By PA Independent Staff
HARRISBURG — The long legal battle over Pennsylvania’s new voter ID might finally be resolved — at least until after the election in November.
A ruling on the controversial new provision was the top story this week, but campaigns continue to heat up with the election fewer than five weeks away. Many are wondering if Republican U.S. Senate candidate Tom Smith’s recent poll surge can be sustained through the final month of the race.
On the legislative front, lawmakers approved more borrowing — which taxpayers will eventually have to repay — and a move to eliminate school property taxes hit a major roadblock.
An order released Tuesday morning from Commonwealth Court Judge Robert Simpson determines the state is providing enough access to IDs, but places a partial injunction on language that applies to those without ID who would’ve cast a provisional ballot.
The injunction means voters who do not obtain ID can still have their vote count in this election. Previously, voters without ID could cast a provisional ballot and show state-issued ID within six days of the election to have their vote count, but Simpson’s order enjoins that part of the law.
The order is still subject to appeal by either party, but Gov. Tom Corbett said this week he does not plan to appeal the order.
The ruling appears to have brought more than six months of legal wrangling over the new law to an end – at least for now. The law could still be challenged on constitutional grounds after the election in November.
More than $1.6 billion in new borrowing approved
And some of that new borrowing will be directed toward a controversial program that effectively directs tax dollars to private development, while a plan to reform that practice is still waiting for lawmakers in the state Senate to act.
About $1 billion of the new borrowing will be used for public improvement projects, while the rest will be targeted for mass transit, bridge repairs and redevelopment projects included in the state’s Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program, or RACP.
The debt authorization measure does not identify specific projects to be funded with the new borrowing. Instead, these annual authorizations provide cash flow to projects that are ongoing or have been authorized in other legislation.
According to a fiscal note attached to the legislation, the new borrowing will cost more than $2.3 billion to repay over 20 years. That breaks down to $115 million in debt service annually, assuming the state can borrow the full amount at an interest rate of 3.25 percent.
Property tax reform plan comes up short, would burden renters
Estimates from the state Legislature’s Independent Fiscal Office suggest that replacing school property taxes with increases elsewhere won’t be adequate toward removing school property taxes altogether.
The IFO analysis looked at a tax-swapping proposal in House Bill 1776 and Senate Bill 1400, parallel bills pending in the Legislature.
The legislation would increase personal income taxes from 3.07 percent to 4.07 percent, sales tax from 6 percent to 7 percent, and increase the tax base to an expanded list of goods and services, such as clothing purchases of more than $50.
The legislation would leave Pennsylvania school districts $1.5 billion short in 2013-14 , and $2 billion short by 2017-18, according to the report.
The swap could help homeowners by reducing property taxes, but the higher income and sales taxes would disproportionately harm renters, according to the analysis.
Senate race: Smith needs cavalry to arrive as polls close
Smith, a farmer and former coal company executive from Armstrong County, has pulled to within 10 points of first-term U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa, according to multiple polls of voters in the state this past week.
Some observers say the race must get tighter before the national fundraisers will take notice, but with some national races leaning Democrat in recent weeks, the Smith-Casey battle could energize the Republican base.
“We’re trying to make our case,” said Chris Gleason, finance chairman for the Pennsylvania Republican Party, at a GOP gathering Friday near here. “The Republicans should have been in a better position, nationally, but we can try to take advantage of that here.”
Smith had about $2.2 million in available campaign funds at the end of June, when the last round of finance reports were filed with the Federal Election Commission. Casey had about $6.2 million on hand. New reports are due Oct. 15.
Freedom Works, a national conservative political action committee, has spent more than $4 million in support of Smith through the end of September, according to FEC filings. Meanwhile, Workers Voice, the super PAC affiliated with the AFL-CIO, a national coalition of labor unions, has spent more than $1.1 million on Casey’s campaign, according to the FEC.
Health Secretary resigns from Corbett Administration
Eli Avila announced this week he was leaving the Corbett administration after nearly two years as secretary of the state Department of Health.
Avila told the administration he was resigning to pursue other interests and to spend more time with his wife and son, who live in Albany, N.Y. Gov. Tom Corbett praised Avila’s contributions to the state and announced that Michael Wolf, the department’s executive deputy secretary, would serve as acting secretary until Corbett appoints a successor.
The secretary will be remembered for an incident at a diner across the street from the state Capitol in January 2011. The secretary was apparently dissatisfied with an egg sandwich prepared for him at the restaurant and caused a commotion. When asked to leave, he reportedly told the owner, “Do you know who I am? I’m the secretary of Health.”
City health inspectors later descended on the restaurant in response to a complaint filed by the state Department of Health, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, which broke the story.
Follow @PAIndependent on Twitter for more news