By a vote of 47-2, the Senate passed a measure to encourage development of low-cost housing using federal funds.  House Bill 60 creates the Pennsylvania Housing Affordability and Rehabilitation Enhancement Program to be administered by the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency (PHFA).  Implementation of the program is contingent upon the availability of federal funds and would be suspended if federal money is not available.

The program would provide funding for projects to:

  • Provide safe and sanitary dwellings for sale or rent to low-income and moderate-income people;
  • Increase the availability or quality of housing for elderly persons;
  • Increase the availability or quality of accessible housing for the disabled;
  • Prevent or reduce homelessness;
  • Encourage the development and rehabilitation of distressed neighborhoods;
  • Provide mortgage or rental assistance, including housing counseling, foreclosure prevention and refinancing products; and
  • Provide low interest loans or grants to low-income and moderate-income homeowners to repair and improve the condition of their home.

Program money may be used for:

  • Predevelopment activities, including title searches, market studies, project planning, architectural services, legal and engineering studies and related fees.

The bill is now back in the House.

The Senate voted 39 to 10 for House Bill 174, which would improve the Department of Agriculture’s ability to enforce food safety regulations at restaurants and other locations where food is prepared and sold, like fairs and picnics. It would also standardize inspections and reporting across the state and make statewide inspection records available to the public on the department’s Web site.

The bill is currently in the House Rules Committee.

The Senate unanimously approved legislation that would address the growing methamphetamine production in Pennsylvania by restricting public access to certain cold medications.

House Bill 196 would require any over-the-counter products that contain ephedrine, pseudoephedrine and phenylpropanolamine to be sold behind the counter or put in a locked cabinet, but within the customer’s view.

Violation of this measure would be a misdemeanor.

The bill is now on the governor’s desk.

By a vote of 27-22, the Senate passed House Bill 664 amending the Pennsylvania Workers’ Compensation Act to add members of community emergency response teams (CERT) under coverage for volunteer service personnel.

Democrats opposed the bill because it weakens provisions passed in a previous bill (House Bill 400)  intended to crack down on construction companies  misclassifying employees as “independent contractors”  to avoid workers compensation, unemployment insurance and other regulations regarding employees.

The bill goes back to the House for concurrence on amendments.

The Senate approved House Bill 708 with a 48-1 vote.  The measure would establish the “Covered Device Recycling Act,” which is a recycling program for electronic waste or e-waste.

Under the bill, manufacturers of televisions or computer devices would be required to establish a plan to collect, transport, and recycle certain devices. Manufacturers and retailers would be prohibited from charging a fee to the consumer for the collection or recycling of electronic waste.

The Department of Environmental Protection would be required to review and approve the manufacturer’s recycling plans.  Six months after the effective date of the act, a manufacturer of covered devices would be required to register with the department and pay an annual $5,000 registration fee.  The registration fees would be placed into the “Electronic Materials Recycling Account.”  The funds could be used by the department to administer the electronic waste recycling program.

Retailers would be required to notify customers about the proper way to recycle the electronic devices and where to return the devices for recycling.

Two years after the act is in place, no individual would be permitted to dispose of these specified electronic devices in a municipal waste facility.

The bill now goes back to the House.

*Sprinkler requirements — By a vote of 37-12, the Senate passed revisions to the Pennsylvania Construction Code that  delays by one year a requirement for sprinklers to be installed in new home construction.

Until October 2011, the bill requires builders to offer the option to install, at the buyer’s expense, an automatic fire sprinkler system in the building or dwelling unit and provide the buyer with information which explains the initial and ongoing cost of installing and equipping an automatic fire sprinkler system.  In 2011, the construction code will require sprinklers in all new home construction.

House Bill 1196 also makes changes to requirements for log homes and manufactured housing, provisions that will take place 60 days after it becomes law.

The bill goes back to the House for concurrence on amendments.

By a vote of 45-4, the Senate passed House Bill 1231, addressing workers’ compensation eligibility for firefighters who get cancer.

The bill specifically adds cancer to the state Workers’ Compensation Act as a work-related illness if no other obvious cause for the disease is present.   The bill amends the law to include cancer suffered by firefighters and caused by recognized carcinogens.

