July 22, 2018
The strange case of a cyber strike that (briefly) renamed a government agency
OK, this might be nothing. Might be something. But it’s, at least, a little odd. Details of a hacked Pennsylvania Department of Health website are being closely held by the Wolf administration and raising questions at a time of worldwide jitters over cybersecurity.
Republican lawmakers have asked the state attorney general to investigate. And the incident has stirred ongoing concerns over backlogs in meeting citizen requests for birth and death certificates.
A mixed bag, I know. What the hack’s going on?
Well, the Associated Press reports that somebody got into the Health Department’s vital statistics website, prompting a six-day shutdown last month to search for data breaches.
State says none were found. “No records were viewed, altered, created or deleted,” according to Office of Administration spokesperson Dan Egan.
What caught my eye in the AP reporting was the state’s initial response to questions about potential hacking: the system had merely been taken offline for “emergency maintenance due to performance issues.”
But the next day came an admission that law enforcement was involved because of an unauthorized entry to the site. Someone made “cosmetic modifications.”
Eagan declined to discuss details with me other than to say, “We’re working with law enforcement;” and later, by email, “The activity was traced to a computer in India.”
Great, so now it’s an international case? Or we were pranked by a bored call-center worker?
At any rate, turns out the “cosmetic” modification was the type of modification unruly juveniles used to make to a neighbor’s front stoop with a flaming bag of dog poop. Not pretty, definitely jejune and more than a bit embarrassing.
“My understanding is the phrase `Department of Health’ was changed to something else,” State Rep. John Lawrence (R., Chester), told WHYY, “I don’t think you can print the word.”
Separate sources familiar with the event say “Department of Health” was changed to “Department of A—holes.” The intruder did not use dashes.
Now, many of us, at some point, likely feel the need to refer to some government agency as some version of that. But you can see how state officials might object to having it on a government website.
And just the fact that a hack took place riled GOP lawmakers. Republican heads of four House committees that oversee programs often dealing with vital statistics – Health, Commerce, Labor and Industry, and Transportation – fired off a letter to state Attorney General Josh Shapiro seeking a “full independent investigation to ensure there was not a breach of Pennsylvanians’ vital personal information.”
Again, the administration claims there was not.
But House GOP spokesperson Stephen Miskin says the administration never informed the public of the hack, told two versions of its system shutdown (first maintenance, then unauthorized entry), “and now wants us all to believe them when they say nothing nefarious happened.”
Philadelphia Republican Rep. John Taylor, Transportation Committee chair, one of the Shapiro letter-signers, says, “If there’s something going on there we should know about it.”
A statement from Shapiro’s office says talks with the administration are underway “to determine what occurred and to determine appropriate next steps.”
This all swirls amid angst over long delays in getting copies of birth and death certificates due to chronic backlogs, an issue of growing concern since federally-required REAL ID is to take effect October 2020.
(Taylor teases that whoever was tech-savvy enough to rename the agency should maybe be tasked with ending its backlog.)
The legislature and the department are pressing for improvements. The House recently passed legislation sponsored by Rep. Lawrence to overhaul the process of issuing birth certificates. The bill sits in the Senate.
So, even if the hack is no big deal (disgruntled employee or contractor?), it comes at a time the department doesn’t need distractions.
REAL ID driver’s licenses will be necessary for most people to fly commercially or enter a secure federal facility. One requirement to get such a license is an original or certified copy of a birth certificate.
And if the Health Department isn’t cranking those babies out as needed, it might just earn “cosmetic modifications” to its name – on a lot more websites than its own. Source
June 12, 2018
House passes bill to allow opt-out for Keystone Exams
HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – The Pennsylvania House of Representatives has passed legislation that would allow parents to opt their children out of the Keystone Exams, the standardized tests given to high school students.
House Bill 85 would permit school boards to adopt a policy to excuse students from the tests if a parent or guardian submits a written objection to school officials.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. John Lawrence (R-Chester/Lancaster), said many parents have spoken to him with concerns about the Keystone Exams.
“This bill strengthens local control and parental control when it comes to a child’s education,” Lawrence said in a statement. “I strongly believe that parents and local school boards should have the ability to speak to this issue.”
