In This Update:
Legislation Would Create New Program to Expand Broadband Coverage
Legislation sponsored by Senator Wayne Langerholc, Jr. (R-35) that would establish a grant program to extend deployment of broadband services in underserved areas of the state has received final approval in the Senate and now heads to the governor for his signature.
Langerholc said that access to broadband has become even more crucial during the COVID-19 health crisis, connecting residents with services and information they would otherwise not have access to. It is also important to those who tele-work, senior citizens, fire and emergency workers and students who are taking classes remotely.
“Broadband internet access is proving indispensable now, more than ever, for day-to-day activities,” Langerholc said. “When provided access to affordable high-speed broadband, rural businesses can expand their markets, residents have greater direct access to education and health care and farmers can gain real-time access to important information they need to be successful,”
Senate Bill 835 would provide funding to improve access to high-speed broadband internet in rural areas of PA, which currently do not have access to reliable networks. It would limit funding to entities that have demonstrated the ability to construct and administer internet services and require that they provide 25 percent of the funding for the project.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the growing need for reliable broadband services in the Commonwealth,” Langerholc said. “Broadband provides vital access to the outside world and ensures that state residents have the resources they need to be safe, productive and connected to the resources they need.”
Bill Would Provide Flexibility for Teacher Certifications, Keystone Exams
Schools would have more flexibility to respond to the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic under legislation that was signed by the governor today, according to Senator Wayne Langerholc, Jr. (R-35), who sponsored the legislation.
Langerholc, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, said the legislation is needed because teacher certification testing centers have been closed or have limited availability during the health emergency. In addition to enabling graduates to obtain certification, the additional flexibility will ensure schools are not faced with additional challenges in recruiting staff.
“It’s important for graduates to be able to obtain the certifications they need to become teaching professionals,” Langerholc said. “Many recent graduates have been unable to take the next step in their careers through no fault of their own. By providing greater flexibility in these difficult times, we can ensure that they meet state requirements without undue hardship or delays.”
Senate Bill 1216 would ease many certification and staff development requirements that are difficult to fulfill during the pandemic, including waiving the basic skills exam requirement for teacher preparation programs until June 30, 2021; issuing temporary or provisional instructional certificates to individuals who meet certain criteria; extending special education certifications; and extending the deadline to satisfy staff development requirements until June 30, 2021.
Emergency permit holders would also be allowed to continue to teach even if they are unable to complete the requirements associated with the permit because the program credits or assessment could not be completed.
In addition, the bill would delay the use of the Keystone Exams as a graduation requirement until the 2022-23 school year. The Secretary of Education would also have the authority to waive the National Institute for Metalworking Skills (NIMS) assessment and the National Occupational Competency Testing Institute (NOCTI) exam requirements.
Senate Bill 1216 also deals with several issues pertaining to pupil transportation. In addition, the bill provides for the transportation of nonpublic school students during the COVID-19 emergency regardless of whether public schools are open during that time.
Senate Approves Bills to Protect Second Amendment Rights of Pennsylvanians
Two bills approved by the Senate this week would ensure the Second Amendment rights of Pennsylvanians are protected during emergency declarations. Both bills were sent to the governor’s desk to be signed into law.
Under current law, the rights of law-abiding citizens to open carry firearms can be limited during a state of emergency. The Senate approved a bill that would ensure these rights are not infringed during a state of emergency. The bill would also ensure firearm sales are not prohibited during an emergency declaration.
The Senate also approved a bill that would establish the Hunting, Firearm, and Ammunition Life-Sustaining Business Act to ensure shooting ranges, sportsman clubs, hunting facilities and firearm and ammunition manufacturers, retailers and distributors are considered life-sustaining businesses that will not be shuttered by state government during an emergency declaration.
Senate Approves Liability Protections for Schools, Health Care Providers, More
Many health care providers, schools, businesses and other entities have raised concerns about lawsuits being filed against them related to COVID-19, even if they closely followed all health directives from state and federal health agencies. The Senate approved a bill this week that would protect these entities from lawsuits if they acted in good faith to protect public health.
The liability protection does not apply in cases in which these entities were responsible for any intentional wrongful acts or reckless acts. The legislation does not provide complete immunity for any person or group; it simply ensures they will not be held responsible for any harm that occurred when health directives were followed.
