Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Who's been naughty in Harrisburg? Who's been nice?

It has been a busy December for the Pennsylvania legislature. They have delivered a number of legislative gifts—good and bad—to the boys and girls of our state. Some were painful setbacks for civil liberties like the final passage SB 732, which restricts reproductive health care access for women by altering the legal regulations for abortion clinics, and the passage of SB 1183, which was signed by the governor yesterday and requires lifetime registration for juveniles who commit certain sex crimes. But there were a few victories too. Here’s a recap of some of the action this month.  

The Naughty 

Abortion: House Bill 1977 passed the House; Senate Bill 732 passed both House and Senate. HB 1977 bars insurance plans in the health insurance exchange created by federal healthcare reform from covering abortions, with narrow exceptions for rape, incest, and imminent death. Of course, the health insurance exchange doesn’t actually exist in Pennsylvania yet. But just in case the legislature decides to create it, anti-choice advocates in the House wanted to be certain that women couldn’t buy insurance to cover their reproductive health care needs.

SB 732 has been called the worst thing to happen for women’s health in the Commonwealth since the Abortion Control Act passed in 1982. It requires clinics that provide abortion care to comply with hugely expensive and medically unnecessary new regulations. No medical organization supports it, and professional associations, including the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, actively oppose the regulations. Undeterred, SB 732’s advocates insisted it somehow protects women and voted it through the House and Senate. It now awaits a signature or a veto from Governor Corbett.  

Juveniles: Yesterday the governor signed Senate Bill 1183, implementing the federal Adam Walsh Act in Pennsylvania. This is a bill that, among other things, requires lifetime registration for juvenile sex offenders. The recidivism rate for juvenile sex offenders is only around 1%, and the collateral consequences of registration (problems finding employment, housing, etc.) can be devastating. At least two states, Texas and New York, have informed the federal government that they will not implement AWA. In Ohio, the first state to implement the law, legal costs to fight off lawsuits alone have cost the state $10 million. If Ohio had not complied with the law, it would have lost $935,000 in federal grant funding.

Meanwhile, the Pennsylvania General Assembly did not hold a single public hearing on the legislation.

The Nice 

Capital punishment: The Senate adopted Senate Resolution 6, which calls for a study of capital punishment in the Commonwealth. The resolution creates a task force to study issues including the cost effectiveness of capital punishment, whether there is bias in the selection of defendants for capital trials, and a number of other important issues. We hope that the study will shine more sunlight on how the death penalty functions in Pennsylvania, which is badly.  

The … Ambiguous 

Immigration: The bad news is that Senate Bill 9, which makes it a felony for an unauthorized alien to possess a public benefits card, passed the House State Government Committee on Dec. 6. We oppose SB 9 because of the risk that it will cause public agencies to deny benefits to people who are entitled to them, because either they lack ID or because the administrative burden of complying with SB 9 would slow down public agencies. The good news is that other, even more radical anti-immigration legislation hasn’t been moving forward lately. Hopefully the legislators have realized how devastating anti-immigration legislation has been in Alabama, Arizona, and Georgia, and will refrain from doing anything so detrimental to our economic recovery.  

Voting Rights: House Bill 934, which requires photo ID to vote, is another solution in search of a problem. The Senate State Government Committee passed it on Dec. 12 by one vote, and the bill is now in the Senate Appropriations Committee. There’s no evidence that in-person voter fraud is a problem in Pennsylvania, and legislators may realize that spending state money to implement this unnecessary law isn’t a good idea. We’ll see what happens.

So here’s our New Year’s toast to Harrisburg: “2011 wasn’t as bad as it could have been, though it was plenty bad. Thanks for being done for the year. Also, feel free to take it easy in 2012. In fact, if you’d like to just stay home, we wouldn’t hold it against you.”

Nathan Vogel, Frankel Legislative Fellow, Philadelphia


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