Commentary & Community

Vice Presidential Candidates Spar over Fracking

The topic of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, was a heated one during last night’s vice presidential debates.

Vice President Mike Pence accused Joe Biden of wanting to ban fracking. Biden’s running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, said that wasn’t true. Fracking is used by energy companies to produce oil and natural gas. The process involves injecting a highly-pressurized mixture of water, sand, and chemicals into underground shale rock to break it up and release oil or, more commonly, natural gas.


The use of fracking has been primarily responsible for the large increase in U.S. petroleum production over the past decade. It has made it much cheaper to access oil and natural gas in shale rock, leading to increased production and lower prices. However, residents in communities where fracking has occurred blame it for earthquakes, polluted water, and health problems. It is especially important in Pennsylvania, where a significant energy industry is based on fracking's use.


President Trump has opposed any efforts to ban fracking or curtail its use on federal land. Biden’s platform does not call for an outright ban on fracking, but does say he will stop any federal oil or gas leasing on federal land. It also supports moving away from the use of fossil fuels. Prior to being chosen as the Democratic vice presidential nominee, Harris did say that she was in favor of banning fracking.


There is a push among Progressive Democrats to prohibit fracking. During the vice presidential debate, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted that fracking was bad. She has introduced legislation that would outlaw the practice.


Do you support banning fracking?


Judge Rules Pennsylvania Coronavirus Shutdown Orders Unconstitutional

This week, a federal judge struck down some of Pennsylvania's coronavirus shutdown orders, finding that they violated the Constitution.


In his ruling, U.S. District Judge William Stickman IV held that Gov. Tom Wolf went too far in ordering businesses to close and people to stay home. While acknowledging that there was an emergency that prompted these orders, he said, "the solution to a national crisis can never be permitted to supersede the commitment  to individual liberty that stands as the foundation of the American experiment."


This ruling affects the governor's orders to close businesses, limit outdoor gatherings, and require people to stay at home. Other orders, such as the state's mask mandate, remain in effect.


Gov. Wolf expressed disappointment in the ruling, contending that these orders are vital in stopping the spread of coronavirus. Legislators and business owners who had sued applauded the ruling, saying it justified their claims that the governor was exceeding his legal authority.


The disagreement over the extent of Gov. Wolf's orders mirrors debates happening in other states over coronavirus-related restrictions. This ruling by a federal judge is the first of its kind in finding that a state's orders violate the U.S. Constitution.


Do you think that stay-at-home orders and business shutdown mandates are unconstitutional?

Trump Pushes for School Choice in State of the Union Speech

Proponents of school choice received a boost from President Trump during his State of the Union Address.


In his speech, the president attacked Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf for vetoing an expansion of that state’s program that gives tax credits to taxpayers who donate to school scholarships. These scholarships can be used to pay for private school tuition or other education expenses. President Trump invited a Pennsylvania student and her mother to be his guest at the speech, and he argued that Gov. Wolf was trying to deny her a better education.


President Trump used this as an example of why Congress should pass national legislation that would provide tax credits for school choice scholarships. Supporters of this idea argue that it will help students escape failing public schools. They say that children from lower-income families should have the opportunity to go to private schools just as children from higher-income families do. Opponents counter that school choice is a way to undermine public schools that are open to all children. They argue that subsidizing private school tuition would, among other things, lead to less racial integration in schools.


School choice programs have expanded at the state level over the past two decades. Besides approval of a private school subsidy program for Washington, D.C., there has been little movement on this issue at the national level, however.


It is unlikely that the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives would pass school choice legislation.


Do you support national legislation that would provide tax credits for taxpayers who contribute to education scholarship funds?

Federal Judge OKs Philadelphia Safe Injection Site

In an attempt to stem opioid overdoses, cities around the county are considering allowing nonprofits to open “safe injection sites” – places where people can use opioids under the supervision of trained professionals. The Justice Department says this would violate federal law, but today a judge disagreed.