General Assembly Approves Bill Cracking Down on Repeat DUI Offenders
A bill that would crack down on dangerous repeat DUI offenders was approved by the Senate this week. The bill would increase jail time for certain repeat offenders, double the amount of time that repeat offenders must have an ignition interlock device installed in their vehicle and ensure repeat DUI offenders with two or more prior offenses serve their sentence consecutively to any other sentence imposed by the court.
The legislation, also known as Deana’s Law, also mandates the use of continuous alcohol monitoring devices as a condition of probation, parole or bail. The devices, which are similar to home arrest monitors, are strapped to the wearer and automatically test for the presence of alcohol.
The legislation was named in honor of Deana Eckman, a Delaware County woman who was killed in 2019 in a head-on collision with a repeat DUI offender who was under the influence of alcohol at the time of the accident.
Legislation Supports Organ and Tissue Donation
The Robert P. Casey Memorial Organ and Tissue Donation Awareness Trust Fund was created in 1994 to encourage residents to become organ donors. The program allows Pennsylvanians to voluntarily donate $3 to the fund through a check-off box when they renew driver licenses, photo ID cards and vehicle registrations.
The General Assembly approved a bill recently that updates the program to reflect the fact that Pennsylvanians can now complete vehicle registrations on a biannual basis. The legislation allows state residents to donate $6 instead of $3 when they complete a biannual registration.
State Budget Holds the Line on Taxes, Meets Core Responsibilities of Government
Lawmakers completed work on the 2020-21 state budget on Friday, agreeing to a plan that maintains critical state services without the need for tax or fee increases. The budget plan completes the work that began in May, when a five-month budget plan was enacted to provide additional time to determine the full financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The budget was balanced without a tax increase by using a combination of existing state revenues, additional federal funding and a transfer from the Rainy Day Fund and other unallocated money from various special funds. Overall state spending is down more than $760 million from the previous year’s budget.
More details about the budget are available here.
Senate Passes Bill to Protect Rural Pharmacies, Improve Prescription Pricing Transparency
Rural pharmacies have endured severe cuts to reimbursement rates from pharmacy benefit managers, putting many of these small businesses at risk of closing. In some cases, reimbursement rates are actually lower than the cost of the drug, forcing the pharmacy to operate in the red.
The Senate gave final approval to a bill last week that will improve pricing transparency for prescription drug costs and require the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee to conduct a study analyzing prescription drug pricing under the medical assistance managed care program.
Hearing Explores PennDOT’s 2020-21 Highway and Bridge Budget Issues
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way that many sectors of the economy do business, including more telework and less travel. This has created significant financial challenges for PennDOT since fuel taxes help to fund many of the commonwealth’s road and bridge repair and maintenance projects.
The Senate Transportation Committee held a hearing this week to explore how changes in travel habits have impacted PennDOT’s budget. The hearing also included an update on how PennDOT’s planned maintenance schedule has changed and what the department is doing to make up for the lost revenue.
Program Encourages Hunters to Help Families in Need
Food insecurity was a major concern for many Pennsylvania families even before the pandemic, and the business shutdowns and economic insecurity over the past eight months have only made the problem worse. Pennsylvania deer hunters can play a role in helping local families in need by donating part or all of their deer through the Hunters Sharing the Harvest program.
To participate in the program, hunters can take their deer to any participating deer processor and choose the amount of venison they would like to donate to local charities to help families who are less fortunate.
Small Business Saturday
Small Business Saturday will again celebrate and support local businesses this weekend, but there will be modifications and an even greater need this year due to COVID-19. Many of these shops are the same shops that continually donate to the fundraisers in our community year round. Many small businesses are working hard during the pandemic to stay open and could really use your help. #shopsmallsaturday
National Anthem Contest
The PA Farm Show is holding a contest to select national anthem singers for each day of the 2021 show Jan. 9-16.
Upload your video (without instrumental accompaniment) by noon December 7. Finalists will be picked by a panel of judges. Rules below and at @PAFarmShow.
Enjoying a Safe and Healthy Thanksgiving
As we near the end of one of the most difficult years our commonwealth has ever faced, I hope all of you can take the time to enjoy a safe and healthy Thanksgiving with loved ones this year. The holiday may look a bit different for some of us, but we can all share the same spirit of cooperation and the same sense of gratitude for our blessings in spite of the incredible circumstances we have endured in 2020.
If you plan to travel for the holiday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control offers helpful tips to avoid the spread of COVID-19 while attending holiday celebrations and other small gatherings.