A liquor law compromise, by any other name…

Kitty Kon of Robinson browses the selection of wines at the Settler's Ridge Market District on Friday, Aug. 19, 2016.  Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Kitty Kon of Robinson browses the selection of wines at the Settler’s Ridge Market District on Friday, Aug. 19, 2016. Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review

BY KARI ANDREN  kandren@tribweb.com

In politics as in life, words are powerful.

How politicians or advocates phrase a pitch to voters can decidedly color how that idea is perceived. Consider, for example, the connotation of “gun control” versus “violence prevention” or “pro-abortion” versus “pro-choice.”

In Pennsylvania, we parse words over an issue near and dear to residents’ hearts:  booze.

In June, Gov. Tom Wolf signed a law that expands wine sales to grocery stores, allows state stores to be open longer hours and customers to get wine shipped to their doors as well as a host of other changes.

Act 39 is hailed by virtually all sides as the Great Liquor Compromise.

But if you look carefully, Republicans – who typically support fully turning over alcohol sales to private businesses – call Act 39 “privatization.”

Meanwhile Democrats, who tend to support state stores for the millions of dollars they pump into state coffers and thousands of union jobs they provide, proclaim Act 39 as “modernizing” state liquor laws.

A few examples from the last week:

“After more than 80 years of full government control, the Prohibition Era has ended and the Privatization Era has begun,” trumpeted House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Marshall, as the first grocery store wine sales launched in Robinson.

“We call it privatization — or at least steps toward privatization,” said Jenn Kocher, spokeswoman for Senate Republicans. “We understand it’s not a total accomplishment, but it’s something where we wanted to take steps in the right direction.”

Wolf, a Democrat, cheered the new law: “This historic liquor reform package … enhances the customer experience by providing Pennsylvanians with greater convenience and satisfaction.”

And Rep. Mike Hanna, D-Centre County, said: “I know many of my constituents are happy with the liquor modernization efforts that have recently taken effect.”

So who’s right?

Well, everyone.

The new law does allow a private business, like a grocery store or restaurant, to sell bottles of wine directly to the consumer for the first time. That’s at least a modicum of privatization.

On the other hand, those businesses have to buy the wine from the state Liquor Control Board. And state stores aren’t going anywhere; in fact, they will be open longer and more days a week. Those changes are part of modernization proposals bandied about for years.

“I think it’s more than semantics,” said Gerald Shuster, professor of political communications at the University of Pittsburgh. “In both cases, it fits right into the political philosophies of both parties.”

The word choice reinforces to constituents what each side was fighting for in the compromise, Shuster said.

“They both claim victory without selling out and without being critical of the other side,” he said.

As for the agency tasked with rolling out the new law?

“It’s a debate,” Board member Michael Negra told WHTM-TV reporter Dennis Owens when asked recently.

“We’re not going to get into the political fray,” said LCB spokeswoman Elizabeth Brassell. “We are implementing Act 39 as it was enacted.”

This story was first posted at 10:30 a.m. Thursday, August 25 2016

Pennsylvania Governor honors ‘Antonio Scalia’

AntonioBY DONALD GILLILAND  dgilliland@tribweb.com

Anyone who lives by writing lives in dread of the catastrophic typo.

And in the age of auto-correct, an error can proliferate… a chain reaction of embarrassing horror.

So it’s with some bit of sympathy – and benefit of the doubt – that I point out to Gov. Wolf’s communications team that the late Supreme Court Justice Scalia’s first name was Antonin – not Antonio.

In a Governor’s press release Sunday and in a blog post on his official website, the executive office in Harrisburg announced that flags across the Commonwealth should fly at half-staff “to honor Justice Antonio Scalia.”

The error appeared not only in the headline, but also in the text of the statement.

UPDATE: The error was corrected shortly after I noted it on Twitter.

In an atmosphere as partisan and toxic as Harrisburg’s at the moment, this is one of those errors that makes one cringe – because it’s so easy to read the worst into it.

I assume – I hope – the Governor and his staff know the difference.

Calls to the Governor’s office were not immediately answered: it’s Presidents’ Day.

UPDATE: The Governor’s office was not alone: in a post that proves typos are not partisan, The Hill reports that former U.S. Representative, Tea Party star and GOP presidential candidate Michelle Bachman Tweeted “God bless Anthony Scalia.”