The Keystone Exams are a requirement for high school graduation. Under current law, parents may opt out for religious reasons. Lawrence said his proposal would allow parents to opt-out to any philosophical reason.
The legislation now goes to the Senate for consideration. Source
Dec 12, 2017
Pa. lawmakers send Wolf abortion restrictions he plans to veto
Pennsylvania’s House on Tuesday voted after an impassioned debate to send a bill limiting abortions to the first 20 weeks of pregnancy to Gov. Tom Wolf, who immediately repeated his threat to veto it.
The Republican-controlled House voted 121-70 for the legislation that would alter the existing 24-week limit.
The measure would keep in place exceptions under current law for when a mother’s life is at risk, or if she could suffer a serious, permanent injury without an abortion. It does not allow exceptions for rape, incest or fetal abnormalities.
Supporters said medical advances mean premature fetuses are now able to survive at an earlier point in the pregnancy than previously possible.
The strong feelings and stark language that characterizes the abortion discussion on the national level were reflected in the House debate.
“As people try to frame this debate in terms of women’s rights, the question that begs to be asked is, what about the rights of those preborn women in the womb being exterminated?” said Rep. Dawn Keefer, R-York.
Opponents argued that parents should be allowed to make their own abortion decisions with medical input and by consulting their sources of spiritual advice.
“We have to be careful in this body that we don’t put an ideology on everybody and say that everybody has to live like this,” said Rep. Ed Gainey, D-Allegheny.
Planned Parenthood said the bill would make Pennsylvania’s abortion law among the nation’s most restrictive.
Rep. Madeleine Dean, D-Montgomery, said a House that is “80 percent men and 0 percent physicians” should not be making decisions for women about terminating their pregnancies. She noted that a tiny fraction of abortions currently occur after 20 weeks.
The bill “does not protect women,” said Rep. Mary Jo Daley, D-Montgomery. “It attempts to control them by imposing the views of some legislators on women, and I think that’s wrong — that’s morally wrong.”
The legislation also would outlaw what the bill terms “dismemberment abortion,” a phrase not used by medical professionals. It would effectively ban dilation-and-evacuation, a procedure that is the most common method of second-trimester abortion.
“Dismemberment abortion is completely inhumane, it’s barbaric,” said Rep. Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-York.
Some opponents noted that the bill had not received public hearings, while supporters said the issues have been discussed in depth for years.
Wolf, a Democrat, called the bill an assault on the doctor-patient relationship and “cruel” because it lacks exceptions for rape or incest.
“These women deserve our support, not to be maligned by politicians in Harrisburg for making medical decisions about their bodies for their families with their doctors,” Wolf said in a written statement.
The bill passed the Senate in February by a 32-18 vote. The margins in both chambers raise doubts about whether supporters will be able to muster sufficient votes to override Wolf’s promised veto. Source House votes here
Dec 5, 2017
Of women’s rights in the Pa. legislature | John Baer
The Pennsylvania Legislature, basically a man cave along the Susquehanna, isn’t known for championing women’s rights.
That might well be because of its makeup.
It’s the manliest (if only in the numerical sense) of legislatures in the Northeastern states.
It’s 39th among all states in percentage of women lawmakers (18.6 percent), lower than neighbors Ohio, New York, New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland, according to 2017 data from the Rutgers Center for American Women and Politics.
It’s right down there with Alabama, Louisiana, Kentucky, and such.
So, no real surprise that even at a time when politics seems to favor women, the Pennsylvania Legislature, run by Republicans, is moving to restrict women’s rights.
The House Health Committee Monday evening, on short notice, voted to send a strict anti-abortion bill to the full House for passage.
The bill bans abortions at 20 weeks (current law is 24) and criminalizes physicians performing a second-trimester abortion procedure, “dilation and evacuation,” which the bill calls “dismemberment abortions.”
The committee vote was 16-10. No Republican voted against it. No Democrat voted for it.
Opponents made a few observations.
Rep. Kevin Boyle (D., Phila.) said it’s “striking” there’s no exemption for rape, especially given current national attention to sexual assault against women.
There are no exemptions for fetal anomaly or incest, either.