According to some public health experts, opioid overdoses and other problems that come with the use of these illegal drugs could be curtailed through the use of safe injection sites. These are areas where users take their drugs to be tested to ensure that there are no lethal additives in them and then inject the drugs under the supervision of personnel to prevent overdoses. These sites usually have substances such as naloxone to revive users if they overdose. There are no such sites in the U.S., but they exist in Canada and Europe where they are credited with saving lives.


Supporters of these sites contend that they are a way to save lives by removing much of the danger that comes from opioid use. They note that they have worked in other countries, so they should be able to be opened in the U.S. Opponents counter that these sites will simply increase drug use by making it more attractive.


A nonprofit in Philadelphia sought city permission to open such a facility. The Justice Department sued to prevent this, citing a 1986 drug law. Today a federal judge ruled that the law does not address safe injection sites, so the city could proceed in approving the nonprofit’s request.


The Justice Department can appeal this decision.


Do you support safe injection sites for opioid users in order to reduce overdoses and other problems? Or do these places encourage more drug use?

Pennsylvania Governor Signs Gun Control Bill

It will soon be tougher for Pennsylvanians convicted of misdemeanor domestic abuse or who have a protection from abuse order against them to access firearms.


Governor Tom Wolf recently signed a bill into law that would require anyone covered by these two conditions to relinquish their firearms to the police or a licensed gun dealer within 24 hours. Previously they had 60 days to relinquish their firearms and they could give them to a family member or someone else.


This new law would set a $5,000 penalty for someone who fails to comply. It would allow the gun owner to request his or her firearms back after the relinquishment period is over. If they do not do so, then they will forfeit them.


Supporters of the law argue that it is necessary because domestic abusers would give their firearms to a friend or family member, but could easily have access to them. They say that forcing abusers to turn over their guns to police within 24 hours will protect abuse victims. Opponents of the bill argued that it would be more practical to have a 48-hour surrender period and allow someone to relinquish his or her guns to a friend instead of law enforcement.


This legislation has earned praise from David Hogg, the former student of Parkland high school in Florida who became a gun control activists after a shooting at his school.


Do you think that people convicted of domestic abuse should be forced to turn their guns over to the police? Or should they be able to surrender their guns to friends and family?

Pennsylvania Nuclear Plants to Close without Subsidies


Three Mile Island may be the most famous nuclear plant in the U.S. The site of an accident in the late 1970s that garnered worldwide attention, the plant is still producing power for Pennsylvania today. It may not remain open much longer, however. To stop this plant from closing, the nuclear industry is lobbying for a bailout from Pennsylvania lawmakers.


Facing competition from lower-priced natural gas power plants, Three Mile Island and other nuclear plants are increasingly unprofitable. The only hope to remain open that the owners of these plants see is a subsidy from the state. In arguing for state help, nuclear advocates point out that these plants generate electricity without any carbon emissions. They say that if Pennsylvania wants to combat climate change, nuclear plants are a vital part of that effort. Subsidy supporters also talk about the hundreds of jobs that will be lost with every nuclear plant closure.


These arguments have met resistance in Harrisburg. Subsidy opponents argue that nuclear plants should compete on the free market. If they cannot offer electricity to consumers at an affordable price, they should shut down. The state, these opponents say, should not prop up unprofitable businesses, and that includes nuclear power plants. Those who are against the subsidy also note that Pennsylvania is a large natural gas producer, so it should welcome the growing use of natural gas for electricity generation to replace nuclear power.


Legislators who support nuclear subsidies formed a caucus during this year’s legislative session in Harrisburg and held hearings that discussed the importance of nuclear power. Three Mile Island is scheduled to close next year, so these legislators will likely begin to press for subsidy legislation soon.


Do you think that Pennsylvania legislators should approve subsidies for nuclear power plants?