Gov. Wolf and the war of words in Pennsylvania

wolf budget screenshotBY MELISSA DANIELS  mdaniels@tribweb.com

Gov. Tom Wolf’s 2016-2017 budget addresses was unlike any others in recent memory.

Instead of the usual outline of the fiscal policies the governor hopes to see enacted, Wolf scolded legislators and told them if they didn’t want to live up to their responsibilities, they should get another job.

In the midst of a budget stalemate with the Republican-led legislature, Wolf projected dire times to come without real action to address a $2 billion deficit. He went through the problems and pains that the lack of state funding has caused in the past eight months, and eviscerated Harrisburg for failing to take the budget crisis seriously.

But don’t take our word for it. Take a look at a word cloud created from the Governor’s speech, based on a provided copy of the text.

The message is clear.


budget address feb 2016

Republicans actually booed the governor at one point – and were at the ready to respond to reporters in Harrisburg just after the speech, when the Capitol rotunda turns into a temporary spin room for reporters to gather reactions from lawmakers, lobbyists and activists. Chances are those words will be strong, too – with the added venom of being unscripted.

Click here for the Governor’s speech in its entirety.

Preparing for the worst (and re-election) – PA budget edition

BY MELISSA DANIELS  mdaniels@tribweb.com

Experiences of the past seven months are causing Pennsylvania lawmakers to consider what will happen the next time they and the governor fail to pass an on-time budget.

With all the House and half the Senate up for re-election in 2016, many undoubtedly want to be able to tell their constituents they have a plan to prevent a similar stalemate in the future.

Senators and representatives are full of plans – here are just three from Sen. Patrick Stefano, R-Fayette County, Rep. Marguerite Quinn, R-Bucks County, and Rep. Madeleine Dean, D-Montgomery County – on what should happen if, once again, they do not have a budget in place by June 30 – from what will happen to their salaries to the treatment of state-paid entities.

State Rep. Dan McNeill, D-Lehigh County, is one of many lawmakers who says he wants to suspend pay and per diems for legislators and administration officials if a budget is not passed on a timely basis.

“Games and posturing force the citizens of Pennsylvania to view us as ineffective and as not taking the state’s collective interests seriously,” he wrote in a December co-sponsorship memo.

Sen. Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland County, has a similar proposal to suspend pay, as well as one to make budget negotiations public.

Sen. Wayne Fontana, D-Brookline, thinks the state needs to have a protocol for budget fights that might force lawmakers to get something done. A plan he circulated last week would require designated negotiating teams from the governor’s office and each of the four legislative causes to meet for at least 10 hours a day if a complete budget agreement is not in place by July 5, four days after the official start of the fiscal year.

Of the three senators mentioned above, only Ward is up for re-election this year; Stafano and Fontana will be up for re-election in 2018.

Rep. Eli Evankovich, R-Murrysville, wants to give taxpayers a little something for the troubles: if a budget isn’t enacted on time, he proposes a suspension of personal and corporate net income taxes.

“The Taxpayer (sic) has been held hostage for far too long by budget negotiations with no voice and in the end are often left with less money in their paychecks once a budget is enacted,” he wrote in a co-sponsor memo to other lawmakers.

In the spirit of preparing for the worst but hoping for the best, any of these ideas could wind up on the table: Gov. Tom Wolf has to give a budget address next month for the 2016-2017 budget year that begins in July, when much is still unresolved in this current year’s budget, including hotly debated tax hikes or increases to public education funding.

As the Trib’s Brad Bumsted reports from Harrisburg, negotiating two budgets at once is uncharted territory. What’s more, the tax hikes favored by Wolf are an unlikely sell in an election year, just one facet of a state budget – and government – in a state of deep disorganization.

Judging by their ideas for the future, it doesn’t seem like lawmakers are anticipating things will get easier any time soon.

NOTE: This post has been updated from the original to correct two typos.

Kane-appointed investigator to become judge with prosecutor who charged her?

Special Deputy Attorney General H. Geoffrey Moulton Jr. speaks on Monday, June 23, 2014, during a news conference on the results  of a probe into the Jerry Sandusky investigation as Pennsylvania  Attorney General Kathleen Kane (left) stands by.
Special Deputy Attorney General H. Geoffrey Moulton Jr. speaks on Monday, June 23, 2014, during a news conference on the results of a probe into the Jerry Sandusky investigation as Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane (left) stands by.