Rep. Pam DeLissio (D., Phila.) said, “We’re tying the hands of health-care practitioners.”
Unless they’re saving the mother’s life.
Rep. Mary Jo Daley (D., Montgomery) said, “I’m always just appalled at how easily we make these votes.”
Yet, so it goes.
The House easily passed a similar bill last year, 132-65, but the Senate did not take it up. This year is different.
The Senate passed the bill now in question (S.B. 3) back in February by a 32-18 margin. The full House is expected to vote “within the next week,” says Health Committee Chairman Rep. Matt Baker (R., Tioga).
It’s likely to pass.
This is despite Democratic Gov. Wolf vowing to veto any such legislation. In a statement, Wolf called the bill “the most extreme anti-choice legislation in the country,” adding, “Women’s health care decisions should be left up to women and their doctors, not politicians in Harrisburg.”
A view clearly not shared by the GOP-controlled Legislature.
In fact, said Legislature works hard to pass such measures.
For example, after the Senate acted earlier this year, the House Health Committee, let’s just say, upgraded its anti-abortion cred.
Two of its GOP members who voted against passage of last year’s bill – Rep. Frank Farry (R., Bucks); Rep. Todd Stephens (R., Montgomery) – “resigned” (or were tossed) from the committee. They were replaced by Rep. Jim Cox (R., Berks) and Rep. John Lawrence (R., Chester), who voted for last year’s bill.
This, according to a report from the House Committee on Committees (yes, there is such a thing) in this year’s April 5 Legislative Journal.
I suppose it’s possible. But I also suppose the committee wanted to pad anti-abortion votes just in case.
And I suppose GOP leadership wants to give its anti-abortion members a win headed into the 2018 Primary Election season — for most, the only season that counts.
And I suppose two top Republican lawmakers, Sen. Scott Wagner of York County and House Speaker Mike Turzai of Pittsburgh, want polished pro-life badges headed into their primary fight for the GOP nomination for governor.
The immediate question is whether there are enough votes in both chambers to override a Wolf veto. Opponents of the bill say probably not. Baker says “time will tell.”
It will indeed. And it will tell whether women, who are standing up in droves to men in power on a range of issues related to women’s bodies, look kindly on people in power (or seeking power) when it comes to this issue in 2018 elections.
Nov 1, 2017
Officials aren’t eager to see new gambling opportunities in Lancaster County, despite new state law
….State Rep. John Lawrence said he opposes “any expansion of gambling” in Pennsylvania, which is why he voted against the measure.
“I have reached out to each municipality in the 13th Legislative District to ensure they are aware of opt-out provisions of newly enacted gambling expansion,” Lawrence said in an email Tuesday.
“It is critical for municipalities to take action before Dec. 31 if they wish to opt-out as a potential location for hosting a so-called ‘mini-casino’ within their borders,” he said. Read entire article here
Oct 19, 2017
Halting progress continues on Pa. budget front as exasperation grows
It may be the one thing that could help to drive the budget stalemate to a conclusion.
Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman said the House of Representatives’ funding plan to address the $2.2 billion revenue gap in the 2017-18 state budget is unlike the revenue package his chamber passed in July. But it holds the advantage of having won 102 votes in the House.
That alone makes it deserving of serious consideration, said the GOP senator from Centre County. The Senate could possibly consider action on the House plan as early as Monday.
“I just want to get done,” Corman told reporters on Wednesday. “We need to get this accomplished. We need to get it done and that’s really the one thing that’s leading us to really trying to take a serious look at this and be as supportive as we can.”
The House on Tuesday evening voted 102-88 on a revenue bill that relies mostly on borrowing and a set of small tax increases to raise $1.6 billion. That is a major part of its $2.2 billion plan that includeslegalized gambling expansion, one-time fund transfers and other accounting maneuvers.
A House committee on Wednesday passed legislation by a 16-9 vote to impose a new tax on natural gas production from the Marcellus Shale formation as proposed could also supplement the chamber’s revenue plan.
Despite his opposition to a shale tax, House Majority Leader Dave Reed, R-Indiana County, promised the legislation will get its day on the House floor to be debated but when that occurs remains in question.
