Friday, December 16, 2016

Report Calls for Ending Automatic License Suspensions

Andrea Sears, Public News Service

In one study 45 percent of those surveyed said they lost their jobs after their licenses had been suspended. (Jeffrey M. Vinocur/Wikimedia Commons)
In one study 45 percent of those surveyed said they lost their jobs after their licenses had been suspended. (Jeffrey M. Vinocur/Wikimedia Commons)
HARRISBURG, Pa. - Pennsylvania should join the majority of states in ending the practice of automatically suspending the drivers' licenses of anyone convicted of a non-driving, drug-related offense, according to a new report.

All but 12 states and the District of Columbia have opted out of the license-suspension provision of a federal law passed in 1991, the Prison Policy Initiative report said. Its author, Joshua Aiken, a policy fellow at the initiative, said there's no evidence that suspensions deter crime, but they perpetuate the injustices of the so-called "War on Drugs."

"They're impacting low-income communities," he said, "communities who have limited access to public transportation, communities of color who are most impacted by these collateral consequences of drug convictions."

Last year, almost 20,000 Pennsylvanians had their driver's license suspended for six months for drug convictions unrelated to driving. Nationally, more than 80 percent of Americans rely on motor vehicles to get to work. In one study, Aiken said, 45 percent of people surveyed said they lost their jobs after their license had been suspended.

"A lot of times, employers, one of the first questions they ask is, 'Do you have a consistent form of transportation?' So, these suspensions really hamper people's opportunities to find and keep jobs," he said.

Almost 90 percent of those whose licenses were suspended reported a decrease in income.

The 1991 federal law threatens states with loss of federal highway funds if they don't automatically suspend the licenses of those convicted of drug offenses. However, Aiken said, there's a relatively easy way out.

"As long as the governor and the state legislators inform the Department of Transportation that they don't believe in these license suspensions and are no longer going to enforce them," he said, "they can keep their highway funding."

License suspensions are used in a variety of other circumstances, from inability to pay fines to missed child-support payments. But Aiken says many states are beginning to roll back those penalties as well.

The report is online at

Growth of Biofuels Threatens PA Wildlife

Andrea Sears, Public News Service

Conversion of stream buffers to crop production has increased agricultural runoff, creating problems for wildlife and water quality. (JackTheVicar/Wikipedia)
Conversion of stream buffers to crop production has increased agricultural runoff, creating problems for wildlife and water quality. (JackTheVicar/Wikipedia)
HARRISBURG, Pa. - The federal Renewable Fuel Standard has led to the destruction of millions of acres of wildlife habitat and has endangered water supplies, according to a new report.

The National Wildlife Federation report, "Fueling Destruction," said wildlife has been put at risk by converting previously uncultivated land to grow corn and soybeans, the crops used to make most ethanol and biodiesel fuels. Report author David DeGennaro, an agricultural policy specialist, said 84,000 acres were converted in Pennsylvania between 2008 and 2012 alone, destroying habitat and increasing farm runoff into waterways.

"A lot of the land that's being plowed up and converted are the buffers along waterways," he said, "and that's really important in keeping the sediment and fertilizers and pesticides from getting into water in the first place."

The Renewable Fuel Standard was intended to reduce reliance on imported oil and to cut greenhouse-gas emissions. However, critics have said the government has failed to enforce the habitat protections in the law.

Nationally, said Collin O'Mara, the federation's president and chief executive, the results, although unintended, have been severe.

"It's affecting the entire ecosystem, and we're seeing several species that are currently at risk of potential extinction in the coming decades," he said. "The habitat they depend on is in the exact corridor where we've seen the greatest land losses."

The report recommended reducing the mandate for first-generation fuels made from corn and soy, as well as funding the protection and restoration of habitats and waterways. O'Mara said the problems stem from a federal policy that required a massive increase in agricultural production.

"Farmers are not to blame in this policy," he said. "They were rationally responding to a government mandate, and so we feel like there should be a concerted effort to work with farmers to try to restore habitat on the landscape."

The report called for prioritizing the next generation of cellulosic fuels that don't require new row-crop production.