BY MELISSA DANIELS  mdaniels@tribweb.com

H. Geoffrey Moulton, the special deputy hired by Attorney General Kathleen Kane in 2013 to examine the Jerry Sandusky investigation conducted by her predecessors, appears on a list of nominees up for confirmation in the Pennsylvania Senate on Friday – as a nominee to become a Court of Common Pleas Judge in Montgomery County.

Appointment requires a two-thirds vote. The seat was previously held by Judge Emanuel Bertin, who hit mandatory retirement, according to the Senate.

And in an interesting small-world happenstance, Moulton, if appointed, would serve on the bench alongside Risa Vetri Ferman, the Republican MontCo district attorney who charged Kane, and then won a judgeship this November.

UPDATE: Gov. Tom Wolf’s spokesman Jeff Sheridan said Moulton is not actually being nominated to the position; rather, his name on the list as a “placeholder” so they can appoint a future candidate, he said.

There apparently is a long tradition of placeholders being used to keep an appointment open until a candidate is agreed upon by the governor and the Senate. Jenn Kocher, spokeswoman for the Senate Republican caucus, said this has been the case “forever and a day.” The placeholder names are kept until a final nominee is agreed to, she said – the placeholders also don’t file paperwork that would otherwise get the ball rolling on the confirmation process.

Moulton’s Sandusky report pulled together all of the emails in the attorney general’s office. Later, Kane released some that showed pornographic, misogynistic and racist messages shared among prosecutors and high-ranking state officials, beginning the “Porngate” scandal that has led to the resignation of gubernatorial cabinet members and a Supreme Court justice. The scandal embroiled Sandusky prosecutors now working in Philadelphia, including Kane’s nemesis Frank Fina.  Now, Kane is running those emails through another special investigation while she fights back against criminal charges that involve allegedly lying to a grand jury.

To be clear, Moulton did not release the emails – Kane did – but it was his investigation that opened up the servers to scrutiny.

Following the report’s June 2014 release, Moulton did not fade altogether from government work. In February he was hired by Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration, The Associated Press reported. With all the challenges for Kane, given the criminal perjury charges against her, Moulton was considered a likely candidate to replace her should she resign or the Senate remove her from office.

Pennsylvania’s Gov. Wolf is half-OK, poll finds

Tom WolfBY MELISSA DANIELS  mdaniels@tribweb.com

Most American governors are held in good favor by their constituents – and half of Pennsylvanians seem to like Gov. Tom Wolf.

Wolf received a 50 percent approval rating in a state-by-state gubernatorial survey from Morning Consult, putting him – with Oklahoma’s Mary Fallin – right on the cusp of the majority of U.S. governors who have an approval rating of 50 percent or higher.

Nationally speaking, the survey found 34 of the nation’s governors have approval ratings at or above 50 percent; 16 have approval ratings higher than 60 percent.

As far as Pennsylvania is concerned, the results appear 10 months into Wolf’s first year as governor and nearly five months into a budget impasse. Previous polls showed more voters blamed the legislature than they did Wolf for the impasse that’s putting schools and social service agencies against the wall financially without their relied-upon state appropriations.

Electorate responses to Wolf, Morning Consult explains, may be linked to his relative newness:

On the other hand, voters appear to give the benefit of the doubt to governors who have only recently won office: Less than a year into their terms, Baker, Hogan, Alaska’s Walker, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R), Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts (R) and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) all have approval ratings north of 59 percent. Hawaii Gov. David Ige (D) and Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (D) both have approval ratings over 50 percent.

More experienced governors who have enjoyed a bigger stage because of presidential runs, the poll notes, have less favor. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker have approval ratings of just 40 percent; Louisiana’s Gov.  Bobby Jindal nets just 35 percent, while Ohio’s Gov. John Kasich is the most well-liked among his presidential aspirant peers at 46 percent.

Will Harrisburg deliver a budget by Thanksgiving?

BY MELISSA DANIELS  mdaniels@tribweb.com

Now that Pennsylvania’s Republican legislative leaders and Democratic governor are reaching compromises on school funding, pensions and liquor law reform, Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration sees “a light at the end of the tunnel” for the five-month state budget impasse that’s left Pennsylvania with partisan gridlock and no spending plan.