The bill covers professional and volunteer firefighters who have been on the job for more than four years and have been exposed to known carcinogens.  There are provisions in the bill that allow the presumption of job-related cancer to be rebutted by evidence of cancer-causing activity – such as smoking – during a firefighter’s non-duty hours.

The bill goes back to the House for concurrence in Senate amendments.

The Senate unanimously approved legislation that would amend the Preferential Assessment of Farmland and Forestland Assessment Act (Clean and Green) to preserve a landowner’s ability to participate in this program when the land is leased for commercial wind energy production.

Under House Bill 1394, roll-back taxes would be limited to the land devoted to the wind power generation system.

It also provides landowners with several options if they want to remove land from preferential assessment. Land can be removed if the landowner notifies the county assessor in writing by June 1 of the year immediately preceding the tax year for which removal is desired, if the entire portions of land enrolled on a single application for preferential assessment is removed, or if the landowner pays rollback taxes on the land that will be ineligible for preferential assessment by the same landowner in the future.

The Senate amended the bill by removing language on oil and gas wells.

The bill is in the House Rules Committee.

House Bill 1482 was unanimously approved by the Senate.  The bill would amend the Health Care Facilities Act to require employees of a physician or health care facility to wear a photo identification tag.

The tag would include a recent photo of the employee, the employee’s name, the employee’s title and the name of the health care facility or employment agency.

An employee would not be required to wear a tag while delivering direct care to a consumer if not clinically feasible.  Also, the last name of the employee could be omitted or concealed when delivering direct care to a consumer who exhibits symptoms of irrationality or violence.

The measure now goes back to the House.

The Senate unanimously passed House Bill 1609, which would makes changes to current traditional neighborhood developments (TND) provisions to make it easier for municipalities to zone for TNDs and encourage this type of development as an alternative to sprawl.

TNDs are mixed-use neighborhoods with higher densities and a range of complementary uses. They are characterized by compact, pedestrian-oriented developments that provide a variety of uses, diverse housing types, and are anchored by a central public space and civic activity.

Under current law, a TND that is in the form of a new development must be in the form of an overlay zone rather than a designation “by right.” The bill would allow municipalities to designate a TND “by right,” making it easier to develop mixed-use, traditional neighborhoods.

The bill is now on the governor’s desk.

The Senate unanimously approved legislation that would amend Pennsylvania’s child custody laws to level the playing field for parents who are struggling with child custody problems and encourage joint custody

Rather than the courts presuming that custody should be awarded to a particular parent, House Bill 1639 provides a list of factors that the court must consider, including which parent is more likely to encourage and permit frequent contact with the other parent; the parental duties of each parent; the need for stability and continuity in the child’s education, family life and community life; and access to siblings and other extended family. All these factors would be considered, with particular attention paid to protecting victims of domestic violence.

If the court finds that there is an ongoing risk of harm to the child, the court would be required to include safety conditions in the custody order.

The bill would also require the court to provide an explanation for its custody decisions and specify the terms and conditions in detail. A parent who fails to comply with the custody agreement could be held in contempt.

The bill would also include a framework for judges to use when making decisions in relocation cases.

The bill is in the House Rules Committee.

The Senate voted 45 to 4 in favor of House Bill 1926, which would expand the provision of the so-called “Castle Doctrine” that protects the right of homeowners to use deadly force against intruders in their home and property.

The bill would expand the right of homeowners to use deadly force to defend themselves to areas throughout their property.

Under current law, homeowners can use deadly force to defend themselves against an intruder while in their living room, dining room, den, kitchen, basement or other area within the house. In other areas, such as a garage, porch, driveway, yard or vehicle, homeowners must first attempt to retreat from the intruder before legally using their weapon to protect themselves.

The measure would also strengthen legal presumptions on having a “reasonable belief” to use deadly force.

The Senate voted 29-20 against a Democratic amendment that would have closed the so-called “Florida Loophole” that enables people to bypass Pennsylvania’s license to carry law by obtaining a permit from another state.

The bill also contains changes aimed at closing loopholes in “Megan’s Law.” One provision would require all offenders to register, even if they are transient or homeless. The measure would also assure that there are penalties for all categories of sex offenders who fail to register.

