse racing industry on Monday.
Senate Bill 352 makes a number of substantial and essential changes to the state’s oversight of the horse racing industry. One major change dissolves the separate state commissions under the Department of Agriculture for thoroughbred and harness racing in favor of a single oversight commission.
I appreciate the support of my colleagues for this bill and hope that it will quickly move through the House and on to the Governor for enactment into law. It is time that Pennsylvania’s regulations are updated to keep pace with complex changes in the horse racing industry. My bill also makes a number of necessary changes to licensure, fines, fees and the pari-mutual tax structure to properly fund regulatory oversight and drug testing.
Senate Bill 352 is now before the House of Representatives for consideration.
Click here to hear my remarks from the Senate Floor on Senate Bill 352. Click here to watch my remarks from the Senate Floor on Senate Bill 352.
Senate Approves Bill Addressing Punitive Damages Against Care Facilities
The Senate approved legislation I introduced that addresses punitive damages awards against personal care facilities on Thursday by a vote of 40-9.
Senate Bill 747 requires the state Insurance Commissioner to investigate the awarding of punitive damages in cases brought within the health care industry over the past 10 years and caps punitive damages in cases against personal care homes, assisted living communities, long-term care nursing facilities and their employees and officials at 250 percent of the compensatory damages awarded in a lawsuit.
I appreciate the support of my colleagues for this bill, especially Senate President Pro Joe Scarnati and Banking and Insurance Committee Chairman Don White. Frivolous lawsuits are draining valuable resources from the state and impacting our ability to provide essential care for our citizens. Without controls in place, care providers can face unlimited amounts of punitive damages. That risk is so great that most will be forced to settle cases that normally they would not. This won’t stop justified cases from being filed, but will reduce the frivolous cases.
The cap on punitive damages was sparked by the actions of a Florida-based law firm which placed ads in newspapers, targeting Pennsylvania care facilities. The Pennsylvania Health Care Association has tracked 33 full-page advertisements attacking over 40 nursing facilities just since the beginning of 2015. Resulting lawsuits from similar ads drained more than $91 million from the state in 2013, money that could have been better utilized for patient care.
911 Reauthorization Measure Sent to Governor
Legislation reauthorizing the Emergency 9-1-1 System in Pennsylvania received final legislative approval this week and was sent to the Governor for enactment into law.
The Senate concurred on House amendments to House Bill 911 on Thursday wrapping up an extensive process that involved several committee meetings and substantial changes to the bill in both chambers of the General Assembly.
The current fee on wireless devices is set to expire on June 30, 2015, unless the law is reauthorized. House Bill 911 would set the fee at $1.65 a month per device.
Also receiving final legislative approval this week were two bills intended to help needy veterans through the sales of a special motorcycle license plate.
Senate Bill 284 authorizes the special “Honoring Our Veterans” license plate for motorcycles and Senate Bill 285 allocates a portion of the funds raised through sales of the plate to the Veterans Trust Fund. The trust fund assists veterans in need of help with food, utilities, mortgage or rent payments, health care and other necessities of life.
Other bills sent to the Governor this week include:
House Bill 131, a measure that provides in-state tuition rates at community colleges and state-related/state-owned institutions of higher learning for veterans, their spouses and dependent children.
Senate Bill 397, a measure that would privatize and regulate the Bail Bondsman industry in Pennsylvania.
Senate Approves Direct Wine Shipments to Consumers
The Senate approved legislation on Wednesday that would allow the direct shipment of wines in Pennsylvania. House Bill 189 would allow all wineries to apply for a license to deliver wine directly to customers. Shippers would be required to verify the customer’s age and mark packaging to indicate its contents.
Currently, out-of-state wine retailers may obtain a direct shipper’s permit through the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board. However, the permit limits the amount of wine to be shipped and excludes any wines currently available for sale through state-owned stores. In addition, wine cannot be shipped directly to a resident’s home, but must be picked up at a state-owned store by the purchaser.
The bill returns to the House of Representatives for concurrence on Senate amendments.
Senate Passes Bills Supporting Emergency Responders
The Senate passed two bills this week intended to help Pennsylvania’s volunteer first responders.