The report is online at

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Report Shows Big Losses for PA if Affordable Care Act Is Repealed

Andrea Sears, Public News Service

An estimated 82 percent of those who would lose health coverage if the ACA is repealed are in working families. (James Gathany, Judy Schmidt, USCDCP/
An estimated 82 percent of those who would lose health coverage if the ACA is repealed are in working families. (James Gathany, Judy Schmidt, USCDCP/
HARRISBURG, Pa. – Almost a million Pennsylvanians would lose their health insurance with even a partial repeal of the Affordable Care Act, according to a new report. Congressional Republicans say repealing the ACA will be high on their agenda in the coming year. But a new study shows that, nationally, a partial repeal would increase the number of uninsured people by almost 30 million by 2019, compared to leaving the ACA in full effect.

Joan Alker, executive director of Georgetown University's Center for Children and Families, said that would apply to children as well.

"The number of uninsured kids would double if Congress takes away health coverage by repealing the ACA without first doing the hard work of negotiating a replacement plan and 'stapling' it to that same bill," she said.

The report by the Urban Institute said in Pennsylvania, some 956,000 would be without health insurance, a difference of more than 130 percent.

And according to Alker, more than 80 percent of those who would lose their insurance are in working families.

"The majority of those are non-Hispanic whites, and 80 percent of the adults becoming uninsured would not have college degrees," she added.

The report also found that with the elimination of the Medicaid expansion, premium tax credits and cost-sharing, federal spending on health care would drop by $109 billion by 2019.

But Aiker pointed out that, though insurance may be lost, families' health-care needs won't go away.

"And the responsibility for responding to that will fall squarely into the states' laps, and we'll have huge gaps in our health-care safety net," Aiker explained.

The report estimates that an ACA repeal would cost Pennsylvania alone $36 billion in lost federal Medicaid and Children's Health Insurance Program dollars over ten years.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Report Shows Billions in Raises for Workers Over 4 Years

Andrea Sears, Public News Service

Since the Fight for 15 began, 19 million workers have won raises totaling $61.5 billion. (Fibonacci Blue/
Since the Fight for 15 began, 19 million workers have won raises totaling $61.5 billion. (Fibonacci Blue/
HARRISBURG, Pa. – As thousands of low-wage workers staged strikes and protests in cities across the country, a new report shows the fight for a $15 minimum wage is making a difference. Tuesday's job actions in more than 320 cities nationwide marked the fourth anniversary of the first Fight for 15 strike by fast-food workers in New York.

According to Yannet Lathrop, researcher and policy analyst at the National Employment Law Project, their report shows that the movement has had an impact, raising wages for millions across the country.

"Since the Fight for 15 started, 19 million workers have benefited from this, and the total raise that workers have received is over $61 billion so far," she said.

Still, 43 percent of U.S. workers are earning less than $15 an hour. Opponents of raising the minimum wage say it will cause job losses, and hurt small businesses.

But Lathrop noted that in Seattle, which has begun phasing in a $15 minimum wage, there has been job growth in the restaurant industry, the employment sector most affected by the increase.

"We also saw lower unemployment rates compared to the state as a whole, so overall the indication is that the $15 minimum wage has not really caused a catastrophe as predicted by opponents," she explained.

At least 20 cities and dozens of large companies have raised their minimum wages since 2012. New York and California have passed $15 minimum-wage laws and voters in four states approved raising their minimums in this month's election.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

PA School District Says Transgender Students Have No Protections

Andrea Sears, Public News Service

The transgender students in one Pittsburgh-area high school can use only single-stall restrooms, or ones that don't match their gender identity. (sarahmirk/Wikimedia Commons)
The transgender students in one Pittsburgh-area high school can use only single-stall restrooms, or ones that don't match their gender identity. (sarahmirk/Wikimedia Commons)
PITTSBURGH - A suburban Pittsburgh school district claims it is within its rights to require transgender students to use restrooms and locker rooms that don't match their gender identity - or to use totally separate facilities.

The Pine-Richland School District asked a federal court on Monday to dismiss a lawsuit filed on behalf of three high school seniors, saying neither the Constitution nor federal law protects transgender students. Omar Gonzalez-Pagan, an attorney with Lambda Legal, said several other courts have disagreed with the school's argument.

"Courts in Ohio, Virginia, North Carolina, Wisconsin have already held in favor of very similar claims to the ones we're making under Title IX and the Equal Protection Clause," he said.

According to Gonzalez-Pagan, the school board reversed its longstanding, inclusive restroom policy in response to pressure from anti-LGBT groups and individuals.

"For several years, transgender students were allowed to use the restroom consistent with their gender identity," he said, "and the administration nor we are aware of any problems or incidents, or misconduct by any students."

