By Al Gnoza
Pennsylvania Catholic Conference
The state budget agreement on June 28 marked the end of the spring session in Harrisburg. The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference was active on a number of bills during the session—both supporting and opposing. Here is a brief run-down on the more noteworthy issues.
· Down Syndrome Protection Act—House Bill 321 was sponsored by Rep. Klunk (R-York). It would ban abortions for the sole reason of a possible Down syndrome diagnosis. The PCC staff was there from the inception of the bill. We stood with lawmakers and advocates when HB 321 was introduced. We flooded the halls of the Capitol on the day of the committee vote on the measure, talking with committee members and passing out roses as a symbol of support for life. We then lobbied representatives the day the issue was discussed on the House floor and filled up many of the seats in the gallery as the measure went up for a vote. The bill has been passed on to the Senate and awaits their consideration. We will follow it.
· Educational Improvement Tax Credit—Or EITC, for short. It’s a program that gives tax breaks for donations to scholarship funds that help needy private school students. It has greatly benefitted Catholic schools and their students. Speaker Turzai proposed a $100-million increase in the program this past session. The PCC sent out several Voter Voice advocacy petitions for support on the issue and many of you responded immediately each time. The original bill was vetoed by Governor Wolf, who proved to be a stumbling block for us on more than just this issue. Thanks to Speaker Turzai and other supportive lawmakers, the final budget included $25-million for the EITC program and $5-million more for its sister program, the Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit, or OSTC.
· Statewide Adoption Network-Or SWAN, for short. Despite a major effort by the PCC and countless sympathetic legislators, Governor Wolf was able to block our efforts to try to get a religious exemption in place so that our Catholic adoption agencies could continue their work. The Wolf Administration put in requirements that, in effect, took away much of the power those agencies had in selecting parents for placement. Once again Speaker Turzai took the lead in trying to get an exemption in place so our agencies could continue their work without compromising Catholic beliefs. The Governor refused to grant the exemption despite representatives and senators intervening on our behalf. This dealt a serious blow to our adoption and foster care efforts across the state, which had been generally put on hold. We will continue to look for any kind of solution.
· PIAA Championship bill – The PCC worked closely with Rep. Aaron Bernstine (R-Beaver, Butler, Lawrence) to craft a bill that would create separate championships for public and private schools with the winners coming together for a state title game. We had become increasingly concerned that several public schools in the western part of the state would break away from the PIAA to form their own conferences and shut out the Catholic schools. PCC Executive Director Eric Failing appeared with Bernstine and leaders of the public schools at the Capitol in June to announce a compromise bill. The Catholic schools would be guaranteed to be included in regular season and district play with public schools, would finally get proportional representation on PIAA at the district and state level and would see the relaxation of transfer rules. The issue sits in the House Education Committee.
· Buyer Beware Act –Two major allies of the PCC—Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill (R-York) and Rep. Seth Grove (R-York)– introduced companion bills in the House and Senate to increase penalties for human traffickers and those who patronize them. The PCC was there with both lawmakers as they
unveiled their legislation at the Capitol and testified on the bill at two legislative town hall meetings. We continue to support the bill as it remains under consideration.
· Perinatal Hospice Bill – The bill sponsored by Rep. Kathy Rapp (R-Crawford, Forest, Warren) would require that information be given to a woman on the option of perinatal hospice care after her unborn child is diagnosed with a life-limiting condition. The PCC supported the measure throughout the process and sat in on committee hearings as Democrats put up stiff opposition to the bill and tried to link it to abortion. It passed the House anyway and is now in the Senate.
· Marriage Bill – Companion bills were introduced by Rep. Jesse Topper and Senator John Sabatina to establish 18 as the minimum age for marriage in Pennsylvania. The PCC has been a staunch supporter of the measure, which is seen as a way to help combat human trafficking in the state. Topper found out that many children were being forced into pre-arranged marriages that were permitted because of parental consent. Rep. Topper’s bill pass the House and Sen. Sabatina’s bill passed the Senate Judiciary Committee.
· Heartbeat Bill – Rep. Stephanie Borowicz (R-Centre, Clinton) is sponsoring a bill which would prohibit abortions once a heartbeat is detected in the unborn baby. The PCC has talked with Borowicz about her planned introduction of the bill and we have worked to help her acquire co-sponsors. We will continue to work to help her acquire even more of them. Stay tuned! We will be reaching out to you for help during the summer and are hoping for a fall introduction of the bill.
· OCTC and Private School Security Grants – It allows Catholic schools to apply for security grants. There is a list of items they can chose from, like building enhancements to keep intruders out of school building or paying for a school psychologist to help students. The PCC supported this.
· Career Licensing Bill – Companion bills were introduced by Sen. John DiSanto (R-Dauphin, Perry) and Rep. Sheryl Delozier (R-Cumberland) that would permit people convicted of crimes to get certain occupational licenses as long as their conviction was un-related to that profession. The PCC supported this as a way to give people a second chance at life and stay out of prison.
· Land Bank Bill – It’s a tool to help strengthen our cities and towns by enabling them to systematically remove problem properties from an endless cycle of vacancy, abandonment, and tax foreclosure, and return them to productive use by housing the homeless. The PCC supported the measure which passed the House Urban Affairs Committee and is now awaiting final passage in the House.
· Sheltered Workshops – PCC spoke with Secretary Teresa Miller of the Department of Human Services as well as leadership in the House and Senate to stress the need to continue full funding for these critical programs where many of our disabled brothers and sisters work.
· Religious Garb Bill- This bill would remove a prohibition forbidding teachers from wearing a crucifix or another representation of their faith while teaching. We are the only state in the nation that hasn’t repealed such a law. PCC has worked with legislative leadership and anticipates final passage in the fall.