On Tuesday, the Senate approved Senate Bill 299 which gives municipalities the option to reduce or waive their local earned income tax for volunteer firefighters and volunteers at nonprofit emergency medical service agencies.
Under the legislation, municipalities would have the authority to set the amount of the tax credit and the guidelines of the program, including specifying the number of calls to which a volunteer must answer and the level of training they must have.
On Wednesday, the Senate approved legislation that would expand the timeframe restriction on state grants for local fire departments and ambulance services that merge operations.
Currently, if two or more fire and/or EMS companies merge, the newly formed entity is authorized to continue to receive an individual grant from the state Fire and EMS Grant Program for up to five years after the merger. For example, if three fire companies merge and each received $12,000 from the grant program, the new entity would be entitled to receive the total amount of $36,000 for five years. At the end of the five-year period, the newly formed fire company would only receive $12,000.
Senate Bill 370 extends the sunset provision to 10 years.
Both bills now go to the House of Representatives for consideration.
Senate Passes Measure Supporting Rape Victims
The Senate approved legislation on Wednesday that will strengthen the rights of rape victims who have conceived a child as a result of the rape.
Under Senate Bill 663, also known as the Rape Survivor Child Custody and Support Act, courts could terminate the parental rights of a convicted rapist, thereby eliminating the abuser’s access to full, partial, or supervised custody of a child conceived by rape. The measure maintains an offender’s obligation to pay child support even if parental rights are terminated by court order.
Current law only allows for the termination of parental rights of convicted rapists pending adoption. Furthermore, if the parental rights of the offender are terminated, the obligation to pay child support is also terminated.
Senate Bill 663 now goes to the House of Representatives for consideration.
Other bills approved by the Senate this week and sent to the House include:
Senate Bill 77 provides regulatory relief for the beagle trainers.
Senate Bill 129 amends the County Pension Law to clarify that county pension cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) need not be calculated retroactively.
Senate Bill 307, which requires the appointment of an independent counsel to the Environmental Quality Board.
Senate Bill 356, which amends the Local Tax Enabling Act to further provide for filings and quarterly payments of the local earned income tax by persons who make their living from farming.
Senate Bill 398, which redesigns driver’s license and identification card applications to include the question “Do you wish to have organ donor designation printed on your driver’s license?” It also requires the addition to all forms the following: “Pennsylvania strongly supports organ and tissue donation because of its life-saving and life-enhancing opportunities.”
Senate Bill 524 addresses the ongoing substance abuse problem in communities across the Commonwealth by better utilizing FDA-approved medications for the prevention of relapse to opioid dependence.
Senate Bill 609, which creates the Prostate Cancer Surveillance, Education, Detection and Treatment Act.
Senate Bill 655, which amends the Fiscal Code to extend the expiration date for the State Workers’ Insurance Fund to invest in equities to June 30, 2019.
Senate Bill 737, which allows for the limited use of semi-automatic sporting rifles for hunting coyotes and woodchucks.
Senate Bill 775, which updates and revises the Third Class City Code.
Senate Bill 792, which amends the First Class Township Code to further provide for property maintenance codes, reserved powers, and the Uniform Construction Code.
Senate Bill 793, which amends the Second Class Township Code to further provide for property maintenance codes, reserved powers, and the Uniform Construction Code.
Senate Bill 875, which promotes the beneficial use of treated mine water in oil and gas operations by clarifying liabilities associated with this water source.
Senate Adopts Government Reform Resolution
The Senate adopted a Senate Resolution on Wednesday that would review the numerous state boards and commissions with an eye toward providing savings to the Commonwealth.
Senate Resolution 138 directs the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee to study the Commonwealth’s board and commission members’ salaries, compensation, and fringe benefits, such as health care and pensions.
With more than 250 independent and departmental boards and commissions, Pennsylvania has panels in place to monitor a plethora of professional activities and a wide array of issues, yet the Commonwealth does not track the costs of running those various panels.
Senate Confirms State Treasurer
The Senate confirmed the nomination of Timothy Reese to serve as state Treasurer on Friday. Reese fills the vacancy created when Rob McCord resigned on January 30 before pleading guilty to federal extortion charges. The term runs through 2016.