Meanwhile, he said the three plaintiffs in the case have found their senior year disrupted, and their safety and security at school compromised.

"They feel stigmatized and marginalized for being forced to either use a restroom that nobody else is forced to use or being relegated to use restrooms that are not consistent with who they are," he said.

The restroom policy was enacted this fall. Lambda Legal has requested a temporary injunction preventing the policy from being enforced. A hearing on that request is scheduled for Dec. 1.

More information is online at

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Election Brings Fear to PA Immigrant Community

Andrea Sears, Public News Service

Immigration advocates say they are planning to disrupt ICE raids. (
Immigration advocates say they are planning to disrupt ICE raids. (
PHILADELPHIA – President-elect Donald Trump's election victory is raising fears in Pennsylvania's immigrant community.

Trump has said after he takes office he will move quickly to cancel President Barack Obama's Deferred Action program for immigrants who arrived as children, and ramp up deportations of undocumented immigrants.

Peter Pedemonti, executive director of the New Sanctuary Movement of Philadelphia, says immigrants his organization has interviewed are speechless and in shock.

"Their children are terrified that they're going to be separated, but we're also hearing people talk about, 'We've always known that this hate and racism has been a reality for us in this country, and Trump's victory is bringing it to the surface for everyone to see,'" he relates.

Trump has said many undocumented immigrants are dangerous, and they use government resources they don't pay for. But studies show undocumented workers actually pay billions in taxes without being able to receive benefits.

Pedemonti notes that those who advocate on behalf of the immigrant community in sanctuary cities throughout Pennsylvania and the across country are committed to continuing their work.

"What I hear is people digging deep and being really grounded in their faith traditions,” he states. “Looking to their faith to respond, recommitting to organizing, standing up against this hatred and fear and racism."

In Philadelphia the New Sanctuary Movement maintains a 24-hour-a-day Emergency Raid Hotline to report raids by immigration officials. The movement also plans to recruit 1,000 people in the next two months to disrupt raids in progress.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Reviewing Medicare Coverage: Now's the Time

Andrea Sears, Public News Service

Medicare recipients may save hundreds by switching medical or prescription plans. (Money Images/
Medicare recipients may save hundreds by switching medical or prescription plans. (Money Images/
HARRISBURG, Pa. – Medicare's annual open enrollment period is under way, a time for recipients to look at their options for medical and prescription drug plan coverage for the coming year.

Pennsylvanians on Medicare have until Dec. 7 to decide to keep their current coverage or make changes. Plans often modify their coverage and cost sharing, and notify consumers about those changes for the coming year.

Bill Johnston-Walsh, state director for AARP Pennsylvania, says recipients need to be aware of those changes to both medical and prescription drug plans.

"We strongly recommend that they look and review those notices of change carefully, compare current choices with other available plans, and change to a different plan during open enrollment if it better meets their current needs," he stresses.

If no changes are made, existing coverage will renew automatically. But AARP notes that some consumers can save hundreds of dollars in out-of-pocket expenses just by switching to a different plan.

Johnston-Walsh breaks the considerations down into four categories – cost, coverage, convenience and customer service.

"Compare monthly premiums, annual deductibles, co-pays and co-insurance,” he advises. “Review the doctors and pharmacies as well as the prescription drugs and other services that you'll need in the upcoming year.

“Look at the local doctors, the pharmacies, the services that are included in the plan. And then consider the quality of service that a plan provides."

There is help available to sort through the options. Johnston-Walsh says free assistance is available by phone from Pennsylvania's APPRISE program.

"There's counselors there that will explain the Medicare benefits, sort through the health and prescription options and help complete the enrollment process for the individuals," he states.

APPRISE counselors can be reached toll-free at 1-800-783-7067. 

Friday, November 4, 2016

GOP Request for Poll-Watcher Change Rejected

Andrea Sears, Public News Service

Federal courts have repeatedly found voter fraud is extremely rare. (redjar/
Federal courts have repeatedly found voter fraud is extremely rare. (redjar/
PHILADELPHIA – A federal judge has denied the GOP's challenge to Pennsylvania's poll-watching law. Republicans filed their lawsuit just two weeks ago, claiming a provision of the state law controlling the placement and activities of poll watchers is unconstitutional. The ruling said the request was not timely, not in the public interest and failed to meet the standard for last-minute action by the court.

Adam Gitlin, counsel with the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, calls the ruling "decisive."

"Unless there is some emergency appeal that the GOP is successful with, the restriction that said poll watchers have to be from their home county will stand on election day," he said.