State Stops Philadelphia Flavored Tobacco Ban


Flavored tobacco products were under fire in Philadelphia earlier this year, with some council members pressing to ban their sale. This did not sit well with state legislators, however. They put an end to the talk of a flavored tobacco ban in Philadelphia by passing a state budget amendment that prevents cities from regulating tobacco.


The issue arose last year when a Philadelphia city council member held hearings on cigars and other tobacco products that have flavoring added to them. His contention was that these cigars, which may have fruit or other sweet flavors in them, were being marketed to children. He later sponsored a bill to ban the sale of flavored tobacco products in the city.


The city council never considered this bill, however, since legislators pre-empted Philadelphia’s authority to enact it. The state budget legislation contained an amendment that prohibited local governments from regulating or taxing tobacco products. That power, under this legislation, rests at the state level.


Those who support a ban on flavored tobacco say that products made from it are being marketed to children. They say that these sweet flavored appeal to young people and are used to get them addicted to tobacco. Opponents contend that this tobacco regulation is best left at the state level, not at the whims of city or county officials who could pass a variety of conflicting laws.


Do you think that cities should be able to ban flavored tobacco products?


Pennsylvania Looks to Change Judicial Elections


Voters elect legislators by districts, so should they elect appellate judges by district, too? That is the question that Pennsylvania legislators are currently considering.


As part of a larger anti-gerrymandering constitutional amendment, state senators in mid-June inserted a provision that would require appellate judges (including state Supreme Court justices) to run by district. Currently, these judges are elected statewide.


The senators who support this concept point out that most of the state appellate judges come from a few areas of the state (generally around Pittsburgh or Philadelphia). Electing them by districts, according to these legislators, would provide much-needed geographic diversity for the judicial branch.


Opponents say this is a Republican attempt to attack the Democratic-controlled state Supreme Court. They contend that there is no good reason to divide up judicial seats by geographic area, since these judges decide on statewide issues.


This proposed change to judicial elections came during consideration of a constitutional amendment that would establish a nonpartisan commission to draw election districts. The state Supreme Court recently invalidated the districts drawn by Republican legislators.


The state House of Representatives must now consider this proposed amendment. To go before voters, both houses of the General Assembly must pass an identical version of the amendment during two consecutive legislative sessions. If the House rejects the Senate’s idea, it would doom the overall nonpartisan redistricting effort.


Do you think that state Supreme Court justices should be elected statewide, or should they be elected by districts that would give more geographic diversity?


Pennsylvania May Ban Abortions Based on Down Syndrome Diagnosis


Abortion has been a controversial issue for decades, as lawmakers at the state and national level fight over laws to limit or expand access to abortion services. The latest battleground in the war over abortion is in Pennsylvania, where legislators may pass a bill limiting the procedure based on a diagnosis of Down syndrome.


Members of the Pennsylvania House Committee have advanced a bill that would prohibit doctors from performing an abortion if the woman seeking it is doing so based solely on the diagnosis that the fetus may have Down syndrome. This legislation is likely to be taken up by the full House soon.


Down syndrome is a genetic condition resulting from someone possessing three copies of chromosome 21, rather than two. Individuals with the condition experience intellectual impairment and a higher risk of childhood leukemia, among other conditions. Genetic tests can give a fairly reliable indication if a fetus has this extra chromosome. In the U.S. roughly two-thirds of the women who learn that they are carrying a baby with Down syndrome choose to abort.


The support and opposition for this bill falls along the usual lines, with many Republicans expressing a pro-life stance while many Democrats express opposition to more government restrictions on abortion. This bill is similar to laws passed in Ohio, North Dakota, Indiana, and Louisiana. In March, a federal judge has blocked Ohio’s law from going into effect after the American Civil Liberties Union filed a suit against it. Another federal judge struck down parts of Indiana’s law.


The Republican-controlled legislature passed another bill dealing with abortion in late 2017. That bill would have banned abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy, but Governor Tom Wolf, a Democrat, vetoed it. If legislators pass this bill, Gov. Wolf will probably veto it, too. There is unlikely to be enough support to override his veto.