It’s a “framework” they say, but how long until the details are finalized? How long until there’s an actual budget?

We took to Twitter and found that 71 percent of the 58 respondents didn’t think the budget would be done by Thanksgiving.


Overly pessimistic, or realistic? We received some fun responses from our friends at WESA and The Associated Press, among others:


We’re not sure if betting on outcomes of legislation is illegal in this state, but if it’s anything like Draft Kings, it probably could be soon.

Lone Wolf: Dem Gov Signs GOP-backed bill

Tom WolfBY MELISSA DANIELS  mdaniels@tribweb.com

Those who thought Pennsylvania’s governor would strictly favor proposals supported by his fellow Democrats and organized labor donors received something of a surprise on Thursday.

Gov. Tom Wolf signed Act 59 of 2015 into law, removing a “labor disputes” exemption for offenses of stalking, harassment and threats. The proposal has been on the to-do list of Harrisburg Republicans for some time now, and it passed both chambers this year almost perfectly along party lines.

Meaning: Nearly every Democrat (save Sen. Andy Dinniman, D-Chester County, and Rep. Greg Vitali, D-Delaware County) voted against the bill that Wolf just signed.

“I believe it is important to allow men and women to come together and have their voices heard,” Wolf said in his press release announcing his signature. “I also believe that any form of harassment by employees or employers is unacceptable.”

His press office wouldn’t offer further comment or say if they had discussed his decision to sign with Democrats or unions. But we imagine there may be some shaking heads and wagging fingers.

Supports of the bill say it closes a legal loophole that allowed management or unions to escape charges of these crimes if engaged in a labor dispute. The bill passed the House in April and the Senate in late October.

The law takes effect in 60 days.

Partisan budget priorities reflect PA citizens’ priorities

by MELISSA DANIELS  mdaniels@tribweb.com

When it comes to sorting out the politics behind Pennsylvania’s ongoing budget impasse, a little data can go a long way.

A new poll from Robert Morris University found more Democrats than Republicans place a priority on education spending and a severance tax on natural gas, while Republicans place a higher premium on property taxes and a balanced state budget.

Voters, the data suggest, have the same budgeting priorities as their political counterparts in Harrisburg.

The divide among parties can be wide: RMU found 57 percent of Republicans say property taxes are a major issue, compared to 41 percent of Democrats. Almost 51 percent of Republicans said a balanced budget was a priority, compared to almost 40 percent of Democrats.

Republicans sent a budget to Gov. Tom Wolf by the June 30 deadline, but the first-year Democrat vetoed the plan as it did not include the spending priorities he outlined in March, including – you guessed it – education spending increases and a severance tax on shale gas.

The impasse continues even as the state continues to spend billions of state and federal dollars.

Voters, for their part, are noticing the effects – RMU found that about 27 percent of Pennsylvanians said they or someone they know is affected by the lack of a state budget.

“Interestingly, for those who are affected by the budget situation or know people who are, Gov. Wolf has a 52.4 percent favorable rating — compared to 49.3 percent of respondents,” said Philip Harold, a political science professor at RMU who analyzed the results.

Pennsylvania GOP provokes Twitter spat over campaign finances in Senate race


BY AARON AUPPERLEE  aaupperlee@tribweb.com

The first round of campaign finance reports in the race to replace Matt Smith in Pennsylvania’s 37th District Senate seat are due today.

Republican Guy Reschenthaler, a former district judge, and Democrat Heather Arnet, former head of the Women and Girls Foundation, are locked in a heated campaign with television ads that turned nasty quick.

The two have attracted the attention of bigwigs from both parties. Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio posed for a photo with Reschenthaler during a fundraiser in Pittsburgh last week. Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz was in town the day before to endorse Arnet.

Their special election is the same day as the general election (Nov. 3), and the winner gets one year in Harrisburg.

So far, late contribution reports have shown up on the Department of State’s website, but they are already creating a stir.

A filing from Arnet’s committee, Heather for Harrisburg, shows a $40,000 contribution on Oct. 20 from Rebuild PA, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s political action committee. State Republicans pounced on the filing, tweeting at Arnet demanding that she take a stance on Wolf’s tax proposals.

Arnet responded, kind of, tweeting that she is not in favor of the GOP’s tax plan.

But the GOP kept pushing

The two will debate Wednesday at Robert Morris University.