The bill now returns to the House.

The Senate unanimously approved legislation that establishes the Pennsylvania Agricultural Surplus System (PASS).

Under House Bill 2139, the PASS program would authorize the Department of Agriculture to award contracts to develop and operate a system for the food industry to donate food products to private charitable food assistance networks.

Distribution would be administered by the Pennsylvania Association of Regional Food Banks under the department’s oversight. The food banks would provide an annual report to the department, including sources, types and volume of products, and the number of individuals or households.

The bill is in the House Rules Committee.

The Senate unanimously approved legislation that would increase the monetary sum of civil actions authorized to be brought and heard within the jurisdiction of the Philadelphia Municipal Court and the Magisterial District judges.

Under House Bill 2172, the Philadelphia Municipal Court and Magisterial District judges would have jurisdiction over civil actions when the sum amounted is less than $12,000.

Current law has a $10,000 limit for Philadelphia Municipal Court and $8,000 for Magisterial District judges.

In cases before both courts, plaintiffs may waive a portion of their claim of more than $12,000 to bring the matter within the monetary jurisdiction of the courts based on the new limits.

An amendment was added to the bill that would reduce the number of judges in the Fifteenth Judicial District of Common Pleas Court (Chester County) from 14 to 13 as a temporary cost-cutting measure. This act would expire Jan. 8, 2014.

The bill is now on the governor’s desk.

The Senate unanimously approved legislation that encourages sibling placement and visitation in foster care.

House Bill 2258 would require that county child and youth agencies make reasonable efforts to place siblings together in foster care, unless it threatens their safety and well being. Juvenile court would ensure that reasonable efforts are made to keep siblings together.

If joint placement is not in the best interest of siblings, the court would require frequent visitation, unless it threatens the safety and well being of any sibling.

Current state law does not provide for sibling placement and visitation.

The bill is now on the governor’s desk.

The Senate voted 48 to 1for legislation that would impose a fee for operating a deer farm.

Currently, cervidae livestock (deer, elk, moose, reindeer, and caribou) operations require a license, but no accompanying fee.

House Bill 2273 would require a $150 fee to apply for a cervidae livestock operation license or to renew a license. The collected money would be placed in a restricted account in the state Treasury and used to fund the Department of Agriculture’s disease management program.

The bill is now back in the House

The Senate voted 44 to 5 for House Bill 2321, which would codify over a dozen acts relating to fire and emergency services and insert them into Emergency Management Code (Title 35).

Some of the current acts that would be brought together in the measure involve the State Fire Commissioner Act, the Fire Police Act, the Volunteer Firefighters’ Relief Association Act, the Volunteer Fire Company and Volunteer Ambulance Service Grant Act, along with others.

The bill also inserts language from Title 18 (Crimes Code) into Title 35, which states that individuals convicted of arson are prohibited from serving as well as being certified as a firefighter.

The bill also inserts language from Title 4 (Amusement) into Title 35, which requires the transfer of $25 million to the Volunteer Fire Company Grant Program from the State Gaming Fund.

The bill is now back in the House.

The Senate unanimously passed House Bill 2338, creating the Children in Foster Care Act.

This bill addresses the basic needs in a child’s quality of life, including:  the right to live in a safe and healthy home; access to routine medical care; access to a quality education; access to life-skills training and services to ease the transition to adulthood.

The measure would also help protect foster children from harassment, corporal punishment, unreasonable restraint and abuse.

The bill would require that a copy of the law be provided to every foster family and child when a placement is made. This will enable these children and foster families to better advocate for their own needs and those of the children they care for.

The bill is awaiting the Governor’s signature.

The Senate passed House Bill 2477 by a 41-8 vote.  This bill would increase the size of the governing body of the Erie Convention Center Authority from nine members to 11.

This bill would also establish the “County Officer and Employee Fiscal Security Act,” modernizing the bonding requirements for county officials and employees in counties of the second through eighth class.

Lastly, this bill would allow the governing body of second, second class A and third through eight class counties to eliminate the position of jury commissioner by resolution.

The bill was sent back to the House.

By a vote of 41-8, the Senate passed a public pension overhaul intended to avert a looming spike in pension costs by generating $3 billion in savings for public-employee and teacher pension funds.