The Republicans claim that additional poll watchers are needed to prevent voter fraud but have not produced evidence that voter fraud actually is a problem.

Gitlin said laws in place to protect the integrity of the voting process are up to the task, as shown by the recent arrest of a woman in Iowa who attempted to vote twice, for Donald Trump.

"These processes work, and therefore it's no surprise that there really is very little evidence of successful voter fraud," he added. "You're more likely to be struck by lightning than commit voter impersonation."

Federal courts repeatedly have found that actual voter fraud is extremely rare.

Meanwhile, Democrats in Pennsylvania and other states have filed federal lawsuits seeking to prevent voter intimidation by Republicans. Gitlin notes that comments in social media and other venues have raised concerns that private individuals or poll watchers challenging voters at the polls may go beyond what is allowed by law.

"That doesn't mean we know they're going to do it but there's more indication than there has been in previous elections that potentially intimidating behavior is going to happen," he explained.

Gitlin emphasizes that claims of a "rigged" election or suggestions of voter intimidation should not deter people from exercising their right to vote.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Christina Hartman, Chris Rabb receive “People’s Action 22” designation, two of nation’s 22 rising progressive stars

Christina Hartman, Chris Rabb receive “People’s Action 22” designation, two of nation’s 22 rising progressive stars

[HARRISBURG, PA]  Keystone Progress is excited to announce today that People’s Action, a national organization of more than a million people working with 48 local grassroots organizations across 29 states, is endorsing Christina Hartman for Congress CD-16, Lancaster) and Chris Rabb for State Representative (HD 200, Philadelphia).

The endorsement comes as People’s Action releases a national progressive slate of 22 candidates running for positions from local school boards to state legislative bodies to the U.S. Senate.

In endorsing Hartman and Rabb, People’s Action affirms that they have the leadership qualities, values, and vision needed to serve the people of Pennsylvania. As part of People’s Action 22, they will take her place alongside a slate of rising stars, building on the progressive political revolution ignited by Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign.

They will join with other local candidates who are committed to fighting for people instead of corporations; standing up for racial and gender justice; working for a fair economy, and climate justice.

 “We thrilled that People’s Action has joined Keystone Progress in endorsing these two dynamic progressive leaders,” said Ritchie Tabachnick, the Chair of the Board of Keystone Progress. “We are part of a growing progressive movement with the power to win on our issues and to elect progressive champions who share our values in Pennsylvania.”

Other members of the People’s Action 22 include:
      Gina Melaragno, in Maine, who was inspired to run for state representative by her own experience with lack of health care access.
      Pramila Jayapal, a Washington state senator is a candidate for Congress, who founded Hate Free Zone (now OneAmerica) in response to hate and discrimination after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
      LaTonya Johnson, candidate for state senate in Wisconsin, owned and operated a child care center for 10 years, caring for Milwaukee’s poorest children and their parents, struggling to cover their basic needs.
      Zephyr Teachout, candidate for New York, U.S. House of Representatives, was the first executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, working for transparent government. She fought big banks and stopped fracking in New York.

“While the presidential election has often been dispiriting, there is tremendous hope down-ballot, with candidates from within our movement fighting for a just economy and a democracy that works for everyone,” said George Goehl, co-executive director of People’s Action.  

“Each of these candidates represents the world we believe is possible, one where everyone has what they need to reach their full potential. With these down-ballot candidates, we have a start on creating the world as it should be,” said Goehl.

Complete List of People's Action 22: Our slate of 2016 endorsed candidates

Russ Feingold                     Wisconsin, U.S. Senate
Christina Hartman             Pennsylvania, U.S. House of Representatives District 16
Pramila Jayapal                 Washington, U.S. House of Representatives, District 7
Zephyr Teachout                New York, U.S. House of Representatives, District 19