Do you support prohibiting abortions if the woman is seeking it based on a diagnosis that the baby may have Down syndrome?



Pennsylvania Legislators Consider Arming Teachers



In the wake of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 dead, there has been a national debate about what, if any, new laws need to be passed. One result is a renewed push for gun control from some activists and politicians. Pennsylvania legislators, however, are advancing legislation that would permit school districts to arm their employees.


Under a bill passed by the state Senate, the state’s school districts would be empowered to set policies that would allow teachers and other employees to have access to firearms on school grounds. The legislator who introduced the bill represents a school where a student knife attack injured 20 people in 2014. He says that having armed staff would make the schools safer, especially in rural areas where police response time is slower.


Opponents of the legislation contend that expanding firearm access in school will provide more opportunities for killings to occur. The Pennsylvania State Education Association strongly opposes the bill, preferring instead that legislators provide more money for school safety features and more support staff.


While the bill is generally supported by Republicans in the legislature, it is opposed by Democratic Governor Tom Wolfe. He has vowed to veto the bill if both houses of the General Assembly pass it. The legislation gained the support from a majority of senators, but it did not pass by a veto-proof margin.


Do you think that allowing teachers and other school staff to be armed would reduce school shootings? Or do you think that it dangerous to allow more guns in schools?





Key Pennsylvania Votes on Budget, Regulations, and Taxes

Check out these key votes made by elected officials in Pennsylvania earlier this year, and go to to sign up and see how your elected officials voted on these and other issues that impact your daily life.


House Bill 542, Collect tax on Internet sales: Passed 102 to 88 in the House on October 17 and 29 to 21 in the Senate on October 25

To mandate that remote sellers with sales over $10,000 collect Pennsylvania’s sales tax. The bill also removes the $5 million cap on the net operating loss deduction for Pennsylvania businesses and allow the sales of fireworks to Pennsylvanians with a special 12% tax, among other things.


Senate Bill 181, Establish performance-based budget review: Passed 180 to 4 in the House and 50 to 0 in the Senate on October 25

To direct the Secretary of Budget to review agency budgets based on performance instead of on subtracting or adding to traditional spending levels. Under a performance-based review, an agency would have to show how its proposed spending is being allocated to meet certain performance goals and benchmarks. The bill would allow the Secretary to undertake a review at least once every five years, and the General Assembly could also request such a review. The bill also directs the state to undertake a review of the effectiveness of various state tax credits.


Senate Bill 561, Mandate legislative review of expensive regulations: Passed 29 to 20 in the Senate on June 13

To mandate that the General Assembly approve regulations that impose more than $1,000,000 in annual costs to the commonwealth, local governments, or the private sector.


House Bill 1071, Ban bag taxes: Passed 102 to 87 in the House on April 25

To prohibit local governments from imposing a tax, surcharge, or ban on plastic bags.


House Bill 291, Exempt children younger than 21 from inheritance tax: Passed 176 to 21 in the House on April 4

To exempt a transfer of property to a child 21 years or younger from the state’s inheritance tax.


Pennsylvania House Bill 542


Check out this key bill voted on by elected officials in Pennsylvania, check-in to the VoteSpotter app to see how your legislators voted, and comment below to share what you think!


House Bill 542, Mandate Online Sales Tax Notice: Passed 26 to 24 in the state House on July 27, 2017.


To mandate that online out-of-state companies selling to Pennsylvania customers must remind these customers that they owe the commonwealth’s sales tax on goods being purchased. In addition, these companies must send any Pennsylvania resident who spent more than $500 in a year a notice that they owe Pennsylvania sales tax.


Comment below to share what you think of Pennsylvania House Bill 542!



Pennsylvania House Bill 176


Check out this key bill voted on by elected officials in Pennsylvania, check-in to the VoteSpotter app to see how your legislators voted, and comment below to share what you think!