As amended by the Senate, House Bill 2497 would roll benefits back by 25 percent for new employees and the vesting requirement would be increased from five years to 10. New employees would also have to accrue a combination of age and years of service totaling 92 in order to receive full benefits.

Senate Republicans inserted a controversial amendment that would create an independent Fiscal Office to produce state revenue estimates independent of the administration’s projections.  Some Democrats criticized the amendment as being wasteful, duplicative and aimed at stalling or derailing critical pension reform.

The bill is now back in the House.

The Senate unanimously approved legislation that would create the Anatomic Pathology Service Disclosure Act.

House Bill 2521 would require health-care providers to provide patients, insurers or other third-party payers with information about the cost of off-site pathology services.

Currently, patients or insurers are not entitled to be informed of the actual cost of pathology services when a physician bills for these services provided by external labs.

The bill is now back in the House.

The Senate unanimously approved legislation that would eliminate a dual-licensing requirement for manufactured housing.

Currently, the Motor Vehicle Sales Finance Act licenses entities such as manufactured housing retailers who engage in activities that involve the financing of titled property. But changes to the Mortgage Licensing Act of 2009 now require companies that finance manufactured housing and mobile homes to hold dual licenses.

House Bill 2547 would eliminate this dual license and allow business licenses to be retained under the Motor Vehicle Sales Finance Act.

The bill is now on the governor’s desk.

The Senate unanimously approved legislation that contains numerous omnibus amendments to Title 15 (Corporations and Unincorporated Associations) and Title 20 (Decedents, Estate and Fiduciaries).

Senate Bill 53 would make changes to the Uniform Trust Act;  the rule against perpetuities; payment of the Federal estate tax; the Uniform Principal and Income Act;  rules governing the death of a party during a divorce proceeding; and powers of Attorney, among others.

The bill is now on the governor’s desk.

The Senate unanimously passed Senate Bill 168, which would allow Pennsylvania municipalities to enter into contracts to provide lower energy costs for consumers

This bill gives boroughs the authority to take part in power supply and electric generation projects to secure affordable and reliable energy for consumers.

This bill allows boroughs that own or operate electric generation or distribution facilities to acquire electricity at the best value through memberships in non-profit member corporations.

Lastly, this bill permits boroughs to advertise or solicit bids or price quotes if the borough council determines that action to be in the public interest.

The bill was sent to the governor’s desk.

The Senate unanimously approved legislation that would amend the Clean and Green program by providing for the exploration and removal of oil and gas, including coal bed methane.

Oil and gas leasing and drilling activity has been permitted by counties because most counties considered it a temporary use of the land and did not prevent the property from being farmed or forested.  With the recent increase in oil and gas leasing and drilling activity associated with the discovery of Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania, landowners, assessor and various others requested that the Department of Agriculture address the lack of uniformity in how the Clean and Green program is interpreted by individual counties.

Under Senate Bill 298, roll-back taxes would only be imposed upon those portions of land actually devoted to these activities to the exploration for and removal of gas and oil, including the extraction of coal bed methane, as well as new roads, bridges, pipeline, building or related structures.

It is the responsibility of the county assessor to limit roll-back taxes to portions of land devoted to the development and operation of an alternative energy system.

The landowner would not owe roll-back taxes for exploration or removal of oil, gas or coal bed methane prior to enrollment in preferential assessment as well as prior to the effective date of this legislation, if enacted.

The bill is on the governor’s desk.

The Senate unanimously approved legislation that would implement the national Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, also known as the Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act (SORNA), in Pennsylvania.

Senate Bill 428 would strengthen sex offender registration by requiring convicted offenders to be registered for certain timeframes:

· Kidnapping, when the victim is a minor – 25 years

· Luring a child into a motor vehicle or structure – 15 years

· Institutional sexual assault – 15 years.  If the victim is a minor – 25 years

· Indecent assault, where the offense is graded as a misdemeanor of the first degree or higher – 15 years

· Incest, where the victim is 12 years of age or older but under 18 years of age – 15 years

· Prostitution and related offenses, where the offender promotes the prostitution of a minor – 25 years

· Obscene and other sexual materials and performances, where the victim is a minor – 25 years

· Sexual abuse of children – 25 years

· Unlawful contact with a minor – 15 years

· Sexual exploitation of children – 25 years

Individuals convicted of an attempt, conspiracy or solicitation to commit any of these offenses would be subject to a registration requirement of 15 years.