Heidi Brooks                       Maine, State House of Representatives District 61
Mari Cordes                         Vermont, House of Representatives, Addison, District  4
Arturo Fierro                       New Mexico, State House of Representatives District 7
Lauren Freedman              Michigan, Kalamazoo School Board
Kim Foxx                              Illinois, Cook County, State's Attorney
LaTonya Johnson              Wisconsin, State Senate District 6
Denise Lopez                    Nevada, Sparks City Council Ward 1
Theresa Mah                       Illinois, State House of Representatives, District 2
Gina Melaragno                  Maine, State House of Representatives District 62
Sara Niccoli                         New York, State Senate, District 46
Ilhan Omar                           Minnesota, State House of Representatives District 60B
Chris Rabb                           Pennsylvania, State House of Representatives District 200
Jamie Raskin                      Maryland, Congressional District 8
Gustavo Rivera                  New York, State Senate District 33
J. Alejandro Urrutia           New Hampshire, State House of Representatives District                                                                                          Hillsborough 37
Andru Volinsky                   New Hampshire, Executive Council Dist. 2
Mandy Wright                      Wisconsin, State Assembly, District 85
David Zuckerman              Vermont, Lieutenant Governor

# # #

People’s Action is a powerful new force for democracy and economic fairness. From family farms to big cities, from coast to coast, we’re fighting for community over greed, justice over racism, and people and planet over big corporations.

Keystone Progress is Pennsylvania’s largest and most effective progressive organization. Combining cutting-edge communication strategies with old-school community organizing, Keystone Progress is organizing in communities across the commonwealth, building chapters that put people and planet first.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Faculty at PA State Universities Strike

Andrea Sears, Public News Service

Faculty say they were forced to strike when state negotiators did not return to the bargaining table. (David Chambers)
Faculty say they were forced to strike when state negotiators did not return to the bargaining table. (David Chambers)
HARRISBURG, Pa. -- Faculty at Pennsylvania's 14 state-owned universities are on strike after contract negotiations came to a standstill Tuesday night. More than 5,000 members of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties took to the picket lines early Wednesday morning.

David Chambers, chair of the political science department at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, said the state didn't return to the bargaining table after its last offer was rejected.

"Our team was available and remained through the night in the negotiation room and in fact attempted a back-channel communication and heard nothing,” Chambers said. "There were no responses from the state system at all."

The Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education said it offered $159 million in raises, but the faculty disputes that number. According to Chambers, union negotiators have been unable to find that total in the figures the state system has offered.

"Even if $159 million was true, it's misleading because it does not take into consideration the $70 million to $90 million that the chancellor is asking for in givebacks,” Chambers said.

The union said it offered $ 50 million in concessions, but the state system is demanding more.

The last contract expired more than a year ago, and contract talks have been going on for almost two years. The strike is the first since the system was created 34 years ago. According to Chambers, walking off the job was a last resort.

"We were pushed to this point,” he said. "So our hope is that the strike will demonstrate to the chancellor our resolve, which will result in a shorter strike, and hopefully back to the negotiation table."

Union president Kenneth Mash has said faculty members will return to work when negotiators have agreed on a new contract.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

PA Could Be Carbon-Free by 2050

Andrea Sears, Public News Service 

Switching to 100 percent renewable source would save $9 billion in energy and fuel costs in Pennsylvania in 2050 alone. (USDA/Wikimedia Commons)
Switching to 100 percent renewable source would save $9 billion in energy and fuel costs in Pennsylvania in 2050 alone. (USDA/Wikimedia Commons)
BRISTOL, Pa. - The Keystone State could get all its power from renewable energy sources and generate thousands of jobs by the middle of this century, according to a new report.

Titled "Envisioning Pennsylvania's Energy Future," the report outlines a plan for increased investments in wind and solar power and energy efficiency that would virtually eliminate reliance on fossil fuels. According to Tracy Carluccio, deputy director of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, electricity consumers would see savings of $134 billion over 35 years.

"Also, as a result of these policies," she said, "the report calculates that we will see a net increase of nearly 500,000 jobs over this same period of time."

The Delaware Riverkeeper Network is sponsoring a free webinar on the report at 1 p.m. Thursday. Information is available at

Energy efficiency and conservation are major components of the plan. Carluccio said the technology to substantially reduce the amount of electricity generation required to power the state already exists.

"It's not just a substitution," she said. "It's not just a policy that will help us stretch a dollar, but will actually replace the need for the generation of dirty fossil fuels."

The plan also relies on the electrification of transportation and heating, as well as modernization of building codes to conserve energy.

Pennsylvania is the third-largest energy-producing state and top electricity-exporting state in the nation. Carluccio said the Commonwealth needs to be a major contributor to the global effort to cut greenhouse-gas emissions and fight climate change.

"We must lead by example and become a model for the rest of the nation," she said, "and say we do not need fossil fuels in order to meet our energy needs."

The report, prepared for the Delaware Riverkeeper Network by EQ Research and Synapse Energy Economics, is online at