Borrowing is in but how much?
This latest iteration of a House revenue plan has some similarities to a funding package the Senate passed in July although it includes none of the Senate’s new taxes on natural gas consumption, electricity or cell phones.
Both plans, for one thing, relied heavily on borrowing against future revenues due Pennsylvania from the 1998 multi-state settlement with big tobacco companies. The Senate plan proposed borrowing $1.3 billion and the House plan, $1.5 billion.
The increased borrowing is a cause for concern for senators as is the aggressive revenue estimates that the House is counting on from the yet-to-be-determined expansion of legalized gambling, Corman said. The House estimates the new gambling options will raise $265 million this year.
Still, Corman said that uneasiness for senators has to be balanced against a certain realization.
“The likelihood of us amending it and sending it back and getting 102 votes for something else, I think, is a long shot at best. So we want to be as supportive as possible,” he said.
Senate Democratic Leader Jay Costa of Allegheny County said his caucus is reviewing the House’s borrowing plan but needs to analyze it as part of a comprehensive proposal including the fund transfers that the House wants to use to balance the budget.
“In the coming days, we’ll be working internally as a caucus, but also with our colleagues across the aisle and with the governor’s office,” he said..
While the Senate Republicans and Democrats takes the next few days to review the plan, senators also want to hear whether Gov. Tom Wolf plans to continue with the executive actions he announced recently to balance the budget even if they send him a legislative-crafted revenue package.
Wolf announced his plan to raise $1.2 billion by borrowing against future anticipated payments from the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board and $200 million from leasing the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex & Expo Center in Harrisburg to a private operator.
At this point, the governor is proceeding with his plan to ensure the commonwealth meets its commitments to school districts, human services and other providers, said Wolf spokesman J.J. Abbott said.
“When a final plan from the Legislature reaches his desk, he will evaluate the pieces,” Abbott said. “Governor Wolf is open to a responsible alternative, but feels it is necessary that he ensure we meet our commitments.”
Corman told reporters he was concerned the governor may go down a dual track of borrowing against future LCB payments even if the Legislature sends him a revenue plan that securitizes tobacco settlement payments.
“Nothing would stop him from doing it since he’s doing it on his own anyway,” Corman said. “So we would like before we jump into this proposal to just get a little clarity on some of these issues.”
Obstacles to overcome
Despite this week’s developments on closing out the belated state budget, there remains some obstacles that could still derail the effort.
Corman said the Senate has no appetite for allowing slots-like video gaming terminals in truck stops to generate revenue to help fund the budget. Instead, it favors allowing a limited number of satellite casinos to open up around the state.
Reed said the House’s revenue plan looks to gambling expansion to raise $265 million. “That is not accidental,” he said. “We need that amount of revenue” to complete funding for this year’s budget and provide $600 million for Penn State, Pitt, Temple and Lincoln universities and University of Pennsylvania’s veterinary school, which continues to hang in limbo.
“We’ll wait and see as we get to the final negotiations on a gaming bill what’s actually in and what’s actually out,” Reed said.
The highly controversial shale tax also remains a hurdle to cross.
The Senate’s revenue plan included a natural gas severance tax that had a slightly lower rate than the one that the House Finance Committee supported but floats based on the market price of the natural gas produced.
The House committee-approved rate would generate $200 million to $250 million for the general fund, said Rep. Gene DiGirolamo, R-Bucks County, who championed the measure in the House. That compares to $108 million that the Senate’s rate is estimated to produce.
But along with a disagreement over where that tax rate should be set is the side issue of gas industry-friendly regulatory and permitting reforms included in the Senate plan but absent in the House version of severance tax legislation.
“If we’re going to go down that road as we said all along, looking at the industry as a whole is important and permitting reform has to be part of it or it’s not something we could support,” Corman said.
House members during the committee discussion indicated that the bill was a starting point for the chamber’s discussion of this issue that has been percolating for the past decade.
“This, at least in my view, is not the final product,” said Rep. John Lawrence, R- Chester County, adding he for one plans to introduce some amendments during a promised House debate. “I do believe this is something the people of Pennsylvania want the Legislature to take up a discussion on.”
t’s not clear whether the shale tax can be wedged into a final revenue plan for this fiscal year but Senate Democrats and Wolf seems to be keeping that hope alive based on a statement he made following the committee vote.