Individuals who were convicted of offenses similar to those outlined above under federal law, other states or other countries would be subject to registration requirements for 15 years.

Offenders would be required to register with the Pennsylvania State Police prior to release from incarceration or parole. They would have to check in with the state police every 30 days to confirm their current residency and must appear in person once each quarter at an approved registration site to complete a verification form and be photographed.

The bill would also require that the offenders’ employment location and any vehicle they operate be included in the information that is already posted on the Internet.

The bill is now in the House.

The Senate unanimously approved Senate Bill 441, which would permit a certified registered nurse practitioner to certify the physical and mental fitness of an applicant for a teaching certificate.

The bill was amended to permit a student to attend the nearest high school when the resident school district no longer operates a high school and the superintendent has not assigned these students to a high school in another school district.

This provision was added as a result of the decision of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on September 29, 2010 in West Mifflin School District v. Zahorchak. The supreme court ruled that previous provisions allowing Duquesne High School students to attend West Mifflin Area School District and East Allegheny School District when the state shut down the school, unconstitutional because those provisions violated the state constitution prohibition against special legislation and could only apply to one school district.

The amendment allows the Secretary of Education to designate two or more school districts to accept students of closed high schools, who haven’t been assigned a new high school, on a tuition basis so long as the designated school district is no more than three miles from the boarder of the distress school district.

The bill now goes to the House.

The Senate voted 48 to 1 for legislation that would provide for right to counsel in juvenile proceedings.

Senate Bill 873 requires that legal representation must be provided for a child in all juvenile proceedings and cannot be waived at any stage of a proceeding.

Current law allows for a parent or guardian to waive counsel for a child with the exception of those cases where the interests of the child conflict with those of the parent or guardian.

This bill was introduced in response to the severity of problems and corruption discovered in the Luzerne County juvenile justice system, in which the right to counsel in a great number of proceedings was routinely waived  — resulting in children being wrongly placed in a juvenile detention facility.

The bill is now in the House.

By a unanimous vote, the Senate passed legislation giving municipalities a stronger hand in dealing with blighted properties and absentee landlords.

Under Senate Bill 900, municipalities could garnish the wages and other assets of landlords who allow their properties to deteriorate.  Current law allows municipalities only to seize the blighted property, which is often worthless.

The bill would also permit municipalities to deny required permits to landlords who face property actions in other municipalities and would allow for out-of-state owners to be extradited back to Pennsylvania to face criminal charges over property violations.

The bill now goes to the governor.

The Senate unanimously passed Senate Bill 910 and Senate Bill 912 by 49-0 votes.  These bills are part of a legislative package offered by the Local Government Commission seeking to conform municipal police and firefighter civil service provisions to federal and state anti-discrimination laws.

Senate Bill 910 adds new provisions stating that an applicant can be subject to a physical fitness or agility examination that is “job-related and consistent with business necessity” and be given a physical and psychological medical examination if a conditional offer of employment is made.

Senate Bill 912 states that either before or after the written examination, each applicant is required to submit to a physical fitness or agility examination that is job related and consistent with business necessity and physical or psychological medical examinations cannot be conducted prior to an appointment or conditional appointment.

The bills were sent to the governor.

The Senate unanimously approved Senate Bill 918, which would consolidate the state’s various laws that govern property assessments.

The bill will combine three current assessment laws into a single statute, update the language and address recent court rulings.

The bill goes to the governor’s desk.

Senate Bill 922 was approved in the Senate with a 46-3 vote.  The bill would prohibit long-term care medical expenses, incurred six months or more prior to an application for medical assistance to be used when determining a recipient’s payment toward the cost of long-term care services.

The bill also would establish the criteria for a hospital to qualify as a Level III trauma center.  Criteria include, provide comprehensive emergency services, have at least 4,000 inpatient admission from its emergency room on an annual basis, be located in a third to eighth class county and be located more than 25 miles of travel distance

It also would establish funding for Levels I, II and III trauma centers.  Level I and II trauma centers would receive 90% of available funds and Level III trauma centers would receive the remaining 10 percent of available funds.