House Bill 176, Exempt Roadside Stands From Construction Code: Passed 48 to 0 in the state Senate on July 10, 2017. 


To allow roadside stands selling seasonal agricultural products to operate without being forced to comply with the state’s construction code.


Comment below to share what you think of Pennsylvania House Bill 176!



Pennsylvania Senate Bill 431


Check out this key bill voted on by elected officials in Pennsylvania, check-in to the VoteSpotter app to see how your legislators voted, and comment below to share what you think!


Senate Bill 431, Increase Fines for Littering: Passed 49 to 0 in the state Senate on July 8, 2017. 


To increase the fine for a first-time littering conviction from $300 to $1,000 and require that the offender pick up litter between 5 and 50 hours. For a second offense an offender could pay up to $2,000 and spend 100 hours picking up litte


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Pennsylvania Senate Bill 172


Check out this key bill voted on by elected officials in Pennsylvania, check-in to the VoteSpotter app to see how your legislators voted, and comment below to share what you think!


Senate Bill 172, Allow Speed Cameras in Some Work Areas: Passed 45 to 3 in the state Senate on 10 July, 2017. 


To allow the use of speed cameras in areas where workers are located on the roadway or shoulder areas of a limited-access highway. Anyone who is caught on a speed camera going at least 11 miles an hour over the speed limit would receive a fine of $100.


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Pennsylvania Senate Bill 383


Check out this key bill voted on by elected officials in Pennsylvania, check-in to the VoteSpotter app to see how your legislators voted, and comment below to share what you think!


Senate Bill 383, Allow Some School Employees to Carry Firearms: Passed 28 to 22 in the state Senate on June 28, 2017.


To permit local boards of education to allow some school employees to carry firearms. These employees must be licensed to carry firearms and undergo a psychological examination.


Comment below to share what you think of Pennsylvania Senate Bill 383!



Pennsylvania House Bill 121


Check out this key bill voted on by elected officials in Pennsylvania, check-in to the VoteSpotter app to see how your legislators voted, and comment below to share what you think!


House Bill 121: Mandate opioid abuse curriculum: Passed 196 to 0 in the state House on June 26, 2017


To require that students in grades 6 through 12 must be given courses in the prevention of opioid abuse and that the state must develop model curriculum for such instruction.


Comment below to share what you think of Pennsylvania House Bill 121!


Pennsylvania House Bill 1071


Check out this key bill voted on by elected officials in Pennsylvania, check-in to the VoteSpotter app to see how your legislators voted, and comment below to share what you think!


House Bill 1071, Ban bag taxes: Passed 102 to 87 in the state House on April 25, 2017 and 28 to 21 in the state Senate on June 14, 2017


To prohibit local governments from imposing a tax, surcharge, or ban on plastic bags.


Comment below to share what you think of Pennsylvania House Bill 1071!


Pennsylvania House Bill 271


Check out this key bill voted on by elected officials in Pennsylvania, check-in to the VoteSpotter app to see how your legislators voted, and comment below to share what you think!


House Bill 271, Allow Internet gambling: Passed 38 to 12 in the state Senate on May 24, 2017


To allow slot machine licensees to offer interactive gambling online and to allow gambling parlors that offer these games be placed at Pennsylvania airports. The bill also allows the state lottery to offer interactive games online and legalizes online fantasy sports games.


Comment below to share what you think of Pennsylvania House Bill 271!


Pennsylvania House Bill 1008


Check out this key bill passed by elected officials in Pennsylvania, check-in to the VoteSpotter app to see how your legislators voted, and comment below to share what you think!


House Bill 1008, Remove marriage waiting period: Passed 194 to 0 in the state House on May 23, 2017


To remove the commonwealth’s 3-day waiting period for a marriage license. The bill also allows former mayors, former or retired justices, judges or magisterial district judges to perform marriages.


Comment below to share what you think of Pennsylvania House Bill 1008!


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