Capitol Roundup: Pa. Senate approves SB-906; Wolf expected to veto it

By Bill O’Boyle [email protected]

WILKES-BARRE — The State Senate has approved Senate Bill 906 — legislation that would allow Pennsylvania families to choose the best level of care for their loved ones with intellectual disabilities by prohibiting the closure of White Haven Center and Polk State Center — but Gov. Tom Wolf is expected to veto the measure.

Senate Bill 906 would create the Task Force on the Closure of State Facilities to analyze and manage the closure of any state center and prevents a closure of those centers for a minimum of five years.

J.J. Abbott, Wolf’s Press Secretary, said, “Gov. Wolf will veto this bill.”

That will happen probably this week.

“As the department has clearly stated, current residents of these state centers will be placed immediately with a community provider, or can choose to relocate to another state center, and losing these centers will not add to the waiting list,” a statement released by Abbott added. “The long process will allow for a smooth transition for residents and their families. Disability experts overwhelmingly agree that community-based care is preferred over institutionalization.”

The statement went on to say that Wolf has secured historic increases in funding to reduce the wait-lists.

The harshest criticism of the governor’s plan to veto the bill came from Rep. Gerald Mullery, D-Newport Township.

“Gov. Wolf is wrong and heartless,” Mullery said. “Only someone so uncaring would callously cite anonymous ‘disability experts’ and ignore the opinions and desires of family members.”

Mullery said he plans to do everything in his power to secure enough votes to override the governor’s “inhumane veto.”

“Gov. Wolf can throw all the money he wants toward community-based care, but the fact remains community-based care in the Commonwealth is substandard and DHS is not capable or prepared to oversee the safety and well-being of community-based care residents,” Mullery said.

In concurring with changes made to the bill, the Senate approved it by a vote of 28-21, sending it to the governor.

Sen. John Yudichak, I-Swoyersville, Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Lehman Township, along with Sen. Michele Brooks, R-Greenville, and Sen. Scott Hutchinson R-Oil City, announced the Senate action.

“Efforts to close White Haven State Center and Polk State Center by the Department of Human Services are essentially driven by a misguided belief that special interest groups, not families, know what is best for individuals who have called these state centers home for decades,” Yudichak said.

Yudichak said he and his fellow senators remain firmly committed to “protecting the most vulnerable of the vulnerable” and giving Polk and White Haven residents and their families the voice and the choice they deserve.

Baker said the Senate action is an important step toward recognizing the rights of the residents of the two institutions, their families and the workers, who deserve a more deliberative process in deciding their future.

“There is a larger principle at stake as well,” Baker said. “Legislators have a role in establishing, funding and overseeing state institutions. That involvement does not suddenly terminate because a governor arbitrarily decides to pursue closure.”

Yudichak said the people with intellectual disabilities who live at Polk and White Haven State Centers and their families have repeatedly emphasized that their choice would be to remain at these centers — not at a community provider and not at a different state center miles away from their families and the employees who so lovingly care for them.

Yudichak also noted that the federal government’s recent audit showed Pennsylvania did not comply with requirements for reporting and monitoring incidents involving Medicaid beneficiaries with developmental disabilities in a community-based setting.

“That is extremely troubling and one that should be addressed immediately before any discussion about moving our most vulnerable citizens to a community provider,” Yudichak said.

Baker said from the outset of the debate, there has been little doubt that Wolf was unalterably committed to closing these facilities.

“Despite the intense community reaction and the compelling family interest in retaining these facilities, the governor has not detectably wavered in his determination,” Baker said.

Any veto comes with the possibility of an override attempt by the General Assembly.

Rep. Tarah Toohil R-Butler Township, said Senate Bill 906 would ensure residents of the White Haven and Polk centers have a choice in where they want to live and the care they want to receive, including these wonderful facilities which are the only homes many have ever known.

Wolf proposes minimum

wage increase for 6th time

Gov. Tom Wolf this week joined legislators and workers to renew his call to raise Pennsylvania’s minimum wage to $12 an hour with a pathway to $15.

Later this week, the governor’s plan to extend overtime pay eligibility to 82,000 more workers will be considered by the state’s rule-making board.

According to information provided by the governor’s office, the General Assembly has not passed a minimum wage increase in more than a decade, despite wide public support and many Pennsylvanians working full time and multiple jobs but still unable to afford their lives.

The governor’s proposal would give a direct wage increase to 1 million workers, provide better financial stability for women, rural and tipped workers, enable thousands of people to work their way off public assistance and grow the economy for everyone.

“There’s momentum to finally raise the wage, but momentum in the Capitol doesn’t put food on the table in workers’ homes,” Wolf said. “Too many workers are still struggling to get by because Pennsylvania hasn’t raised the minimum wage in more than a decade. The cost of living goes up and Pennsylvanians wait as 29 other states, including all of our neighbors, raised the minimum wage for their workers.”

Wolf went on to say that Pennsylvanians shouldn’t earn less than workers in West Virginia, Ohio, or New Jersey for the same job.

“We are a state known for our tremendous work ethic, but when jobs don’t pay enough, people can’t afford basics like food, housing, childcare and transportation,” the governor said. “That should be unacceptable to all of us. Hardworking people deserve the dignity of being able to support themselves.”

Pennsylvania’s minimum wage has been stuck at $7.25 an hour since 2009, the ​minimum wage allowed by federal law. A full-time, year-round minimum wage worker earns only $15,080 annually, less than the federal poverty threshold for a family of two. Some 29 states have a higher minimum wage and 21 states are increasing the wage floor this year.

The governor’s proposal raises the minimum wage to $12 an hour on July 1, with annual 50 cent increases until reaching $15 an hour in 2026. Wolf said when workers are paid fairly, fewer people will need public assistance. At $15 an hour, nearly 93,000 adults will leave Medicaid and the workers will generate more than $300 million in state tax revenue in 2026, the governor’s release stated.

“Waiting more than a decade for a minimum wage increase is too long,” Wolf said. “The public overwhelmingly supports raising the wage and it’s time for Harrisburg to listen. The legislature must stand with workers and raise Pennsylvania’s minimum wage.”

2020 Happy Traveler

Guide inspires travel

The Pennsylvania Tourism Office this week released its annual Happy Traveler guide, a resource to inspire travelers to pursue their happiness in Pennsylvania.\

Released in time for National Plan for Vacation Day on Jan. 28, highlights include spectacular outdoor adventures, must eats, fascinating historical artifacts and architecture, and hidden gems throughout the commonwealth.

National Plan for Vacation Day encourages workers to use their vacation days to build strong bonds with family and friends, as well as devote time for rejuvenation and relaxation.

In 2018, 55 percent of Americans left vacation time on the table, totaling 768 million unused vacation days. As a solution, the Pennsylvania Tourism Office is encouraging travelers to start planning their time off.

Planners are more likely than non-planners to use their time off to travel (39 percent versus 20 percent), but nearly half of Americans (46 percent) don’t make plans.

With the release of the 2020 Happy Traveler guide, travelers are encouraged to declare their time off and fill their calendars with Pennsylvania adventures.

In celebration of the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, this year’s feature story pays homage to Pennsylvania’s titans of conservation who have worked to preserve the state’s natural beauty. Pennsylvania is home to 86,000 miles of rivers, 185 rail-trails, and 121 state parks.

The Happy Traveler is available digitally at visitPA.com or in print by calling 1-800-VISIT-PA.

Reach Bill O’Boyle at 570-991-6118 or on Twitter @TLBillOBoyle.