The measure now goes to the House.

The Senate approved (45-4) legislation that would help ease prison overcrowding by moving certain non-violent offenders into halfway houses.

Senate Bill 1161 would create a system for identifying lower risk non-violent offenders and technical offenders and place them in community corrections facilities and halfway houses, which are facilities that house inmates with prerelease status or individuals who are on parole.

The state Commission on Sentencing would develop a “risk assessment tool” that judges would use when they sentence non-violent offenders.

The bill would also allow the Board of Probation and Parole to release inmates who have served their minimum sentence, but who have not finished required programming, to complete their program while on parole.

The bill would also require public hearings to be held in communities located within a county of the sixth, seventh or eighth class where convicted murderers are being released into group homes.  The Board of Probation and Parole would be responsible for holding these hearings.

The bill is now on the governor’s desk.

The Senate voted 47 to 2 for legislation that would require defendants to pay court costs without the need for a court order.

Senate Bill 1169 would require judges to impose court costs, but even if the judge fails to do so, the costs could still be imposed.  No court order would be required.

The bill would also require the county clerk of courts to transmit copies of paperwork related to court costs to the Department of Probation and to the correctional facility where the offender has been sentenced.

The bill also extends a provision that the costs assessed in criminal cases before the minor judiciary and the court of common pleas, as well costs assessed in civil and criminal cases heard by magisterial district judges, would increase every January 1 by the percentage of increase in the Consumer Price Index until Jan. 1, 2025. This provision had expired on Jan. 1, 2010.

The legislation also deals with the place of detention of children accused of murder and other offenses that are not considered a “delinquent act” under the Juvenile Act. Under the legislation, a court may place the child in a secure detention facility for delinquent children rather than a county jail.

The detention would occur if the child was not granted bail and the child is awaiting the outcome of a hearing to determine whether he is being tried as an adult or a child. The court may order the child held in secure detention facility with other children upon consent of the attorney for the Commonwealth

The bill is now on the governor’s desk.

The Senate unanimously approved Senate Bill 1379, which would require public and private primary and secondary schools and State System of Higher Education schools to use certified textbook recycling facilities for the collection and recycling of discarded textbooks.

The Department of General Services would certify and could contract with a facility or facilities to recycle textbooks for a minimum 3-year period.  The department would also develop the regulations for the certification of textbook recycling facilities.

A school could also offer the discarded textbooks to other schools or charitable organizations for educational purposes instead of recycling them.

The measure now goes to the House.

By a vote of 40-9, the Senate passed Senate Bill 1409, amending the Workforce Development Act to require the Department of Labor and Industry to identify “industry clusters” to better target workforce and economic development funds.

The bill now goes to the House.

By a 49-0 vote, the Senate passed Senate Bill 1429, which would provide additional options recommended by the State Planning Board to communities that seek to change their form of governance.

The current statute allows consolidation or merger through either joint agreement or initiative of electors.  Senate Bill 1429 allows for a combination of the two processes, if both are approved by the local voters.  Voters would also be allowed to approve both a merger/consolidation and a new home rule charter in the same election.

In addition, the bill authorizes the establishment of transitional planning committees to advise the existing and new municipalities throughout the process.

The bill was sent to the Governor.

By a vote of 49-0, the Senate passed Senate Bill 1481, which would prohibit private transfer fees on future real estate transactions and create reporting and disclosure requirements on the administrators of the private transfer fees that already exist. If the requirements are not met, the private transfer fee would be voided.

The bill was introduced because the transfer fees obligation is often hidden in closing documents and doesn’t require a signature — enabling a person with no ownership interest in the property to continue collecting revenue from it for up to 99 years.

The bill now goes to the House.

The Senate voted 47 to 2 for Senate Bill 1490, which would require Senate confirmation of the six commissioners appointed by Pennsylvania’s governor to the Delaware River Port Authority (DRPA).

The bill would also prohibit DRPA from entering into contracts with an entity owned by or having some relationship with a commissioner. Also, the governor would be given the authority to veto any commissioner’s action.

The bill is in the House Transportation Committee.