“I urge House leadership to bring the severance tax to a vote on the floor as soon as they return to Harrisburg next week,” he said. “This is a fair and commonsense proposal that will address our structural budget deficit. Pennsylvania is the only natural gas producing state without a severance tax and the vast majority of the tax would be paid out of state.”
The House and Senate are scheduled to return to session next week. That is the last scheduled session week before the break for municipal elections in November. Source
August 31, 2017
Southern Chester County News
Attorney General visits Kennett to wage war on opioid crisis
KENNETT SQUARE >> Determined to curb an opioid epidemic that is now the leading cause of death for all Americans under age 50, Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro came to Kennett Square to discuss the crisis with state lawmakers, municipal officials and law enforcement officers.
“I need to know what’s happening on the ground and how my office can assist in the local efforts,” said Shapiro, who has visited eight counties in the past two days. “We need to have a collaborative, multi-disciplinary approach to deal with the number one public health threat in Pennsylvania – the heroin and opioid epidemic. And these forums provide a great opportunity.”
The discussion, which coincided with International Overdose Awareness Day, took place at Kennett Fire Company’s Red Clay Room, and included almost the entire Chester County legislative delegation, state Rep. Steve Barrar, state Rep. John Lawrence, state Rep. Harry Lewis, state Rep. Becky Corbin, state Rep. Warren Kampf, and state Rep. Carolyn Comitta. Also in attendance were local police chiefs from throughout Chester County and Chester County Commissioners Kathi Cozzone and Terence Farrell.
“I can’t think of a family that hasn’t been affected by this,” said Barrar.
New Garden Police Chief Gerald Simpson said more efforts must be put into educating the younger set.
“We had five (opioid-related) deaths last year,” Simpson said. “If had five fatal accidents in one year, my community would be outraged and would ask me what I plan to do about it.”
Simpson said 25 percent of the opioid-related cases his department worked on last year resulted in death.
“That’s a scary number,” he said.
Shapiro told the panel that the crisis is taxing law enforcement and first responders in a significant way. He said police sometimes return to administer Narcan to the same person multiple times. There were 4,642 drug-related deaths in Pennsylvania last year, and if nothing is done, that number will skyrocket, he said.
Dinniman said he was glad to see Shapiro make the opioid crisis a priority.
“It was a productive and comprehensive discussion,” Dinniman said. “At the end of the day, solving the opioid crisis is not going to be a one-agency issue. Rather, it’s is going to take multi-pronged and cooperative effort between law enforcement personnel, public health officials, educators and others. And one of this morning’s overriding themes was how can we take what is working in Chester County and replicate it throughout the state.”
Shapiro cited his office’s and other local and state law enforcement departments’ efforts to crack down on illegal drug dealers amid the continued use and abuse of prescription medicine.
“We’ve arrested 844 drug dealers since I took office eight months ago. We could do that every day on and on, but at the end of the day it’s not going to solve it,” he said. “Prescription drugs are the root cause of so many of these problems.”
He also discussed efforts to deactivate and dispose of unwanted or unused prescription drugs, holding opioid manufacturers accountable, and working to improve access to addiction treatment and recovery options.
Cozzone expressed concerns about young people and students being prescribed opioids for sports injuries.
Dinniman discussed Senate Bill 535, legislation that calls for opioid awareness and addiction prevention education in Pennsylvania schools. That bill was incorporated in the Pennsylvania School Code, which recently passed the Senate.
Comitta, who said she plans to talk to the local medical community about the problem, said the roundtable discussion is a great start to eradicating the problem.
“We all need to put our heads together to figure out how to combat this very complicated, very distressing opioid epidemic,” Comitta said. “It’s multi-faceted and it will take every level of government and every level of law enforcement. This is a public health crisis.”
Lawrence said here is bipartisan support among local lawmakers to attack the opioid problem.
“There are a lot of callenges, but we are talking about people’s lives,” Lawrence said. “I can tell you there is a united front on this and we will move forward. It’s an issue that all of us are searching for solutions.”
