By PA Independent Staff
HARRISBURG — Unemployment in Pennsylvania and the state’s voter ID law are up this week — the jobless rate climbed to 7.9 percent and Commonwealth Court upheld the controversial law — but lawmakers’ behavior and the state’s spending on lobbying in Washington, D.C., are both down.
Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson on Wednesday upheld Pennsylvania’s new voter ID law because plaintiffs challenging the law did not meet the requirements to obtain an injunction.
Those plaintiffs filed an appeal with the state Supreme Court on Thursday.
In a 70-page decision, Simpson wrote that plaintiffs did not clearly establish that “disenfranchisement was immediate or inevitable” as a result of the new law.
During nearly two weeks of hearings on the law, plaintiffs argued it was passed without adequate time for all Pennsylvanians to comply with its requirements before the November elections.
They also argued the law was passed to give a partisan advantage to Republican candidates, because groups more likely to vote Democratic — including minorities, women, students and the elderly — were less likely to have official state identification.
“Given clear evidence that impersonation fraud is not a problem, we had hoped that the court would show greater concern for the hundreds of thousands of voters who will be disenfranchised by this law,” said Witold Walczak, legal director for the ACLU of Pennsylvania, which represented the plaintiffs — most of whom poor Philadelphians — in the case.
Simpson wrote that plaintiffs “did an excellent job of ‘putting a face’ to those burdened by the new requirement,” but he could not decide the case purely on sympathy for the witnesses.
State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, R-Butler, the sponsor of the law, approved by the General Assembly in March, said the court ruling was a victory for the people of the state.
Pennsylvania may have trimmed some pork, but it still leads the nation in federal lobbying spending.
Data from the Center for Responsive Politics, a research organization that tracks money in politics, shows Pennsylvania government and associated agencies spent $320,000 on federal lobbying so far this year.
The figure includes $120,000 in taxpayer dollars from the commonwealth itself, and an additional $200,000 spent by the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency.
These figures are a sharp departure from state and agency spending under the Rendell administration, which spent $1.98 million in 2008 and $1.48 million each in 2009 and 2010. In those days, the state contracted with multiple lobbying firms — and it was the top spender out of all 50 states.
The Corbett administration saw lobbying on behalf of the state government and its subsidiary agencies as an area of cost savings, as it trimmed the budget, said Kelli Roberts, the administration’s deputy director of communications.
Lawmakers caught abusing salary perks, wives
State Rep. Mark Cohen, D-Philadelphia, was singled out in a report by ABC-27 of Harrisburg this week for collecting $39,000 in per diem payments during the 2011-12 fiscal year, which ended June 30.
Cohen collected per diems on several days when the Legislature was not in session, including nearly every Sunday, many Saturdays, Mother’s Day, Fourth of July and the day after Christmas, according to the news report.
Per diems are meant to cover the cost of food and lodging for lawmakers, who have to travel from their districts to conduct official business in Harrisburg. Legislators can qualify for up to $158 per day and do not have to submit receipts for their expenses, unless they chose to do so.
In a separate story, state Rep. Joe Brennan, D-Lehigh, is in trouble for a different kind of abuse.
Brennan was arrested this week for allegedly beating his wife and drunken driving in a suburb of Allentown. He was charged with simple assault, harassment and driving under the influence. He was released on $7,500 bail on Thursday.
At the time of the incident, tests showed Brennan’s blood-alcohol level to be 0.20 percent, above the legal limit of 0.08 percent, according to police reports.
Brennan was arrested in June 2011 for drunken driving, pleaded guilty in November 2010 to reckless driving after a crash in Bethlehem involving his state vehicle. He also was charged in March 2003 with stealing cigarettes and razors from a Lehigh County store, according to news reports.
Unemployment jumps to 7.9 percent in PA for July
Pennsylvania’s unemployment rate increased to 7.9 percent in July, up from 7.6 percent in June, according to numbers released by the state Department of Labor and Industry on Friday.
Despite the increase, the state unemployment rate is down from 8.1 percent in July 2011, and remained lower than the current national rate of 8.3 percent.
The increase in unemployment was the result of two facts, both of which moved in the wrong direction during July in Pennsylvania. The state lost about 3,000 jobs during the month, while the labor force grew by about 10,000 at the same time.
The state’s unemployment rate hit a three-year low of 7.4 percent in May, but has steadily climbed in the past two months.
Political observers say the choice of Wisconsin U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan as GOP hopeful Mitt Romney’s running mate will have little effect on the outcome of the presidential election in Pennsylvania, even as both political parties are using the selection to galvanize voters who are growing weary of both candidates.
With Pennsylvania still hanging just outside a core group of “toss-up” states likely to determine the outcome of the election in November, Romney’s selection of Ryan, a seven-term congressman from southeastern Wisconsin, brings budgetary issues and the future of Medicare into sharper focus as key campaign issues, several political observers told PA Independent on Monday.
“In some ways, it could be a move that pushes Pennsylvania further out of the picture for 2012,” said Chris Borick, a pollster and professor of political science at Muhlenberg College in Allentown.
With Romney trailing in Pennsylvania — a state that has gone Democratic in presidential elections since 1992 — by between 4 and 6 percentage points on average, Ryan’s selection could not only alienate older Pennsylvania voters but be a sign that the campaign is discounting its chances of winning the commonwealth’s 20 electoral votes.
A Republican lawmaker wants to end the free ride for families of state university professors and employees.
Some 2,569 tuition waivers — worth more than $10.1 million — were granted in the 2010-2011 school year, according to PASSHE data.
Roae said state colleges should end the free ride for students, who, in some cases, are “children of tenured professors who earn more than $100,000 a year,” he said.
Contact Eric Boehm at Eric@PAIndependent.com or Melissa Daniels at Melissa@PAIndependent.com and follow us on Twitter @PAIndependent.