Thursday morning’s discussion was one of several events involving combating opioid abuse in Chester County that day. Later that afternoon, Dinniman joined Shapiro to announce a series of roundtable discussions at Pennsylvania colleges and institutes of higher education aimed at addressing drug and alcohol abuse, mental health and sexual assault on campus. Read more
Aug 1, 2017
Chester County Press
Franklin Township launches petition to get stop signs installed
Community concerns about the intersection of Appleton and Strickerville roads in Franklin Township have resulted in an online petition effort that is being posted on the township’s website.
The main page has added a prominent banner, reading, “Help convince PennDOT to install a 4-way stop at the intersection.” Viewers who click on the link are taken to an explanatory page that reads, in part:
“A 108-acre farm located at the intersection of Appleton and Strickerville roads was recently purchased by an Amish family who are operating an organic dairy farm. People who travel Appleton Road know that this road can become a speedway, with cars, trucks and heavy equipment traveling at speeds greater than the posted speed limit. The posted speed limit of 40 mph is considered too fast by many.
“Some drivers mistake this intersection for a 4-way stop intersection and proceed onto Appleton Road after stopping and collide with oncoming traffic,” the message reads. “The township is aware of one death and two serious accidents at this intersection, and many non-reportable accidents as well. The township has been asking PennDOT as far back as 2010 to improve safety at this intersection.”
The farm property spans the intersection, and was recently sold to Amish families who are operating a dairy farm. The family members, including children, must cross the road several times a day to perform chores, and their horse-drawn buggies and wagons pose a risk to speeding traffic.
“The Board of Supervisors and many residents worry that a terrible accident could occur,” the online message continues. The township “Call to Action” lists several steps, including, “Establish a dialogue with PA elected officials, Rep. John Lawrence, and Sen. Andrew Dinniman; Use social media networks; Collect signatures; Perform a traffic study, independent of PennDOT, using additional, relevant criteria to develop a recommendation for a remedy; Contact Lancaster County Municipalities for their experience managing traffic safety issues with horse-drawn carriages.” Read more
May 30, 2017
Chester County PRESS
State Rep. John Lawrence meets with constituents during a series of town hall meetings
State Rep. John Lawrence updated constituents on the state budget, efforts to approve property tax reforms, redistricting, and other issues at a town hall meeting at the Russellville Grange in Upper Oxford Township on May 17.
This was one in a series of town halls that Lawrence held in mid-May for residents throughout the 13th Legislative District. With the town hall coming so close to the June 30 deadline for state lawmakers to reach an agreement on a new budget for the fiscal year that begins on July 1, it was no surprise that Lawrence began his 25-minute presentation with details about the progress that has been made on developing a spending plan for the next year.
Gov. Tom Wolf proposed a $32.3 billion spending plan in March that includes an additional $100 million in funding for basic education. Republicans in the House countered with a $31.5 billion budget proposal that maintains the bump in funding for basic education, but achieves an overall $246 million reduction in spending from the budget for the current fiscal year through a six-percent across-the-board cut for hundreds of line items.
One major issue complicating the next budget is the fact that the current budget is leaving the state with a deficit for the next year.
“We are facing a significant shortfall,” Lawrence said, explaining that the $31.7 billion plan that was approved last year created a situation where the expenditures were likely going to surpass the revenues for the fiscal year. That’s exactly what happened, so now lawmakers have to factor that shortfall in as the spending plan for the next year is developed.
One issue that Lawrence has long been concerned with is how the state is managing its debt—he specifically wants a more responsible approach to budgeting with more focus on paying off the debt, rather than continuing to incur more debt. The House has offered HB 82, a state debt reform measure, and HB 83, which outlines a plan for repaying state debt more responsibly, for consideration. Lawrence is a prime sponsor of both. Lawrence explained that the state currently spends about $1 billion annually on debt-service payments.
The state’s two pension systems—SERS and PSERS—are under-funded by approximately $70 billion. Lawrence said that there are varying opinions on how to address the pension situation. One proposal calls for all new hires to be placed on a 401(k) type plan with a defined contribution. Read more
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